CORRESPONDENCErnLetter From Englandrnby Michael McMahonrnCredit Where Credit’s DuernTony Blair’s promised target before beingrnelected to his first term in office was “Education,rneducation, education”; somernmonths into his second term, it is clearrnthat his promise has been honored, andrnthat his target has been hit—clean betweenrnthe eyes. English education liesrnunconscious on the canvas. If there isrnany real learning going on in this country’,rnit is in spite of— not because of— hisrnefforts, and those of his anticultural precursorsrnin the capital-driven conservativernparty. Between them, the nahon’s politiciansrnhave spent the last three or fourrngenerations reducing education to arnprocess in which there is little room forrnthe intellectual, cultural, and spiritualrnenrichment that a civilized society wouldrnexpect of its schools.rnContemporary education is in intellectualrnchaos. This year, the traditionalrnA’ level (the single-subject examinationrnhitherto taken in twos or threes by 18-rnyear-olds at the end of their high-schoolrncareers) has been wrecked. Sixth-formersrnwere expected to study five subjects to thernnew “AS level” in their penultimaternschool year, turning three or four of themrninto the new “A level” thereafter. Thosernwho opposed this were rubbished as reactionaries,rnbut even their most cynical expectationsrnwere surpassed by what happenedrnthis summer when the first roundrnof examinations was endured. Thingsrnwent so wildly amiss that the governmentrnannounced an inquiry even while thernfirst batch of candidates was taking the exam.rnThe practical arrangements were farci- >rncal. Many students found themselvesrntimetabled to sit in examination halls forrnmore hours than the school day contains,rnand some had to be kept incommunicadornovernight by their teachers until theyrncould write their papers on the followingrnday. But this was nothing compared tornthe academic absurdities of the enterprise.rnThe argument had been that twornAS levels would be worth one old A’ level,rnand that the AS courses would be halfrnas long but to the same standard as before.rnIt was a false argument. The criticsrnhad been right, and head teachersrnthroughout the land complained of thernnew dispensation’s tedious reliance onrnrote learning and its lack of academic rigor.rnA’ levels ha’e not just been dumbedrndown; thev have been dumbed out.rnThe cultural degradation of Englishrneducation is almost complete. Now thatrnevery moment of the school day is spokenrnfor by the prescriptive national curriculum,rnthere is no room for high culture tornbe slipped in by teachers smpathetic tornit. The writ of the national curriculumrndoes not run in the last two years of secondaryrnschooling, which are undertakenrnafter the age at which children may legallyrnleave school. That window of educationalrnopportunit}- has been shut. One ofrnthe strongest criticisms of the new AS levelrnarrangement is that it has driven freerntime from the system. The penultimaternyear of English secondary education usedrnto be a chance for young minds to expandrnbefore the final furlong of exams, inrna relativeh’ relaxed atmosphere. It is nowrnjust another year on the treadmill. Therernis little opportunity or energy for acting inrnthe school play, performing in the schoolrnorchestra, or writing for the school magazine.rnThe only culture most schoolkidsrnare now exposed to is that written into thernnational curriculum, our mandatory educationalrninstruction manual.rnThose cultural elements do not correspondrnto my own inheritance, which Irndid my best to hand down to my ownrnchildren and to the generations ofrnschoolchildren I taught before I wasrnmodernized out of the classroom threernyears ago. The birthright of contemporaryrnEnglish schoolchildren has beenrnsold for a mess of pottage—an expressionrnfew of them (or their modern-mindedrnteachers) would understand, and evenrnfewer find familiar. It is a dish with manyrnforeign ingredients. Our children are nornlonger nourished by native values, butrnforce-fed politically correct pap.rnNowhere is this more true than in therncompulsory subject of religious education,rnwhich has effectively educated religionrnoitt of our schools. By law, Christianityrnis supposed to predominate, but itrndoes not—even in many schools that arerndenominationallv “Christian.” The nationalrnreligious curriculum has createdrngenerations of children and young adultsrnwho are faintly familiar with any numberrnof foreign faiths, and just as disdainful ofrneach. Wlio can blame them? If we teachrnthem that the god with an elephant’srnhead is as worthy of reverence as thernHead that was mocked and crowned withrnthorns, is it an}’ wonder that the regardrneach with equal indifference? Most ofrnour youngsters can tell you what Ramadanrnis, but ask them to recite thernLord’s Prayer, and they’re stumped. Atrnthe time of Diwali, you will find countlessrnschools festooned with festal candles,rnbut come Easter, ‘ou will look for resurrectionrntableaux in vain.rnSoon, Easter won’t be coming at all.rnAs far as schools are concerned, fromrn2003 on, Easter is scrapped. Easter is anrninconvenient interruption to the routinernof rote learning because it is a festival thatrnfalls annually on different dates. Thernwhole school year is to be regularizedrnand the calendar recast to conform to thernpace of the educational conveyor belt.rnAnother casualty on the cards is the liberatinglyrnlong smrimer vacation. It is arnhangover from a time when life—and educationrn—was in harmony with nature:rnThe holiday corresponded with the seasonrnof the harvest. In mechanized, urbanizedrnEngland, that correspondencerncounts for naught.rnThis symbolic break in continuity withrnChristendom marks not just the rejectionrnand abandonment of religion, but a lossrnof our cultural inheritance. Footnotes inrnEnglish literature textbooks now includernexplanations of cen the most basicrnChristian terms, for today’s students willrnnot have encountered them elsewhere.rnThis matters less and less, as the more demandingrntexts of the traditional canonrnare abandoned in favor of more accessiblerncontemporary fiction. Earlier thisrn’ear, the examinations boards introducedrnplans to drop Shakespeare as a compulsoryrnsubject. There was uproar. The educationrnminister struck a traditionalistrnpose, denouncing the proposal to spikernthe literary canon and refusing to allowrnthe Bard to be barred from the curriculum.rn”Hoorah!” cried the popular press.rn”The works of our greatest writer are stillrntaught in our schools!” They wouldrncheer rather less if they knew how Shakespearernis taught. Fourteen-year-olds havernSEPTEMBER 2001/33rnrnrn