Class warfare: changing the primary school curriculum

Yesterday the Government announced proposals to change the national curriculum for primary schools in England.  No doubt there was the same sharp intake of breath in liberal circles that accompanies anything that comes forth from the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, with his appeal to traditional, conservative values.  But liberals have often failed to convince on education.

Mr Gove is a remarkable political phenomenon.  He is instinctively disliked by those of a liberal disposition, and the vast majority of people who work in the education sector, or councillors who are responsible for it.  And yet, unlike his health colleague Andrew Lansley, or Theresa May at the Home Office, the vitriolic criticism of the professionals, and lampooning by comedians, seems to make little impression on the public at large.  The government is being hurt by a lot of things at the moment, but education reform is not among them.  For once the public seem to trust the politicians more than the professionals.

So what to make of these proposals?  They amount to a much more prescriptive programme for English, Maths and Science – with proposals on modern languages on the way.  They go further than the current curriculum, and have a traditional, prep-school feel about them – English has a heavy emphasis on spelling, punctuation and reciting poetry, for example.  This is easy to dress up in old fashioned, conservative language – which Mr Gove duly does.

The first criticism to make is that the Government had promised teachers that they would get out of their way, and give them more discretion.  All the pressure in recent years has been to take things out of the National Curriculum, and not add more things in.  The more flexibility schools have, the more room for creativity there is, and the more diversity and choice there will be – something the government had seemed keen on promoting.  But evidently there are some things that Mr Gove feels are too important to be left to parental choice and diversity.  And the changes are focused on the very core subjects – not the peripheral things that politicians had proviously like to pitch in.

Behind all this lurks a topic that vexes many: class.  Now class is something that widely is misunderstood in Britain.  Class here used to be about what you were born into, and the idea that everybody should stay in their place, with all the privileges and duties that this implied.  Mobility was frowned on, but allowed to creep in gradually.  A lot of this mobility took the form of pretending that your family was better bred than it was.  I am doing a project on my family’s history at the moment.  One of the more amusing aspects is how much effort my middle class Victorian (and some later) forbears put into trying to prove the family had noble connections.

But two world wars and a relentless industrial transformation have swept away that understanding of class.  And yet to the disappointment of many, elitism and social stratification remains very much with us – and indeed many of the institutions that supported the old system are in very good health supporting the new – “public” schools, elite universities, and so on.  And although the idea of birthright might have gone, it is very much expected that you support your peer group – and do the best you can to give your children every advantage.  Social mobility, after leaping forward in the middle of the last century seems to be slowing down.  What happens here now is not the lingering of the old system, but something similar to what happens in other modern developed societies which did not have our feudal legacy – like the USA and Australia, who also have “class” problems.

Schools lie at the heart of concerns about class – and here liberals are on the defensive.  Liberals have dominated the state educational system for generations, seeing through major reforms to both structure (for example pushing selective elite grammar schools into comprehensive schools) and the way schools are run – towards what might be called “softer” values.  It hasn’t worked very well – though why remains hotly debated.

Enter Mr Gove.  His solution is to make state schools look and feel much more like their elite,private sector counterparts – and these curriculum proposals are an example.  His critics simply think this is to give middle class parents a private, elitist education at taxpayers expense, without having much impact on the rest of society.  But that is to misunderstand the thinking.  Mr Gove, and many conservative thinkers, think that social mobility is about turning working class people into middle class ones.  And that isn’t just about imparting knowledge and skills, it’s about talking and writing like middle class people too – or at least becoming “bilingual” in class ways.  The old grammar schools did this very successfully – and their abolition has not helped social mobility.

This is all very interesting.  It is easy to see difficulties.  State schools, apart from the surviving grammars, are still quite unlike their private school counterparts in that they cannot select their intake.  Will this approach exacerbate class tensions by teaching pupils to sneer at the less fortunate (as no doubt the old grammars did)?  But liberal policies of inclusiveness have not proved enough by themselves.

I’m giving Mr Gove the benefit of the doubt this time.  Too often we liberals forget the working class ideal of “bettering yourself”; celebrating diversity is good; celebrating mediocrity isn’t.