Tony Blair’s promised target before being elected to his first term in office was “Education, education, education”; some months into his second term, it is clear that his promise has been honored, and that his target has been hit—clean between the eyes. English education lies unconscious on the canvas. If there is any real learning going on in this country’, it is in spite of— not because of—his efforts, and those of his anticultural precursors in the capital-driven conservative party. Between them, the nation’s politicians have spent the last three or four generations reducing education to a process in which there is little room for the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual enrichment that a civilized society would expect of its schools.

Contemporary education is in intellectual chaos. This year, the traditional A’ level (the single-subject examination hitherto taken in twos or threes by 18- year-olds at the end of their high-school careers) has been wrecked. Sixth-formers were expected to study five subjects to the new “AS level” in their penultimate school year, turning three or four of them into the new “A level” thereafter. Those who opposed this were rubbished as reactionaries, but even their most cynical expectations were surpassed by what happened this summer when the first round of examinations was endured. Things went so wildly amiss that the government announced an inquiry even while the first batch of candidates was taking the exam.

The practical arrangements were farcical. Many students found themselves timetabled to sit in examination halls for more hours than the school day contains, and some had to be kept incommunicado overnight by their teachers until they could write their papers on the following day. But this was nothing compared to the academic absurdities of the enterprise. The argument had been that two AS levels would be worth one old A’ level, and that the AS courses would be half as long but to the same standard as before. It was a false argument. The critics had been right, and head teachers throughout the land complained of the new dispensation’s tedious reliance on rote learning and its lack of academic rigor. A’ levels have not just been dumbed down; they have been dumbed out.

The cultural degradation of English education is almost complete. Now that every moment of the school day is spoken for by the prescriptive national curriculum, there is no room for high culture to be slipped in by teachers sympathetic to it. The writ of the national curriculum does not run in the last two years of secondary schooling, which are undertaken after the age at which children may legally leave school. That window of educational opportunity has been shut. One of the strongest criticisms of the new AS level arrangement is that it has driven free time from the system. The penultimate year of English secondary education used to be a chance for young minds to expand before the final furlong of exams, in a relatively relaxed atmosphere. It is now just another year on the treadmill. There is little opportunity or energy for acting in the school play, performing in the school orchestra, or writing for the school magazine. The only culture most school kids are now exposed to is that written into the national curriculum, our mandatory educational instruction manual.

Those cultural elements do not correspond to my own inheritance, which I did my best to hand down to my own children and to the generations of schoolchildren I taught before I was modernized out of the classroom three years ago. The birthright of contemporary English schoolchildren has been sold for a mess of pottage—an expression few of them (or their modern-minded teachers) would understand, and even fewer find familiar. It is a dish with many foreign ingredients. Our children are no longer nourished by native values, but force-fed politically correct pap.

Nowhere is this more true than in the compulsory subject of religious education, which has effectively educated religion out of our schools. By law, Christianity is supposed to predominate, but it does not—even in many schools that are denominationally “Christian.” The national religious curriculum has created generations of children and young adults who are faintly familiar with any number of foreign faiths, and just as disdainful of each. Who can blame them? If we teach them that the god with an elephant’s head is as worthy of reverence as the Head that was mocked and crowned with thorns, is it any wonder that they regard each with equal indifference? Most of our youngsters can tell you what Ramadan is, but ask them to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and they’re stumped. At the time of Diwali, you will find countless schools festooned with festal candles, but come Easter, you will look for resurrection tableaux in vain.

Soon, Easter won’t be coming at all. As far as schools are concerned, from 2003 on, Easter is scrapped. Easter is an inconvenient interruption to the routine of rote learning because it is a festival that falls annually on different dates. The whole school year is to be regularized and the calendar recast to conform to the pace of the educational conveyor belt. Another casualty on the cards is the liberatingly long summer vacation. It is a hangover from a time when life—and education—was in harmony with nature: The holiday corresponded with the season of the harvest. In mechanized, urbanized England, that correspondence counts for naught.

This symbolic break in continuity with Christendom marks not just the rejection and abandonment of religion, but a loss of our cultural inheritance. Footnotes in English literature textbooks now include explanations of even the most basic Christian terms, for today’s students will not have encountered them elsewhere. This matters less and less, as the more demanding texts of the traditional canon are abandoned in favor of more accessible contemporary fiction. Earlier this year, the examinations boards introduced plans to drop Shakespeare as a compulsory subject. There was uproar. The education minister struck a traditionalist pose, denouncing the proposal to spike the literary canon and refusing to allow the Bard to be barred from the curriculum. “Hoorah!” cried the popular press. “The works of our greatest writer are still taught in our schools!” They would cheer rather less if they knew how Shakespeare is taught. Fourteen-year-olds have to “study” one of his plays; it is almost always Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, chosen for their relative accessibility. But such study is hardly rigorous. The giveaway is in the exam scripts: Candidates write not of the events of the play, but of scenes from the film. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, answers frequently refer to such anachronisms as Tybalt drawing his gun, or of petrol stations catching fire. To these children, Romeo and Juliet is a cinematic—not a literary or theatrical— experience. The same is true of most 16-year-olds who study Macbeth. If Roman Polanski earned a penny for every time an educationally resistant teenager asked his teacher to rewind the video to the “bit where the man gets an arrow in his head,” he would be a very rich man indeed, but our 16-year-olds are not much culturally richer: There is no such event in Shakespeare’s play.

Contemporary English schoolchildren are actually untainted by knowledge of their historical inheritance. History in primary and in the lower levels of secondary schools is largely taught by theme and does not put the present in the context of the past. Ask one of the diminishing number of 16-year-olds that have opted to study history for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar, the names of the Stuart Kings, or the wives of Henry VIII, and you’ll get a blank look. Show them the gloriously garbled comic classic 1066 and All That, and they just won’t get the jokes. They are not in touch with the past, except insofar as it justifies the political present and future. The Empire is mentioned only to be mocked; the historic heroes of the nation are unsung.

In fact, there is hardly any singing at all. Music has been squeezed to the very margin of the curriculum. If there is any singing in schools, it is multicultural. When I was a child, I sang as a child: “Hearts of Oak,” “The British Grenadiers,” “Farewell and Adieu,” “Early One Morning”—folk songs handed on from one generation to the next. Now, if children are taught to sing, it is in a class, darkly: They are taught contemporary subcultural trash. More likely, though, is that, like Belloc’s cultural invaders, they know no songs at all—which is perhaps appropriate. For, in contemporary English education, there is precious little to sing about.