Traditional Britain Group Conference 2018

What has gone wrong with our education system? These days more than ever there are profound concerns among the public as to what pupils and students are being taught, and as to the influence of particular political and other ideologies upon both the nature of their studies and the manner in which schools and universities deliver them. In my talk today, I am going to deal with some of these problems and explain some of their roots. In doing so, I will point out some potential solutions. Before any of this, I want to be clear that the reason why these matters are of such concern is because education, above almost anything else, is of crucial importance in establishing our society’s values and in setting the tone for the culture of our nation. We ignore it at our peril. It is one of the most difficult nettles for politicians to grasp, but it is of crucial importance that they do so.

Let us start with the political dimension. Our education system is not run by the government, but primarily by the teaching unions. The prospect of a Secretary of State for Education who is prepared to oppose the teaching unions, to tell them that their comfortable Guardian-reading left-wing shibboleths are harming their charges and selling their pupils short, makes the average teacher’s blood run cold. The only Education Secretary in recent years who dared to take on such a mission was Michael Gove, and I believe the reason he did so was because his own background was one where he had risen from poverty. It was not necessary to explain to him how much education mattered or what difference it made to the life chances of those who received it. He knew those things at first hand, and he also knew that he was facing a wall of left-wing opposition in an attempt to introduce reform and to correct some of the worst excesses of the school system. He called that opposition, consisting of the teaching unions, university education departments, council education officers and myriad more left-wing institutions, “the blob”. Under his tenure, the blob was pushed back and despite its boiling resentment, and voodoo dolls of Michael Gove – made in Brighton – selling like hot cakes, it was contained. Gove’s most important analysis of the problem was when he said that left-wing ideology meant that schools “shouldn’t be doing anything so old-fashioned as passing on knowledge, requiring children to work hard, or immersing them in anything like dates in history or times tables in mathematics. These ideologues may have been inspired by generous ideals but the result of their approach has been countless children condemned to a prison house of ignorance.” His plans were radical and rigorous. At one point, they included the abandonment of the GCSE exam and its replacement by a new version of its more rigorous predecessor, the O level, alongside less academic qualifications for less able students, the scrapping of the National Curriculum and the creation of a single exam board in place of the various competing bodies that currently exist.

But politicians are limited by the constraints of the practical. A small but reliable majority in the House of Commons is enough to enable some degree of authority to be wielded. A shrinking and then non-existent majority is a mandate for nothing but the drift of presiding over the status quo. What we have now, in respect of education, is a government that is nominally in charge, but in reality has very limited power. It has withdrawn from the blob, and has let the blob have its own way. Gove could not survive after two of the main teaching unions had passed votes of no confidence in him, 100 academics had signed a letter criticising him for placing too much emphasis on the memorisation of facts and rules, and another 200 prominent figures had issued a further letter criticising his reforms as posing enormous and negative risks to children.

A stronger government, and a stronger Prime Minister, would have backed him, but the political cost had become too high. Gove had become isolated, and it seems to me that he was also being undermined by his own civil servants. His family were receiving death threats from Leftists which his wife described as “vicious and aggressive”. This was the price of a reform that could, if successful, have transformed our education system for a generation. We should salute the considerable courage needed to advance a vision for education that almost nobody actually working in education agreed with. But above all, Gove’s achievement was to say that education did not belong to those who work in it. Rather, it belongs to the pupils who are being educated and whose futures are being decided in consequence. It is their interests which are neglected at the expense of appeasing the education lobby.

Governments with small majorities cannot go to war with the teaching unions. More than that, the Conservative Party knows that if it is to win a majority at the next election it will not do so by appealing to those of us on the Right. We do not meet sufficiently the demographic or numerical targets they need to achieve. In order for them to win, they must persuade people who currently vote Labour to vote Conservative, and the only way they can do that is to appear to be sufficiently soft on areas that Labour traditionally regards as its own – education being a prime example. If the Conservative Party is seen to be opposed to the majority of teachers, it will not only lose their votes but those of many other Labour voters for whom education is a key issue and for whom teachers are put on a pedestal in the same way as those who work in the NHS.

This is why we have seen, particularly over the last few years during which we have had a minority Conservative administration, a veritable tide of damaging nonsense in our schools and universities. We have seen the erosion of their traditional commitment to free speech, with “no platform” policies and crude, intolerant protest silencing voices that do not conform to Leftist orthodoxy. We have seen the rise of grievance studies and the balkanization that results from minority groups being encouraged to seek not merely equality, but dominance. We have seen, in short, the Left in its own ideological bubble, secure on its home turf, playing fast and loose with our young people’s futures and seeking to bring its own ideology to bear not least because traditional education and traditional values have now become the preserve, as the Left would see it, of the “nasty party”. But above all, the issues are these: Trump and Brexit have been two of the most damaging blows the mainstream Left has ever received in recent generations. They have responded to these reversals by uniting and becoming better organized. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn certainly does not appeal to Blairites but it does have a huge appeal to grass roots left-wing Labour supporters who will give him money, time and energy. This is why education, which is seen by the Left as its own territory, has become emboldened in its embrace of lunatic Marxism. They are dealing with a government too weak to oppose them and they are preparing for a time that they believe will come quickly when the Labour Party will be in power again. Against this, the Right is in disarray and the intellectual Right is largely absent. These are things our enemies note and take advantage of.

Let us now consider some of these matters in practice. Until 1990, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness by the World Health Organization in its International Standard Classification of Diseases and Related Problems. That reclassification is, broadly speaking, the point at which attitudes towards homosexuality in respect of British public life began to change profoundly. Now consider that the same organization declassified gender dysphoria, including transsexualism, in March this year. The classification or declassification decisions are not made on an empirical basis, as they would be if we were, for example, discussing human disease. They are made on the basis of a consensus view from psychiatrists, particularly American psychiatrists, and the declassification decisions have also taken into account the lobbying efforts of groups representing homosexuals and individuals with gender dysphoria who object to the classification of their traits as mental conditions and wish them instead to be seen as entirely normal. There is too high an element of subjectivity in these decisions for them to be free from political and other biases, and yet such is the deference to expert culture and such is the decline in educational standards in our age, that people with a very legitimate say in how these traits should be regarded in and by society – in other words the general public – are not consulted and their views are unheard, the political consensus across all the major parties being simply to accept expert opinion unquestioningly. To take a Gove-like stand – to reject expert opinion and instead take a wider view with the good of our young people at the forefront – is seen as far too costly a move.

Between 1988 and 2003 in England and Wales, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1986, applying to all maintained schools, provided that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” The intention behind this legislation was not to persecute homosexuals, but rather to emphasise the following aspects: that childhood and young adulthood are times when pupils should be free from any form of promotion of homosexuality, and that homosexual relationships are inferior to heterosexual relationships in respect of the upbringing of a family. The background to the legislation was the result of a number of Labour councils, notably the GLC, giving substantial public funding to a number of gay and lesbian groups. Perhaps some of us will remember a book that was reported in 1986 as being in use in a school library called Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, which depicted a young girl living with her father and his homosexual partner and which was held by a number of newspapers to be a work of homosexual propaganda.

Against this background, the Labour Party, at that point strongly controlled by the unions which had formed an alliance with a number of homosexual groups, had passed a resolution at the 1985 conference that would criminalize discrimination against homosexual and bisexual people. During the 1987 election campaign, according to the Conservative Party, Labour wanted a number of books that not only promoted homosexuality but described, in a manner to be understood by young children, the mechanics of homosexual activity, to be used in schools. Dame Jill Knight of the Conservative Party and the Monday Club, one of the leading lights behind Section 28, said “I was contacted by parents who strongly objected to their children at school being encouraged into homosexuality and being taught that a normal family with mummy and daddy was outdated. To add insult to their injury, they were infuriated that it was their money, paid over as council tax, which was being used for this. This all happened after pressure from the Gay Liberation Front. At that time I took the trouble to refer to their manifesto, which clearly stated: “We fight for something more than reform. We must aim for the abolition of the family”.

So here we are in 2018 and it would appear that the problems of thirty years ago have come back with a vengeance. Of course the tone was set by then-leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron in 2009 when, as reported by The Independent, he apologised for Section 28 and hoped that the Conservatives would give Britain its first gay Prime Minister. Now, we are told that forty secondary schools have banned girls from wearing skirts lest this offend pupils who identify as transgender. Toilets have become either unisex or open to pupils to choose whichever gender they identify with. The government’s former mental health tsar has told headteachers they should only use gender-neutral language when addressing pupils, and at least one school, Altrincham Grammar School for Girls, has, despite its name, made this compulsory for its staff. “Drag queen story hour” is now a thing in primary schools. Indeed, since 2011, lesson plans have been available from the Training and Development Agency for Schools in maths, science, geography and design and technology to encourage teaching about homosexuality and transsexualism to children as young as four as part of  “LGBT History Month”. And parents  are being told that if they object to their children identifying as another gender, then they will be reported to Social Services! Truly the movement for the abolition of the family is well advanced.

All of this points to one thing: the calculated and intentional sexualization of our children. A traditional view was that matters of sexuality and gender dysphoria certainly affected young people of school age, and that those young people needed to be treated with understanding and support, but that it was not until a good way into adult life that one could arrive at a maturity of judgement necessary to know oneself and one’s nature fully, and to reconcile that knowledge with one’s chosen moral and cultural framework in terms of how that knowledge would find expression. It is generally forgotten in these debates that people may have instincts and deep emotions which they choose for whatever reason not to act upon, and people may not wish to identify with any particular label or cultural movement that deems itself their spokesperson. The prevailing culture of the aggressive promotion of minority rights is allied to a view that these are not private matters for the home and bedroom and for friends and confidants, but that they are matters of public and political discourse in which any repression is unhealthy and any expression of identification with the trendy cause is to be celebrated and acted upon, even when those actions have unwanted, and in the case of surgery for transsexuals, severe medical consequences. I must say the prospect of gender reassignment for children, even for those before puberty, is of great concern. Nothing makes these people happier, it seems, than when a young person makes a declaration of allegiance to their cause. We may speculate, of course, as to why these particular causes would put so much energy into promoting themselves to children.

If we look back to some examples from the last century, same-sex relationships, often platonic, sometimes not, were commonly reported among young people being educated in single-sex environments, as well as intense emotional feelings towards teachers of the same sex. Consider Evelyn Waugh, who had several homosexual relationships while at Oxford, but in adult life, and according to his biographers entirely as a result of his choice and inclination, married twice and had seven children. People are complex and childhood and young adulthood are times of transition and discovery. People who have homosexual experiences do not always choose to repeat them, and may come to the conclusion that they are not, in fact, to be a part of their mature sexual identity. We should never force our young people into making decisions about their identity and preferences that they may subsequently regret, and that may lead them to much greater anguish and distress than if we were to use that saying from my time, “it’s probably just a phase he’s going through”. Whether or not it actually turns out to be a phase, the point is that it should be allowed to be a phase and not something that defines them permanently in their own view or in the view of others. Once that definition of one’s identity has occurred, something will be lost if it is abandoned. The aim of politicised minority groups is to create a culture whereby those who put themselves outside them, particularly those who might come to oppose them, have a lot to lose as a result.

Of course within the Left’s adoption of postmodernism, such fixed ideas about personal identity are cast aside. The traditionalist understands personal identity to be rooted in one’s racial heritage, genetic stock and a culture which perpetuates enduring values discovered anew by each generation. Traditionalism teaches that childhood and adulthood are different, and that adulthood is characterized by maturity, duty and purpose. Postmodernism, on the other hand, holds that identity is essentially a construct to be adopted or discarded at will. Nothing in the postmodern view of identity endures, and nothing is necessarily preferable to anything else. You may, and some people do, say you are a woman for five days of the week and a man for the other two. And if the Left are in power, they will take you seriously. Because of this weakness concerning identity, this view relegates adults to perpetual children. It teaches that there is no need to grow up, to take responsibility or to assume any form of duty towards others. If one wishes to change one’s identity or cast off responsibility then the state will take up the slack.

We should be clear that what is going on in our schools is effectively the promotion of minority sexual and gender positions, and that this is being done not through any explicit legislation but through a creeping political correctness; a commitment to equality and diversity that actually means that the majority is deliberately hindered and inconvenienced for the sake of the minority. This of course is explicitly Marxist; the majority is held to be the oppressor and the minority cause justified because of its perceived victim status. Even when the apparent victim is deliberately advanced by being given special treatment, that does not mean they can ever stop being seen as the victim or being oppressed. This in turn is allied to the creation of a myth surrounding the supposed utopia of equality and diversity that is being created; that it is under constant threat, and that it can only survive if a safe space is created whereby any expressions of dissent or criticism are censored and designated as “hate speech”. The reality is that the threat is of a rather different nature – it is the threat that the shibboleths of equality and diversity will be shown to be absurd and counter-productive if subjected to rigorous critique. Truly, the emperor has no clothes.

This Marxist viewpoint in turn gives rise to the poison of identity politics and to what has been referred to as grievance studies. It originates in our universities and it runs riot in the humanities and in education. The recent expose by three academics shows this for exactly what it is. They created fake, but achingly trendy, research papers and submitted these to leading peer-reviewed academic journals in the humanities. At the point where the hoax was revealed, they had had seven papers accepted and several further papers likely to be accepted. Among those published were papers suggesting that men should be trained in the same manner as dogs, that white male college students should be punished for historical slavery by asking them to sit in silence in the floor in chains during class and to be expected to learn from the discomfort, and that superintelligent artificial intelligence should be programmed with feminist and leftist nonsense before being permitted to rule the world. Each paper was chosen to be deliberately absurd, and yet its absurdity was merely an exaggeration of a genuine leftist concept.

In their essay explaining their hoax, the three academics make some trenchant comments. I was particularly taken by this, “This problem is most easily summarized as an overarching…belief that many common features of experience and society are socially constructed. These constructions are seen as being nearly entirely dependent upon power dynamics between groups of people, often dictated by sex, race, or sexual or gender identification. All kinds of things accepted as having a basis in reality due to evidence are instead believed to have been created by the intentional and unintentional machinations of powerful groups in order to maintain power over marginalized ones. This worldview produces a moral imperative to dismantle these constructions. Common “social constructions” viewed as intrinsically “problematic” and thus claimed to be in need of dismantling include (amongst others) the understanding that there are cognitive and psychological differences between men and women which could explain, at least partially, why they make different choices in relation to things like work, sex, and family life, and that Western liberal cultural norms which grant women and the LGBT equal rights are ethically superior in this regard to non-Western religious or cultural ones that do not.”

In brief, what they point out is that what is now going on in the humanities is an attempt to replace scientific theory with critical theory in the name of so-called “social justice”. It is an attempt to smear science and the scientific method as sexist and racist and to abandon any impartial pursuit of truth in favour of grievance-based identity politics. Likewise, the Western philosophical tradition is rejected because this also emphasises rigour and reason over solipsism and superstition. We might very well see in this the opposition to Michael Gove’s emphasis on facts and rules over what his opponents wanted instead – “understanding”. Of course what is meant by “understanding” is something much more easily manipulated to political ends than facts and rules. But what is for sure is that this movement against science and rational thought is deeply dishonest. It is concerned with setting up imagined conflict in society that is then used to fire others up with the powerful emotions caused by believing that they are not themselves responsible for their misfortunes but that they can blame them on their sex, gender, race or other protected characteristic. In turn, this is then exploited to take advantage of middle-class liberal guilt, and there is little that is more easily manipulated than that. The peer review system in academia has long been defended as a means of ensuring reliability in research, but at least in the humanities it was always in danger of becoming an echo-chamber filled with ideological conformity.

This is not a problem, however, that is confined to academia. It has a direct influence on society as a whole, because these ideas inevitably leak out and gain wider currency, which is exactly what academics intend them to do – they are, after all, charged with educating the next generation. When we look at television advertising at the moment we might believe that the government had issued the advertising industry with a directive that every advertisement must contain at least one member of an ethnic minority, preferably a couple of mixed race, or a homosexual couple, or people with a visible disability. No such directive exists. Nor has this been in response to particular campaigns by minority groups, or particular complaints about given advertising campaigns.

What has happened is that corporations have realised that their audience is one that is led by these trends that have begun in academia, then been extended through the media, and that now require promotion as politically correct social norms. They are terrified that deviation from those norms will lead to them being accused of being homophobic, racist, transphobic or whatever other made-up term is current with the Left today. They are, indeed, so terrified of this that they will prioritise the avoidance of any perceived bigotry even over appeal to their target audience, thus defeating the prime objective of advertising in the first place. We are told that when surveyed by The Times, half of the advertisers said they were no longer using white people in their adverts because they “no longer represented modern society”. What has happened to the advertisers is the same as what these academics want to do to our young people. They are not responding to actual racism but to “perceived” racism. In other words, they are promoting ideology, not responding to fact. And in doing so, they are perpetuating a monstrous and grievously offensive falsehood, which is that to be white, to be male or female, and to be heterosexual, must be irrevocably racist, homophobic and transphobic, and, while those people must forever do penance for the fact, they can never atone for it.

There is a further aspect to this that might give us all pause for thought. Our schools no longer allow transgressions to be forgotten, as they were in my day, or dismissed as the excesses of youth. Nowadays, every punishment and every failure is recorded permanently in a form that travels with the pupil from childhood through to their university years. This is Orwellian, but moreover it is likely to be a precursor for something much more sinister. Communist China is already introducing a computerised Social Credit System, and this has nothing to do with Major C.H. Douglas or distributist economics. China’s social credit means that every citizen has a computerized publicly-available reputation score based on their credit score and so-called trustworthiness, which is generated from their social behaviour. The Chinese government says violations of the social order will be punished by a lower score. This score is then used, at present, to determine whether a person is allowed access to such things as good school places for their children, travel outside the country, access to credit and even fast internet speeds. One important criterion for China is ideological conformity. If you challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, you lose points on your credit score. What China wants, and I do not think it is so different from the Left over here, is for all of the behaviour of its citizens, online and offline, to be monitored and controlled so that people compete with each other according to indices of virtue. In literal terms, the more you conform to the politically correct ideal, the higher your social credit score becomes, and it is your score that will determine access to almost everything you need in life. In the kind of society that leftist academia in Britain is promoting, violation of the safe space and opposition to social justice will make one into a technologically updated version of the Soviet non-person. This is what the future holds.

What can then be done? The weakness of opposition to these matters is above all seen in a lack of intellectual firepower among those in power and their lack of the necessary courage to challenge so-called experts whose expertise has been gained within an ideological bubble. The humanities and the social sciences have become rotten to the core with this ideological cant. Anyone who speaks out against it is no-platformed and it has become, as Sir Roger Scruton has long pointed out, impossible to pursue a career as a conservative intellectual in this country. The only reason why it has remained a possibility in the United States, incidentally, is because of the strength of traditional Christian institutions within their education system. If we look to the churches to exert a similar influence in this country we will look in vain.

If we are to combat this movement in our schools nothing short of radical action will suffice. It may, indeed, take a boycott of the maintained school system before government takes notice. In the meantime, concerted parental pressure must be applied to ensure that our children are educated in a fit and proper manner, and not subjected to Leftist indoctrination when they are at a formative age. If the headteacher’s day is spent dealing with correspondence and angry representations from parents, and the governors and local education authority with complaints about the school’s lack of action, this will create a problem that will need to be addressed. The only reason this is being imposed upon our schools in this way, is that those imposing it believe they can get away with it. But a school can only work on the basis of consent. It covenants with its pupils and with its parents and it must learn that a necessary part of that covenant is treating their views with respect even when those views are not the same as those of the teaching staff or leadership team. And above all, the political bias in our education system must be countered. Already, we have all but driven men out of primary teaching for fear that they be labelled paedophiles for wanting to work with young children. An all-female school is not a healthy environment for young boys to be educated in. More significantly, it is now near-impossible for people of conservative political views to become teachers or lecturers. There is an ideological conformity imposed not just in training but in practice, and it has already done great damage to the culture of our nation. Unless we have the will and the means to fight it, it will soon be too late.

About johnkersey

Historian, musician and educationalist.
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