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.