Why did we ignore the parents

28th January 2005 at 00:00
The national curriculum, 'a Leninist conceit', was the final nail in the coffin of a good education system, writes Dennis O'Keeffe

In the early twentieth century GK Chesterton said that ordinary English parents had been deprived of all influence over their children's education.

The charge still holds. Control now rests with a vast bureaucracy, ideologically heterogenous but united in its concern to prevent the curriculum - the educational fare children receive - responding to parental preferences. Yet as historians like EG West and Andrew Coulson have made clear, for much of the nineteenth century parents had considerable educational discretion, simply because so many, even the poorest, paid school fees. Coulson claims that, historically, education has never been efficient save under private finance, with the curriculum driven by the public's wants. Under state finance, the "experts" with their concept of children's "needs" prevail.

Despite the gradual takeover by its producers, from the late nineteenth century onwards, education nevertheless continued to operate quite efficiently as a sorting device, until the late 1950s. Finding out which children were good at English, mathematics, science and the other key subjects of the curriculum, was crucial if these were to be taught properly and preserved and developed.

Since the 1960s, however, such intellectual sifting has been largely reversed by a hostile establishment. This loss of a key function represents the defining impotence of modern educational arrangements. Such impotence was epitomised in the now moribund national curriculum, a Leninist conceit doomed to failure both by the diffuse character of parental preferences and the impossibility of managing knowledge centrally.

The national curriculum compounded all the earlier follies. Successive fads about childhood, race, "gender" and multiculturalism have paralleled a shocking cultural ebbtide. Like universities, our schools have been overwhelmed by soft social science. The classics have collapsed. Languages have been neglected. The sense of history has been largely lost. The sciences languish.

In truth much of the present discussion of standards is vacuous. Our educational leadership has deliberately sought to lower standards ever since the Second World War, and since the 1960s has achieved this. If the people concerned had cared for high standards they would have maintained the appropriate institutions and practices, such as the 11-plus, the grammar school and the general certificate of education ordinary and advanced levels. They would have insisted on strong discipline for children, on rigorous streaming, on the phonetic teaching of reading, on emphasis on spelling and the learning of tables, on competence in precis and the deliberate cultivation of children's powers of memory.

Above all they would have upheld the moral order as vital to civilisation itself and indispensable for teaching children the diligence learning demands at all levels. True, there has been huge backtracking for some years, as to streaming, single-sex education, whole class-teaching, and the learning of basic skills. The confusion must also by definition be huge.

That is the price our society is paying for the wishes of parents having been for so long frustrated.

The curriculum should correspond to the philosophers' definitions of education, as the pursuit of what is true, or beautiful or morally binding.

Parental influence would have been far closer to these conceptions than the experts have been.

Dennis O'Keeffe is professor of social science at the University of Buckingham, senior research fellow in education at the Institute of Economic Affairs and editor of 'The Salisbury Review'

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