Corrupting the curriculum

Why is it ‘brainwashing’ when faith schools teach values but ‘raising awareness’ when the state teaches the pieties of environmentalism?

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics UK

So what’s the difference between subjecting children to the zealous propaganda of their elders in a faith school and in a secular school? According to today’s cultural commentators, it is ‘brainwashing’ when carried out in a faith school, but ‘raising awareness’ when conducted in a so-called secular environment.

The current wave of hysteria about the apocalyptic consequences of climate change, following most recently the publication of the IPCC summary on 2 February, is being harnessed towards ‘re-educating’ schoolchildren. According to proposals due to be published this week, cautionary tales about global warming will become integral to the British school curriculum. This instruction about global warming will masquerade under the title ‘geography lessons’, but in truth it constitutes a new kind of behaviour management.

This was clear when UK education secretary Alan Johnson announced his new moralising enterprise last week. Johnson said he wants children to alter their behaviour. ‘We need the next generation to think about their impact on the environment in a different way’, he declared. This project, aimed at manipulating how children lead their lives, is justified through appealing to a higher truth. Johnson claims that ‘if we can instill in the next generation an understanding of how our actions can mitigate or cause global warming, then we lock in a culture change that could, quite literally, save the world’. Literally save the world! That looks like a price worth paying for making some changes to the geography curriculum. In truth, the moralisation of education will only nurture ignorance.

The school curriculum has become a battleground for moral campaigners and entrepreneurs keen to promote their message. Public health officials constantly demand more compulsory classroom discussions on healthy eating and obesity. Professionals obsessed with young people’s sex lives insist that schools introduce yet more sex education initiatives. Others want schools to focus more on Black History or Gay History. In the widespread media outcry over the sordid scenes of moral and cultural illiteracy on Celebrity Big Brother, many demanded that schools should teach Britishness.

The government hasn’t yet announced any plans for introducing Appropriate Behaviour on Reality TV Shows into the curriculum…but nevertheless, Alan Johnson is a very busy man. Not only is he introducing global warming studies, he has also made the study of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade a compulsory part of the history curriculum.

For Johnson, the subject of history, like that of geography, must be subordinated to a higher good. He is not interested in the slave trade as part of an academic discipline with its own integrity; rather he sees slave trade studies as part of a moral crusade. ‘This is about ensuring young people understand what it means to be British today’, he said in defence of his reorganisation of the history curriculum. Johnson’s title, education secretary, is something of a misnomer. He seems to have no interest in education as such. His preoccupation is with using the classroom to transmit the latest and most fashionable prejudices. He can’t even leave school sports alone, recently announcing that PE lessons will now stress the importance of a healthy lifestyle and will raise awareness about the problem of obesity. So after children have received instruction on how to behave as green consumers, lead responsible sex lives and feel very British, they’ll be taught how and why to lose weight.

This ceaseless attempt to instil in schoolchildren fashionable values is symptomatic of a general state of moral confusion today. Instead of attempting to develop an understanding of what it means to be a good citizen, or articulate a vision of public good, Britain’s cultural elites prefer to turn every one of their concerns into a school subject. In the classroom, the unresolved issues of public life can be transformed into simplistic teaching tools. Citizenship education is the clearest example of this corruption of the curriculum by adult prejudices. Time and again, school inspectors have criticised the teaching of citizenship, which is not really surprising considering that leading supporters of citizenship education seem to have little idea what the subject is or ought to be about.

Nick Tate, former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, argued that citizenship education was ‘about promoting and transmitting values’, ‘participation’ and ‘duties’. But the obvious question of ‘values about what?’ was carefully avoided. Instead, those advocating citizenship education have cobbled together a ‘hurrah list’ of unobjectionable and bland sentiments that have been rebranded as values. Alongside fairness, honesty and community, even participation and voting have been turned into values. Professor Bernard Crick, a key adviser to the government on citizenship education, stated that ‘students must demonstrate a commitment to active citizenship, commitment to voluntary service and concern for the environment’.

A few years down the road and the meaning of citizenship is even less clear than when schools started teaching it as a subject. Last month, a review of how schools teach citizenship found that the subject failed to communicate any sense of what it means to be British. Anyone with the slightest grasp of pedagogy will not be surprised by the failure of successive social engineering projects in the classroom. The absence of any moral consensus in Britain today will not be solved through subjecting children to sanctimonious platitudes. Those who are genuinely interested in educating children and inspiring them to become responsible citizens will instead look to real subjects, which represent a genuine body of knowledge. Propaganda campaigns around the latest fashionable ‘value’ only distract children from learning. Values-led education has helped create a situation where children learn that the Holocaust was awful, but do not know which country suffered the greatest number of casualties during the Second World War. It will produce children who know that the slave trade was bad, but who are ignorant about how the right to vote was won in Britain.

And they will learn in geography that we face human extinction, but will not be able to name the highest mountain in Europe. In other words they will be values-rich but uneducated.

Frank Furedi is author of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, published by Continuum (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit his website at


A man-made morality tale, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky

‘Your planet needs you!’, by Rob Lyons

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today