Defending the freedom to choose an education
All schools promote certain values – parents must be free to choose the school which best reflects theirs.
The ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations, in which some English schools were accused of being infiltrated by Islamic extremists who then used the schools to promote religious fundamentalism, have sparked debates about the degree of freedom schools should have to determine their own curriculum and values, and the extent to which parents should be free to choose schools for their children.
Even though the accused schools were supposedly secular, in recent weeks there have been a flurry of arguments against faith schools, which, it is assumed, hoodwink children into a lifetime of worship. Many of the Trojan Horse schools were academies, which meant they attracted particular ire for not being under the direct control of local education authorities. This enables governors to influence the running of the schools and, to a limited extent, the focus of the curriculum. Education secretary Michael Gove’s main project, free schools, which receive state funding but are, in all other respects, independent, have long been attacked by teachers’ unions and crusading journalists alike. Now the government is proposing that private schools should be subjected to Ofsted inspections to bring them in-line with state provision.
The suspicion that, if left to their own devices, schools will abuse their influence over children, and parents will choose the wrong type of school, runs against three decades of national education policy which has trumpeted ‘parental choice’. Successive government ministers have argued that the best way to drive up standards is to create competition between schools, with the best schools attracting the most pupils and the most funding. If the creation of different types of schools made parental choice meaningful, it also served a useful purpose in loosening the grip of the powerful local education authorities. These previously had control over every element of schooling, from creating pedagogical resources and employing teachers to managing pupil admissions. However, the tension in national education policy between liberating schools from local authority control and giving them complete independence has long been apparent. The 1988 Education Reform Act enshrined in law parents’ rights to choose a school place at the same time as it established the national curriculum. Parents could choose which school to send their children to, but all schools would teach children the same state-approved and examined content at the same age.
The 1988 national curriculum, as set out by then education secretary Kenneth Baker, had two main aims: to provide pupils with an entitlement to broad and balanced content, and to set expected standards for pupil attainment. The curriculum specified bodies of knowledge that should be covered through the teaching of traditional academic subjects. It was built on a positive aspiration to discern and pass on the most significant knowledge in each subject area to every child in the country. The fact that this curriculum was determined and controlled by government ministers, rather than teachers and subject associations, meant it immediately faced charges of political bias. Indeed, while the idea of a national curriculum that provides every child with access to the best that has been thought and said is to be welcomed, the role of the government in determining this curriculum is questionable. Responsibility for the national curriculum should have been left with subject specialists and teachers. From 1988 onwards, ministers came under pressure to reduce the academic content of the curriculum and to use it as a short-cut solution to a range of social, political and economic problems that have little or nothing to do with education.
New subjects such as citizenship have been given a place in the national curriculum, and the knowledge base of other subjects, such as science, geography and English, has been diluted to make room for the promotion of issues such as sustainability, Fairtrade, anti-racism and anti-bullying. The national curriculum has moved away from its founding liberal-humanist values to become an instrumental tool for inculcating state-sanctioned political priorities in children. Just the most recent example of this trend is prime minister David Cameron’s demand that all schools should teach children about the Magna Carta as an explicit means of promoting British values.
While all children should undoubtedly learn about the Magna Carta, it would perhaps be better placed within the broader context of the history curriculum, rather than being treated as a quick and easy means to promote Britishness. This example illustrates the difference between schooling and education. Schools have long since stood accused of having a ‘hidden curriculum’, an implicit agenda to get children to conform to rules and to prepare them to accept their place in society, as determined by their race, class and gender. Today, there’s nothing remotely hidden about the teaching of values rather than knowledge. Schools are keen to advertise their therapeutic promotion of meditation, mindfulness and yoga, and the Fairtrade fortnights, walk-to-school Wednesdays and healthy eating projects they run. But such campaigns are about schooling children to behave in a particular way rather than teaching them knowledge. Children today receive an excess of schooling when what they really need is to be better educated.
When the content of the national curriculum is explicitly politicised to meet the priorities of politicians, the child-centred fads of teacher trainers and the values of pressure groups and charities, then the power of some schools to opt out of all or part of it, and the right of parents to choose which schools to send their children to, becomes increasingly significant. Many parents chose a school that best reflects their values, rather than those of the state, and one that is going to offer their child the most access to a knowledge-based curriculum. Unfortunately, for members of the educational establishment, this means that some parents choose faith, grammar, free or independent schools, all of which offer an alternative to the political and value-laden government-approved norm.
When access to a liberal-humanist curriculum determined by subject specialists is not even a theoretical entitlement for all children, there is little to be gained from criticising parents who attempt to secure the best education they can for their child and criticising the schools that promote the values parents hold. Of course, being able to choose a school does not permit parents to interfere in the running of that school or the content of the curriculum. Some things really are best left to teachers.
Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)