Politics of English classrooms and curriculum

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This study considers some important questions regarding the self-serving nature of the UK government with regard to the English education system. It is done through a systematic analysis of the political nature of English classrooms and the impact the media can have on them citing their political motives. The control that the government has on the curriculum was investigated, including how changes they make to the education system may be self-serving. The example of introducing citizenship education was cited to depict how the will of the government was implemented in schools. This paper concludes that even at the most fundamental level of the classroom political decisions are being taken about the nature of teaching, learning and the forming of relationships in the classroom. Also, the media can influence teachers' behaviour, due to political motives, swaying their audience toward a particular political stance of classroom methods. Finally, the control that government has on education has increased since the introduction of the national curriculum in the UK, concluding that the government may have self-serving motives behind changes in curriculum.


This paper is a study into the political nature of the English classroom, the curriculum and the political influence of citizenship education in the English education system. The aims are to gain an understanding of the political nature of the English classroom, the role politicised media plays in the manipulation of teachers and how the curriculum can be used to guide the political ideals of today's youth. I will investigate citizenship education in order to highlight contentious moral issues of schools shaping the belief systems of pupils providing supporting and opposing arguments for its introduction into the curriculum.

The justification for this study stems from an acceptance of the power that governments have over the education system, and thereby raising questions about the development of future voters. The emphasis on citizenship education in modern times affirms this topic as a contemporary issue. It is also of personal interest due to my own teaching experiences and a preoccupation of politics. Previously teaching in two schools at opposite extremities of the socioeconomic spectrum, I noticed that despite the difference in pupil background, the classroom environment in both schools had a similar modus operandi or method of working. The similarities were due to a common teaching method in both schools, and as highlighted by Youngman (1986, p.208), the methods used were typical of socialist pedagogy. It is of interest therefore to gain an understanding of the political nature of classrooms in England and to ascertain which political strata modern teaching methods conform to. It is comprehendible that elected governments may take advantage of their power by manipulating education to serve their own needs. Summarising Ball (1987, p.260-278), Epstein (1993, p.23) notes the extensive impact that national politics have on schools and on the effortless nature with which change can be accomplished.

Political nature of the English classroom

In a study of political influence in the education system it is pertinent to understand the political environment of English classrooms. Appreciation of the workings of the classroom environment can lead to assumptions about them as social and political environments. Youngman (1986, p.202) emphasises six aspects of socialist pedagogy, explaining their significance and the implications of each when used in a capitalist social setting. The aspects of interest regarding the functioning classroom environment are process of acquiring knowledge; the role of language and literacy; the social relations of the educational situation; methods of teaching and the mode of evaluating teaching and learning.

By analysing each individual aspect of socialist pedagogy and comparing their theoretical principals to present classroom practice it may be reasonable to conclude the political nature of current English classrooms.

The process of acquiring knowledge, according to socialist pedagogy should oppose purely abstract study (p. 203), encouraging practical activity and application (p.204). The TDA (2009, p.79) place emphasis on practical activities, assessing prospective teachers in this domain. In addition, to meet teaching standard Q30 (TDA, 2009, p.57) student teachers should "able to create purposeful environments that support learning and teaching." All standards must be achieved to gain qualified teacher status. Rigid subject division and specialism are obstacles to the holistic issue-centred approach to education that characterises socialist pedagogy (Youngman, p.204). While evident that subjects are relatively rigidly separated, requirements to attempt to incorporate literacy and numeracy opportunities into other subjects seem to soften this capitalistic approach. This is supported by Standard Q17 (TDA, 2009, p.32) encouraging the use of numeracy, literacy and ICT skills across the curriculum.

Considering the role of language and literacy, Youngman (1986, p.204) cites the importance of language, not only as a vital tool in the educational setting, but also as a mechanism of power. He theorises that language can be used to break down capitalist hegemony, and thus provide equal access to the curriculum by, among other examples that promote equality, "opposing sexist language" (p.205). Legislation prevents for discriminatory language and behaviours in the UK, regarding such characteristics as race, disability, gender, sexual orientation, age and religious beliefs (Equality Act, 2010, Section 29). The view of capitalist education is that illiteracy is a problem of individuals (Youngman, 2005, p.205). The introduction and sustained use of the national literacy (and numeracy) strategies (Ofsted, 2005) suggest this is not the view of the English educational establishment.

The social relations of the educational situation, pertains to teacher-pupil and pupils-pupil relationships. Characteristic of capitalist education is the authoritarian teacher and competitive student (Youngman, p.205). Conversely relationships based on co-operation, equality, participation and "democratic collaboration" between teacher and pupils are sought in socialist education with activities such as mutual help, peer teaching, and group activities designed to develop these relationships (Youngman, p.206 and p.208). Reflecting a socialist educational nature, teaching standard Q1 requires that trainees are "establishing fair, respectful, trusting, supportive and constructive relationships with [their pupils]" (TDA, 2009, p.7). In assessing the achievement of this standard, it should be considered if there is success in "teaching children and young people to cooperate, to collaborate and to listen to others" and if "children and young people show respect and sensitivity in their relationships with one another and in their responses to the trainee".

Methods of teaching in socialist pedagogy distinguish between the techniques that a teacher may use in the classroom. According to Youngman (p.208) collaborative activities, collective investigation and aspiring toward targets set by both pupils and teachers are thought to be "a characteristic mode of learning within socialist pedagogy." The TDA accredited continual professional development courses in the field of collaborative learning evidence a commitment to this cause (TDA, 2011). The National Strategies on pedagogy and practice attempt to describe the efficacy of group work, promoting its use to improve "pupils' speaking, listening, thinking, problem-solving and social skills." (DfES, 2004, p.6)

The lecturing style of teaching described as "the paradigm of authoritarian pedagogy" (Youngman, p.208), can be regarded as appropriate in certain circumstances such as describing the background to a subject. This relates favourably to the way in which teachers are encouraged to incorporate a variety of teaching styles (DfES, 2004, p.8).

In order for the mode of evaluating teaching and learning process to be considered socialist, the success criteria must be developed collectively by both teachers and pupils making sure that the assessment methods are not used to compare group members. It is also required that effectiveness of the programme of study is improved and that evaluation is part of the learning process (Youngman, 1986, p.217). The description of the 'Assessment for Learning' strategy implemented in England, by the Assessment Reform Group suggests that AfL addresses each of these points.

"Assessment for learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there".

(ARG, 2002, p.2)

I would consider this a fair reflection of the strategy, due to the approaches outlined by the DCSF et al. (2008, p.6) including use of peer and self assessment, improvements to medium-term curriculum planning and the broader view of progress across a subject for teacher and learner. There are conversely aspects of AfL that would go against the socialist mantra, for example at the transitional level (between year groups), the use of formal testing, and use of national standards in the classroom. These fall into the category of promoting social division and "part of a process of legitimising domination" of pupils by teachers (Youngman, 1986, p.209). Advancing this argument, Hextall (1976, p.71) explains that this process serves to maintain the economic and political hierarchy.

Media Influence

It is also of interest to understand the role of the media in education. As teachers - to a certain extent - have autonomy (McCulloch, 1998, p.93), it is pertinent to expect that they will import some of their own personal ideas and beliefs into the classroom, whether intentionally or not. Seaton (2003, p.329) summarises that "writers on the press and broadcasting have credited the media with the power to 'influence' or 'persuade' their audience, to 'change attitudes', or even to 'affect behaviour'." This raises questions of possible control that the media may have over teachers.

The Times Educational Supplement (TES) has a history of regularly publishing columns written by authors of the 'New Right' during the period the publication was owned by conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch (Epstein, 1993, p.26). Large numbers of teachers around the country read the publication, which currently has circulation figures of 62,841, estimated readership figures of 371,00 (TES, 2010, p.2) and a claimed online community of 995,280 education professionals (TES webiste, 2011). Epstein (1993, p.27) suggests that although the direct influence on teachers may be small, "their appearance on a regular basis has drawn the centre of gravity of arguments on education to the right."

It is conceivable that the influence of the 'New Right' in the TES may have waned since its parent groups sale, by Murdoch and under current ownership by Charterhouse (Dowell, Guardian, 2007). Charterhouse Capital Partners however, is a private equity investment firm which focuses on the leveraged buyouts of established companies (Charterhouse, 2011), a typical action based on capitalist values; it is therefore pertinent to suggest that the TES is politically right leaning.

The TES (2010, p.2) claims to have 75% of the market of educational publications compared to a 2% share for the politically left leaning Education Guardian. These figures, gained from a survey of 2000 educational professionals, may not accurately reflect the nature of the share, as the survey was carried out by the TES's parent company. It is, however, reasonable to suggest that the TES has a large share of the market and therefore may have an ideological influence on large numbers of teachers. Bearing in mind Seaton's (2003, p.329) assessment of the media, there could be cause for concern that teachers may gravitate away from the socialist educational ideals that are strongly routed in the English education system.

The Curriculum

Attempting to understand the political nature of the curriculum leads to question who determines it and why it is used. Throughout the recent history of England there has been evidence of government interest in schools (House of Commons, 2009, p.9); however it was not until The 1988 Education Reform Act that a framework for a national curriculum was introduced. According to the UK government (p.9) "A national curriculum sets out the body of knowledge, skills and understanding that a society wishes to pass on to its children and young people."

The National Curriculum was developed as a result of the 'Great Debate' on education initiated by Prime Minister James Callaghan (Furlong, 2005, p.120-121) and its development is currently overseen by the QCDA, a non-departmental public body (House of Commons, 2009, p.9) accountable to Ministers (House of Commons, 2009, p.36). It is this accountability and therefore ministerial control that is a major cause for concern regarding political influence. Hargreaves confirms these worries declaring that:

"The mistake we have made in recent years is that there has been a tendency for Ministers, when something comes up, to think that we can impose new regulation through the National Curriculum. […] This constant changing of the curriculum […] is politicisation in the negative sense, as opposed to the positive sense that politicians should have a say on what goes on in our schools."

(House of Commons, 2009, p.22)

Assuming that politicians have control over what is taught to children, it is not absurd to question if politicians can mould the curriculum to serve their own purpose, a suspicion supported by Pring (1999, p.71) citing the politicisation of education.

The National Curriculum has resulted in the standardisation of taught content across schools, enabling standardisation of assessment. This leads to comparisons between schools based on statistics in the form of league tables which in effect has encouraged a 'free market' for education, a characteristic of capitalism. Its division into subjects, as previously mentioned, creates boundaries to understanding where socialist education aims to create a collective understanding of everything, and the "place of the particular in the general" (Youngman, 1986, p.205). This is the prime example showing how capitalist government policy has infiltrated the education system.

In the English context there are many examples of political areas of conflict in a variety of subjects, a notable example being the case of geography. According to Standish (2007, in Lambert and Morgan, 2009, p.150) there has been an external politicisation on the curriculum with a severe consequence on the intellectual growth of pupils, caused by the declining interest in the subject in schools; government initiatives to develop a citizenship national curriculum and an influence of non-governmental organizations concerned with global issues. He complains that:

"Rather than teach pupils difficult and abstract theories about landscape formation, climate, urbanization, economic development, etc, they have opted to engage pupils' interest in trendy topics like global warming, fair trade, and poverty reduction."

(Standish, 2007 in Lambert and Morgan, 2009, p.150)

This however is not an exclusively English phenomenon. In the international context the influence of curricula are also observable, a contemporary issue being the teaching of history in conflict zones (Davies, 2005, p.21) where its destructive nature is stressed.

There are essential questions to be asked about school subjects. What are their purposes and who do they serve? The distortion of geography (and history from the international context), is founded on political pressure for people to behave as good citizens. The move towards learning about global citizenship and sustainable energy and development, presents us with the contentious matter of citizenship education.

Citizenship Education

Citizenship education was introduced as part of the National Curriculum amid fears of a "youth apathy and cynicism towards engagement in political and civic life" (Kerr et al., 2002, p.180; Naval et al., 2002, p.107; Osler & Starkey, 2002, p.143; Frazer, 2007, p.249). When referring to the term citizenship in this chapter, I shall refer to the definition supplied by Marshall (1950, p.11) as the membership of a community. Gross and Dynneson (1991, p.1) explain that "citizenship values and behaviours often are considered derivatives of an individual's society." It is therefore understandable that the values and behaviours promoted in an education of citizenship in England will reflect those of the democratic process. Kerr's (1999, p. 1) explanation for the function of citizenship education is its concern "with young people's understanding of society and, in particular, with influencing what pupils learn and understand about the social world." This notion of influence is one that can be cause for suspicion.

The suspicion of political influence is widely recognised in the literature (Kerr et al., 2002, p.180; Pring, 1999, p.71). Keddie (2008, p.172) summarises how "suspicion has arisen in terms of how [contentious] values are inevitably shaped by ever increasing government control imposed on schools." This is echoed by Frazer (2000, p.88), in relation to citizenship education, highlighting its suspect nature as it is "legislated for by a government with unprecedented levels of centralized control."

It would seem from these arguments that children are being used as political pawns, and that the curriculum could be an attempt to take the role of parents. Considering the best interest of the child, the United Nations in its Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) specifies that the children are not the 'property' of their parents and those children are members of a family and a community (UNICEF, 2011). Schools, as well as other institutions, must "consider all actions taken in light of the best interests of the child" (ibid.). A rather drawn out argument could be made suggesting citizenship education violates these laws. Pring (1999, p.83) asserts that educators have no right to say how young people should live their lives.

It is arguable that citizenship education is governments attempt to break up particular groups in society to benefit social cohesion. Does society have the right to interfere with a citizen's personal beliefs? It is argued that emphasis on social cohesion in education over the past decade was necessary, due to "increasing social pluralism and lifestyle diversity" (Green et al., 2003, p.453). Banks (2008, p.131) suggests that "Strong attachments to ethnic, racial, religious, and other identity groups lead to conflicts and harmful divisions within society." Combined with increasing inequality; xenophobia; resurgent 'civilisation conflicts' (Green et al., 2003, p.454; Council of Europe, 2000, p. 5) and the growing threat of terrorism (Naval et al., 2002, p.107), there are grounds for the justification of social cohesion through citizenship education. On the surface it seems that there is further justification as citizenship education can provide a framework to promote peace education (Davies, 2005, p.17). Peace education programmes can also be taught in its own right in both societies of threatening violence as well as ones at war (Davies, 2004, p.132). The issue of war is current and very important to pupils (Davies, 2005, p.17), however the approach of teaching conflict may not be as ideal as it seems, as "in general [teaching conflict] may contribute more to conflict and violence than (...) to peace" (Davies, 2005, p.21).


In conclusion it is important to confirm that the aims of the paper were met. An understanding of the political nature of the English classroom was gained from the perspective of socialist education. By comparing the ideals of socialist education with current educational policy and guidelines, it was evident that the current classroom environment in England has strong socialist pedagogical foundations, despite the presence of aspects of capitalist pedagogy.

Due to the relative autonomy of teachers in England (McCulloch, 1998 p.93) it is reasonable to suggest that teachers' personal influences may guide their methods of teaching. Identifying the media as playing a role in teachers' lives enabled a deduction of how the popular TES publication (and others) may sway the political tendencies and therefore theory of practice of teachers.

Implementing the national curriculum according to Johnson (1991, p.70) was an attempt to produce a sense of national identity. It was also inspected as a political tool, with the introduction of citizenship education to create a new generation of well behaved citizens by shaping the belief systems of pupils. Frazer's (2007, p.249) arguments that the priority of a government in a party political system such as England is to maintain power rather than provide improved education, support the theory that education could be used to maintain this power.

I also attempted to provide the counterargument, citing Banks (2008) who supports citizenship education to disband subgroups in society, believing it correct to free members from group attachments to have free choice and options in a modernized democratic society (Schlesinger, 1998, p.20), thereby improving social cohesion.

This study has raised some important questions concerning the self-serving nature of governments with regard to the education system. It is observable that even at the most fundamental level of the classroom, political decisions are being taken about the nature of taught activities and the relationships formed. It was concluded that there is a considerable socialist pedagogical influence in the classroom environment. In a capitalist country like England it is questionable if the political nature of the classroom should reflect the political nature of society. Should classrooms operate with a capitalist pedagogy in order to develop pupils' skills that will strengthen their competitive nature and other capitalist values? The same could also be argued for a socialist society. These are areas of interest that could motivate further study.

It was also observed that the media has power to influence the thought processes of teachers, swaying them toward a particular political method of teaching and altering their classroom methods. The case of the TES and its political motives were particularly highlighted, although similar arguments could be made for the left leaning Education Guardian. The control that government has on education has undoubtedly increased since the introduction of the national curriculum, leading to suspicions of self-serving motives behind educational changes, including the introduction of citizenship education, with the common consensus that citizenship education benefits social cohesion.