Should the government control the curriculum?


Government and Institutions
Housing and Planning
This article is based on a presentation by Prof Booth at the Benedictus Forum, June 2016.

I have been asked to talk about whether government policy should affect the curriculum. The short answer is that it should not.

Let’s start with Catholic social teaching in relation to education and then move on to some economic arguments. Catholic social teaching argues that all children have a right to education (at least to some level) and that some form of education is necessary for a dignified life and the promotion of the common good. It does not say that children should go to school (education and school are not the same thing) and how children are educated is a matter for parents. The state can help parents fulfil their obligations if necessary by providing finance whilst never supplanting the parents’ role. If the state were limited to that subsidiary role of financially helping those families who could not afford an education for their children, we would, of course, have a very different public policy background from the one we see now.

So, it is reasonable for the state to require parents to have their children educated to some degree, but not to require that they are sent to school.

It is not a very large leap of logic to suggest that, if the state is going to require all children to be educated, the state should influence the curriculum. After all, what is the point in children being required to be educated if they are then learning rubbish?

An economist would probably suggest that there are “public good” qualities from children learning sufficient English, maths and a few other things for them to participate properly in a sophisticated democracy and civil society. Beyond that, most economists of a liberal perspective would say that the benefits of education tended to accrue in sufficient measure to the individual being educated that the state’s role should be relatively small. That is not to say that there are no “social benefits”, but that the private benefits are large relative to the social benefits.

Overall, these arguments might suggest some state intervention in the primary curriculum, perhaps. However, there are at least two further considerations. The first is that, once you have a requirement for all children to be educated up to a certain age, it is highly likely that parents will want to exercise their duties in such a way that their children learn things that – in the economist’s language – bring about the necessary private and social benefits. You do not have to have government control of the curriculum to achieve that. It might be appropriate for the state to, for example, prevent the promotion of violence or racial hatred in schools, but I do not see a strong case for intervening in a positive way.

Secondly, even if allowing parental and institutional freedom does not bring about the perfect result, the prudential question is whether it brings about a better result than would centralising power within the state over what children should learn. Centralising power within the state is dangerous because it can lead to the promotion of ideologies which parents do not share. It can lead to the curriculum being captured by interest groups. And, if bad decisions are made, they are replicated right throughout the system.

It is only since recently that the UK government has controlled the curriculum, and this has not been a phase marked with success. Insofar as the exercise of creating the national – or nationalised – curriculum was necessary at all, this was only (in my view) necessary because parental choice and institutional variety had been squeezed out of the system by the late 1970s so that schools no longer had incentives to teach what was either privately or socially useful or, more generally, appropriate.

Finally, let me say something about government influence over the curriculum to promote so-called STEM – science and engineering – subjects at both school and university. This is totally unwarranted.

This is essentially a utilitarian agenda that is influenced by the belief that maths and engineering are the subjects of the future and will lead to higher productivity and higher wages. I will leave philosophers to pick holes in the utilitarian motivation. However, even in its own utilitarian terms, I think the agenda is wrong.

If particular subjects lead to higher productivity and pay, you do not need the government to encourage them. People will take them anyway. Secondly, the highest gross value added sector in the UK by quite a long way is the financial services sector, for which maths can be useful but not, generally, other sciences. I would not dream of suggesting that the state influence the curriculum to produce better qualified people for the financial services sector. The point is that these decisions should not be taken by a Secretary of State whose ability to decide what skills today’s children will need in 40 years’ time is really rather limited.

Indeed, I guess I could sum up my whole argument by saying that we could just do with a bit of humility on the part of the political class.

Academic and Research Director, IEA

Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also Director of the Vinson Centre and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of (interim) Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. From 2002-2016, Philip was Academic and Research Director (previously, Editorial and Programme Director) at the IEA. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Previously, Philip Booth worked for the Bank of England as an adviser on financial stability issues and he was also Associate Dean of Cass Business School and held various other academic positions at City University. He has written widely, including a number of books, on investment, finance, social insurance and pensions as well as on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and economics. He is Deputy Editor of Economic Affairs. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and an honorary member of the Society of Actuaries of Poland. He has previously worked in the investment department of Axa Equity and Law and was been involved in a number of projects to help develop actuarial professions and actuarial, finance and investment professional teaching programmes in Central and Eastern Europe. Philip has a BA in Economics from the University of Durham and a PhD from City University.

1 thought on “Should the government control the curriculum?”

  1. Posted 05/07/2016 at 22:40 | Permalink

    The arrogance of public policy as dictated by the state instituted on a global basis for educational programming and mind control seems to have been the real driver for Julian Huxley’s UNESCO.
    Reading weblogs like At the Chalk Face one soon comes to the conclusion that it has become a nightmare kludge which inflicts incrementally increasing torture upon child prisoners, and that the prison guards themselves are entrapped in the execution of their roles. A survey of this idea might well start with the YouTube videos of Charlotte Iserbyt under the heading of ‘Dumbing Down’ which notes testing has replaced teaching ; and force feeding deliberately excessive amounts of irrelevancies and age inappropriate challenges serve to deter the hapless victim from accomplishing what would seem minimal goals of research as self gratification.
    Any comparison to what really should be happening is highlighted by the very existence of the TED site.

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