Fifty Shades of Black: conservative education policy, GCSEs and London Met

There is a possibly apocryphal story, told in lowered tones wherever two or three HE policy wonks are gathered, about a certain former Minister who approached their staff with a wizard HE wheeze. “I want to close a University”, they said. On being asked why, few credible answers were forthcoming. Clearly they’d discovered that they could, and felt that the wielding of this power would encourage the others into mute compliance.

However, then, as now, there was a candidate University in place. This was an institution which had distinguished itself by doing many of the non-university-like things that ministers had asked for. It had aped the conventions and shibboleths of private business, sought efficiencies and expanded in to new markets. But crucially, it was not fashionable, and did not have the ivy-strewn patina of a “proper university”.

Appearances matter. For all the reports and white-papers that envisage a thrusting, dynamic business going around leveraging things and increasing valourisation in suits and bright ties, there is a ministerial daydream that involves drifting down the Cherwell on Mayday in a punt with two jugs of Pimms and a pretty girl whose Daddy owns Hampshire.

Meanwhile in the compulsory sector, anger rages over a return to norm-referenced grading at GCSE level. Is this an attempt to drive up academic quality, or to return top grades to the preserve of the elite?

Be they red, blue, or yellow Tories – the right is fundamentally split on education. A rift deeper than any European quarrels, or the evidence-based/Daily Mail editorial argument on law’n’order’n’hanging’n’flogging. And to understand why, we need to look at the publication of a very peculiar set of books from way back in the 70s – in a story that includes Brian Cox, Francis Maude’s dad, Mrs Thatcher, Kingsley Amis and many others luminaries…

Brian Cox (no relation to the other Brian Cox) was a Professor of English Literature, an early advocate of University teaching in creative writing and (at the time) a lifelong labour voter. Having been on sabbatical in Berkeley in 1968, he returned to Britain in time to catch the student unrest at LSE. Being in proximity to two such outbursts, he made the unlikely decision to blame the rise of “expression” in schools following the “10/65” government edict to move further along the road to a fully comprehensive system.

Incensed, he spoke to his friend AE Dyson – who had recently been one of those who drove through the reform of laws around homosexuality, and who now edited the Creative Review Quarterly (which he had co-founded with Cox). Together they decided to co-edit a collection of essays around the general theme of the excesses of progressive education, which (perhaps mischievously) they entitled The Black Papers.

Whilst by no means – in 2012 – a page turner, the first Black Paper is a fascinating historical document concerning a turning point in UK educational thought. What stood out for me is how measured the criticism is, in places. This (the first volume at least) is not the radical preservationist clarion it has subsequently been characterised as. It does not explicitly criticise the comprehensive system as an idea, just the worst – unthinking – excesses of it.

The collection of essays has three main targets: the rise of student radicalism, the excesses of progressive education and the value of private education. The three are connected by an overarching theme of the need for elitism, not just to favour the naturally gifted but to provide the best possible education for all children. The collection saw progressive education as one approach amongst many to be used by skilled teachers with consideration and support – the excesses it decried concerned “progressive” ideas becoming the unthinking status quo. As the opening words of the opening essay made clear:

“Taking a long view, one must conclude that the most serious danger facing Britain is the threat to the quality of education at all levels. The motive force behind this threat is the ideology of egalitarianism”

Contributors included Kingsley Amis, John Sparrow (warden of All Souls College, Oxford), and Angus Maude (at the time a rebel Conservative MP, and the source of the quote above). It was perhaps Maude and Amis’s contributions that led to the whole pamphlet being perceived as a Rightist initiative. Certainly it was seen as such by the Labour Education Minister of the time, Edward Short, who said “In my view the publication of the Black Paper was one of the blackest days for education in the past century”. Cox’s later career gave lie to the initial label, and he was delighted to be labelled a “wooly liberal” following the publication of the (very progressive) 1989 Cox report on the teaching of English.

The traditional education mooted in response is cultural rather than utilitarian in perspective. As Dyson puts it:

It seems indisputable, though alarming, that education, which ought to be particularly concerned with transmitting the heritage of reason on which civilisation is founded, has turned it’s back on this reason to a disturbing extent”

Or Robert Conquest:

“A wide diversity of ideas, many merely voguish and picked up from television, replace a proper training in the thought and history of the western world. I would urge a very simple reform – no admittance to University without passing a broadly based general paper”

Such a publishing coup (more than 15,000 copies sold in less than a year – very much the “Fifty Shades of Grey” of the early 70s education policy world) required a sequel, so Cox and Dyson edited a second volume, along with another Conservative MP in waiting,  Rhodes Boyson. The editorial board meeting between gay-rights pioneer Dyson and noted homophobe (“It is wrong biblically, is homosexuality. It is unnatural.”) Boyson must have been very interesting indeed. At the time Boyson was the headmaster of a school (Highbury Grove) that marketed itself based on a renewed emphasis on corporal punishment.

SchoolboyLOLs aside, the Black Paper series was causing a range of people from across the political spectrum to coalesce around the very broad idea of a return to “traditional education”, however they personally conceived it. Not least amongst these was Margaret Thatcher, whose stance on education was initially at odds with a more business-focused Conservative party.

Prior to this, the education policies of the right had been much more proto-Cameronite, suggesting a desire to “prioritise economic stability over costly egalitarian social spending, selectivity over universality and minimal rather than optimal levels of state provision”.  But Thatcher – though for completeness it should be noted that she created more comprehensive schools than any other Education secretary – was at least diverted by the dream of traditionalism.

Her version, however, required an active centralised intervention in nearly every aspect of educational activity: there was little room for accidental learning in the centrally planned GCSE curriculum, and in (Thatcher and Major’s) expansion of university provision to meet the needs of employers for graduates. This was a top-down conservatism with much more in common with the “progressives” Cox and Dyson railed against than with Gove.

There is a romantic and utilitarian strand within the “traditional” education policies of governments of all stripes, and some of the most confusing errors occur when this tension is highlighted. Be this the romantic notion of a university against the economic reality of mass provision, or the romantic ideas of egalitarianism against the utilitarian need to stratify society, the background to the current debate draws heavily on this little read and little understood collection of essays.

Further reading:

A History of Education In England,  Derek Gillard.

The Black Papers and the debate about standards, Conservative History Journal

The Black Papers, CB Cox and AE Dyson (WorldCat link, no online version)




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *