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The National Curriculum Should Guarantee a Liberal Education For All Claims Think-Tank


The political controversies that rage around the school curriculum could be resolved if we re-committed ourselves to the ideal that dominated educational theory for over a century and a half: the provision of a liberal education for all.


The ‘old left’ was right after all. Experience has shown that the most effective way to narrow the gap between children who are born with advantages and those who are not is to provide a rigorous education for every child. During and since the Blair years this gap has widened. In modern societies knowledge and the power of reasoning rule. Without a good education few can hope to progress to the top of their chosen sphere.

In Liberal Education and the National Curriculum, published by independent think-tank Civitas, David Conway defines a liberal education as an education of which the primary purpose is not training for work, but rather a form of education whose purpose and rationale is to prepare children for life in a free and democratic society. The democratic way of living uniquely demands much of its rank and file members. Such an education was considered, from the days of the Schools of Athens, to reside in its uniquely civilising and humanising capacity. In a remarkable piece of detective work, David Conway has brought together attempts to formulate a curriculum for the vast majority of children in state-sector schools, from Matthew Arnold in 1864 to the 1988 Education Act. There was complete agreement, over a long period of time, about what the basic elements of such an education should be (see Table 6.1, attached).

There was a consensus, amongst educationists of all persuasions, that all children, not just the elite of grammar and public schools, should learn maths, English, science, geography, history and foreign languages. As Justin Shaw writes in his introduction to the book:

‘Revolutionary as well as democratic socialists, High Tories and liberal conservatives, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Dissenters and secular humanists were in agreement that a child in a complex, democratic and liberal society ought to be given an education broadly of the kind envisaged by Arnold and his successors.’ (p. viii)

However, in recent years the very idea of a national curriculum has come to be regarded as highly controversial. On the one hand, it is claimed that the prescriptive and highly politicised nature of the National Curriculum is failing to treat teachers as professional people, capable of responding to the needs of the children in front of them. The National Curriculum has been blamed for ‘dumbing down’ and forcing teachers to ‘teach to the test’.

On the other hand, it has been even more strongly attacked and undermined by those who say that the National Curriculum, as laid out in 1988 Education Act by the then Secretary of State Kenneth Baker, is overly academic and based on the requirements of middle-class children of the last century. According to John White, emeritus professor of philosophy at London University’s Institute of Education, these forms of knowledge are ‘a middle-class creation… whose effect… has been to make it difficult for many children… to adjust to a highly academic school culture…’ (p. 11). While in the words of Martin Johnson, acting general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), ‘most people are not intellectuals’ and therefore cannot benefit from a ‘curriculum considered necessary for social elites’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (p. 12).

The success of this campaign has led to calls for scrapping of traditional subjects and their replacement by themes, such as care for the environment.


David Conway describes the attempt to weaken the academic basis of the curriculum as both reactionary and anti-progressive, because it will lead to a widening gap between children educated in independent or grammar schools and the rest – who comprise the majority of the child population. These children will be unable to access the world of high culture, which could transform their lives, because teachers have decided that they should not be challenged by anything beyond the scope of their immediate experience, and that we should elevate ‘experience’ and ‘feelings’ over the more or less abstract forms of knowledge associated with academic subjects. However, by proposing:

‘that schooling should be based on the children’s pre-existing knowledge of the here and now… such an approach clearly involves a radical diminishment in the scope of each child’s potential experience… By inviting each child to enter an imagined world which exceeds and leads beyond his or her pre-existing experience, a liberal education offers a liberation from the parochialism, materialism and estrangement of the modern world, and allows a child to experience life through the eyes of other cultures, epochs and worldviews. (pp.xv & xviii) … Contrary to the likes of present-day educationists like Richard Pring and Ivor Goodson, the solace and insight provided by culture was never considered by the likes of Matthew Arnold to be the special preserve of an elite.’ (p.xxiv)


Professor Conway decries the idea of a child-centred curriculum on the grounds that:

‘As understood by the likes of Matthew Arnold and Henry Newman, liberal education is as much about the cultivation of sensibility as about the cultivation of the intellect. Its receipt involves becoming acquainted with great literature as well as science, and so cannot be child-centred, since children cannot be expected to know without appropriate instruction what great literature and art is.’ (p.xxiii)

He acknowledges the criticisms of the current National Curriculum, as well as the rigid regime of testing to which it is tied, as overly prescriptive. However, he argues that these criticisms should not necessarily rule out the idea of a national curriculum altogether. The Swedish curriculum runs to only 17 pages, and covers most of the same subjects as its British counterpart, but the Swedish educational model is widely admired and may be imitated by a future Conservative government. What is needed, according to Professor Conway, is not the complete scrapping of the National Curriculum:

‘state schools only need freeing from excessive testing, an overly bureaucratised regime of inspection, and excessively prescriptive programmes of study, to be able once again to make provision of liberal education their central purpose.’ (p.xxv)

A free and democratic society demands much of its citizens, which is why universal education has been the foremost concern of every genuine liberal. To prepare young people for participation in such a society requires, he argues, ‘the only form of education that is able to provide [students] with the best prospects for as good and fulfilled lives as they can possibly enjoy – a liberal education.’ (p.112)


For more information contact Civitas 020 7799 6677

Notes for Editors

i. Civitas is an independent social policy think-tank. It receives no state funding either directly or indirectly and has no links to any political party. Civitas’s education research seeks to take an objective view of educational standards in Britain. It aims to offer an improved perspective on how best to deliver equitable and high standards of education for all.

ii. The report, Liberal Education and the National Curriculum, by David Conway is available below.

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