This is the second of a three-part series in which Frank Palmer examines how schools became places of anti-learning.
‘By “spiritual philistinism” I mean the implicit belief that the only reality we need take account of in ordering human affairs is what can be measured, aggregated and averaged. With this philistinism goes the elimination of the day-by-day creativity of the human response . . . ’
F R Leavis, Valuation in Criticism and Other Essays, p142
IN my previous article I outlined the move towards ‘child-centred’ education gradually displacing a subject-based curriculum. By the early 1970s this led inexorably to the huge growth of the pastoral system in schools which gradually opposed discipline in learning and in behaviour of pupils. Pastoral officials (usually the least academically qualified on the staff) tended, though not in all cases, to undermine subject-teachers who wished to retain a modicum of authority. Manipulative pupils had only to run to pastoral ‘year heads’ to be excused the severe treatment of being asked to work. They were often indulged – especially if deemed ‘working class’.
The progress of egalitarianism labelled proper academic work as middle-class, elitist authoritarianism. So ferocious was this prejudice that when as a Joint Matriculation Board (JMB) examiner for O-level English I attended a trial marking session we were shown a pupil’s essay which had been marked down by moderators for being ‘too middle-class’. (The girl in question had written a literate essay about the joys of horse-riding!)
Things came to a head with the ‘William Tyndale Affair’ in the mid-1970s. The ultra-progressive head of the William Tyndale junior school in Islington, North London, took ‘pupil-centred learning’ to its ultimate conclusion by dropping the ‘learning’ bit and turning Rousseau’s idea of the child as a ‘noble savage’ into that of an anarchic barbarian. Children were allowed to do as they pleased and caused chaos. There was such an absence of learning or teaching that protests from parents and some teachers led to a report commissioned by the Inner London Education Authority in 1976 (though ironically ILEA had endorsed ‘pupil-centred learning’).
The outcome was an increase in government authority over education in schools. The clarion call for ‘accountability’ begat the surveillance-speak of ‘monitoring’ and ‘evaluation’ and threw out the educational baby with the child-centred bath water. Instead of an insistence on the quality of what is taught, the focus was now on pseudo-scientific conceptions of ‘the learning process’. This depersonalisation involved labelling teachers as ‘facilitators’ or ‘managers of learning experiences’.
Teaching was once considered to be an art, which therefore could never guarantee specific ‘outcomes’, with the teacher sowing seeds without ever being sure where they would take root and flourish. Not all pupils have the capacity or inclination to benefit fully. There was an element of hit-and-miss.
But now teaching was to be a science – a mere process that could in principle be executed by a machine. The genuflection towards American behavioural psychologists such as Robert F Mager and, principally, Benjamin Bloom, with his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, led many schools to evaluate their teaching in terms of ‘behavioural objectives’.
This resurrected form of Behaviourism was implanted into the psyche of ‘curriculum directors’ to whom measurability was the one and true god. In my own school, a comprehensive in Hounslow, West London, one teacher was seconded on full pay to such a course (which included techniques of persuading possible dissenters on the staff by labelling their personalities as ‘negative’ and ‘insecure’). He came back in his new director role and presented a curriculum document to all the other teachers on the school INSET day. Here’s an extract:
‘School aims are full of educational superlatives but never relate to the outcome of a teaching sequence in terms of pupil performance. Thus it is useful to evaluate the effectiveness of our curriculum in terms of pupil-orientated criteria, i.e. from a list of intended learning outcomes expected in our pupils as a consequence of our performance in the classroom. Only by relating learning outcomes to teaching situations will we be able monitor the suitability of our teaching strategies.’
It gets worse: objectives should be stated as ‘observable, measurable changes in pupils’ behaviour’, they should ‘begin with an active verb which indicates the type of behaviour’ and each statement ‘should relate to only one process at the appropriate level of generality’. (‘Behavioural Objectives and Curriculum Evaluation’.)
Mr Chips would turn in his fictional grave (though Sir Humphrey of Yes, Minister would be enraptured!) The fact, for instance, that good literature does not yield up all its fruits at first glance would not enter the mentality of such time-and-motion philistinism, which regards education as a species of causality. The deepest benefits of a proper education, like the love for another human being, are immeasurable.
Allied to this was the recommended replacement of knowledge by so-called ‘skills’ – a catch-all notion which implied that there are psychologistic short cuts to success without bothering with the messy business of scholarship.
To call poetry writing a skill, for instance, implies – as Philip Larkin aptly put it – that poetry is a kind of paint spray you cover selected objects with (and as if it does not involve immersion in culture and tradition). Even worse, ‘communication skills’ turns our interpersonal relationships into mere ‘strategies’. In schools, nearly every human capacity was being reduced to a skill, or set of skills.
You might have thought that a Conservative government would have seen through the nonsense, but Margaret Thatcher’s minister Kenneth Baker (now Lorded) seemed to think of all education in utilitarian terms, as nothing but skills-provision, especially of the ‘vocational’ kind. Again, it was a Conservative minister, Sir Keith Joseph, who abolished O-level GCEs in favour of the less academic GCSEs, all in the name of anti-elitist egalitarianism (a move which never did anything for children from working-class backgrounds – of whom I was once one).
But then political indoctrination moved in, which I shall examine in part 3.