Why Mr Kinnock should back the school curriculum plans
FE RDINAND MOUNT
Even at the height of the teachers' strikes, it was hard to hate Fred Jarvis. The general secretary of the National Union of Teachers was so obviously a walking disas- ter area that whatever his union inflicted on children and parents seemed destined to rebound upon him. As the chaos worsened and NUT members decamped in their thousands to other teaching unions or no union at all, he acquired the harassed, rumpled look of the master who has lost half his pupils on the orienteering trip. In point of fact, Mr Jarvis has not done much teaching, having spent the past 30 years clambering up the NUT ladder, the years before that being spent scaling the summit of the National Union of Students. He is one of those amiable plodders who enjoys the sort of office popularity that engenders myths.
For example, there is a legend that Fred is paid a higher salary than any other trade union leader only because, when he was poised to make the leap from Assistant General Secretary, his executive desper- ately tried to attract outside talent by offering a huge increase in the emolu- ments. Alas, nobody much applied from outside and they were landed with Fred, at twice the pay. Another myth is that, when the general election was called, an urgent message went out from Neil Kinnock's office to the TUC, appealing for a period of silence from them all, especially from this year's chairman, our Fred.
One naturally treats these canards with the scepticism they deserve, but it cannot be denied that Mr Jarvis does have a way of putting things which often reveals the spirit and aspirations of his union with a naked clarity as instant and embarrassing as a bathroom blind which won't stay down.
Faced last weekend with Mr Kenneth Baker's proposals for a national curri- culum, Mr Jarvis denounced them as 'a con trick on Britain's parents' and declared 'there is a real danger that many teachers will decide that they don't want to teach under the new regime'. This is rather like the letter to the bank manager telling him that if he does not stop pestering, one will take one's overdraft elsewhere.
While the NUT has been sinking fast, the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Asso- ciation and the Professional Association of Teachers have both been rocketing up- wards. PAT's membership has risen by more than 50 per cent during the last three strike-torn years. Its hostility to strikes is only the most visible symptom of an entirely different attitude towards a teacher's obligations. Far from resisting the idea of professional contracts of em- ployment for teachers, as the NUT does, Mr Peter Dawson, the former ILEA com- prehensive head who is the dynamo behind PAT, wants his association 'to take the lead in devising a code of professional practice to sit alongside the contracts'.
Under such terms of employment, teachers would become rather more like other professional people. At the same • time, state schools would become rather more like other professional institutions. The customers would have clear expecta- tions of the service to be provided, the results to be achieved, and the standards by which those results would be assessed.
The national curriculum has been greeted with oohs and aahs, of delight or dismay, according to your viewpoint. But really there is nothing very odd about insisting that 70-80 per cent of school time should be taken up with the basic subjects required for life in Western society, with English, Maths and Science predominat- ing. And by 'basic' and 'required' I do not imply any narrow, utilitarian or philistine view or education either. If one wishes to write like Joyce of Burroughs or compose like Schonberg or Cage, I should have thought that mastery of such a curriculum was a bare minimum requirement.
It is the present system which is so odd. The full peculiarity of compulsory educa- tion in the English style has seldom been properly expressed. 'Give me a child from the age of five to 16 and I will guarantee to teach him absolutely nothing,' is in its way an undertaking far more bizarre and more oppressive than anything Ignatius Loyola or a National Service sergeant-major ever said.
The main objection to the Government imposing a national curriculum is a famil- iar one from other fields — that Govern- ment intervention provides a precedent and an opportunity for an extreme socialist government to impose a diet of sex, CND and class warfare. Once breach the blessed vagueness of the Butler Act and you license every kind of state propaganda. Once let the politicians into the secret garden of the curriculum and they will concrete it over. Yet in practice it is precisely that vague- ness which has allowed some teachers to impose just such a diet with little or no recourse for parents. Moreover, look how the teachers of one subject which is pre- scribed in the 1944 Act, Religious Educa- tion, has decayed and been perverted into a pale shadow or parody of Parliament's original intention, because it is not compul- sorily tested.
It is only by specifying the subjects which are to be taught and by testing that they are being taught according to generally accepted notions of the subject, and up to generally accepted standards, that the legal compulsion to send children to school can be justified. And even that compulsion canbe justified only if the system permits opting-out into some kind of cost-free alternative schooling. The flexibility and choice, in other words, should be in the hands of the parents, not the teachers.
Thus it is, paradoxically, on liberal grounds that the national curriculum is justified. If the state is to seize children for the greater part of the day for three- quarters of their childhood, then it must account for both the compulsion and the expense. Of course, there is a danger, as Dr Oliver Letwin has pointed out, that the- DES will try to lay down an excessively detailed timetable which would slow• down the brightest to the pace of the dimmest. Mr Baker should hold out against signing such a contract on our behalf. All the same, it is only by drawing up explicit contracts between state and parents and between state and teachers that parents have any hope of examining, criticising or controlling the terms under which their children are to be educated. No doubt, as Gussie Fink-Nottle demonstrated, educa- tion is a somewhat confused mixture of drawing out and putting in. But parents are entitled to be anxious about the putting-in part.
Nor is there anything uniquely Thatcher- ite about the Baker proposals, except that, without Mrs Thatcher's tenacity, they would not have made this much progress in the teeth of the education world. On the contrary, these proposals represent a straightforward response to the anxieties voiced by Mr Callaghan ten years ago and by large numbers of Labour-voting parents before and since. Which is why Mr Kin- nock would be wise to voice prompt support for them and forget about Fred.