Whatever happened to a good liberal education?

Whatever happened to the aspiration to provide a subject-based liberal education for everyone?

This was a key part of the post-war liberal, democratic project . It was expressed explicitly in the 1962 Newsom Report Half Our Future. It aimed to address the problem of inequality of access to a broad subject-based education created by the existing tripartite education system (of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools). The democratic impulse embodied in this report was founded upon a positive concept of both pupil and teacher:

The teachers of English tend to think of their subject from three different but related points of view: as a medium of communication, as a means of creative expression, and as a literature embodying the vision of greatness. They are trying to offer all pupils the freedom of all three, and rightly do not think of the weaker boys and girls as living in a kind of nature reserve, debarred by lack of ability from the great things of our civilization.

Today it is rare to find such affirmation of either people or of subject knowledge. Many of today’s critics of government education policy blame the introduction of neo-liberal measures, the language and criteria of the market, and a target culture for destroying education. But in reality, none of these factors could have come to dominate if there had not been a prior rejection of the substantive element of education – that is, knowledge.

The aspirations evinced in the Newsom Report were short lived. In 1979 the Further Education Curriculum Review and Development Unit (FEU), established by Secretary of State, Shirley Williams, published A Basis for Choice (ABC). This made the case for a review and improvements in education provision for post-16 year olds in Further Education. At this point the increasingly evident failure of post-war economic restructuring, along with strident union contestation of economic policies, focused the elite’s attention on youth unemployment. And in a neat trick that relocated the source and hid the nature of the problem; sections of young people themselves were regarded as the problem.

For the authors of the ABC report the problem lay with students who had a deficit of the necessary life and work skills deeming them unemployable. Their solution was to urge more competence-based education, an idea from American industrial systems analysis. Unable to explicitly renounce some sort of commitment to knowledge, the authors stressed the courses should retain ‘core’ knowledge; but proceeded to redefine this as a set of meaningless skills such as ‘To bring about an ability to develop satisfactory personal relationships with others’.

So by the 1980s, for a section of young people at least, a subject-based education was no longer considered relevant, they were conceived as being deficient, and so knowledge was stripped of its intellectual content. Such an impoverished education was, however, limited in its scope. It was intended for some students only (i.e. the working class), with the remainder assumed to continue on to university for a proper education.

In 1985 the Swann Report, written in the wake of the inner-city race riots, introduced a redefinition of education for everyone. The authors’ conclusion, based initially on concerns about the educational underachievement of ethnic minority pupils, was to advocate pluralism as a solution to both their educational and political problems. If embraced, a multicultural education would enable ‘members of all ethnic groups, both minority and majority, to participate fully in shaping the society as a whole within a framework of commonly accepted values’. To this end the authors were quite explicit that their aims were therapeutic not educational: ‘This report is concerned primarily to change behaviour and attitudes’.

That the report’s proposals were wide-reaching: for staff training, and the re-writing of the curriculum and teaching materials shows that, by this point, a centuries old idea about the value of knowledge and truth being virtues in themselves, and worth passing on to the young, was no longer subscribed to. More immediate political and social contingencies were given precedence. During the 1990s, the ‘education, education, education’ mantra of Tony Blair only continued the logic of economic and social instrumentalism, with a propensity towards therapeutic interventions.

The consciousness-raising aims of Swann, and the life skills of the ABC Report, were to re-emerge, turbo-charged in the introduction of the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) in the mid-2000s. The idea that education is primarily about social and emotional effects, rather than the intellectual development of all pupils through introducing them to academic knowledge, is now orthodox. So much so that they are again debarred from ‘the great things of our civilization’.

Written by Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert. The Social Policy Forum will be at the Battle of Ideas on 19th and 20th October at the Barbican, London. Over 70 debates over the course of the weekend include two debates produced by Alka – Arts in schools: luxury or necessity?, also chaired by Alka, and The new sex education: colonising our children’s emotions, at which she will be speaking. We are on Twitter @SocialPolicyFor

One response to “Whatever happened to a good liberal education?”

  1. Colin Searls says:

    At Plymouth University we are developing a partnership with an Indian  Foundation dedicated to taking forward some of the fundamental principles of Liberal Education,this in the context of http://www.flame.edu.in/

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