The criteria of formation of Statements Four and Five
The political context in which the Education Reform Bill was produced
Educational reform had been a priority for the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership following their 1979 General Election victory; they quickly enacted ‘five major pieces of legislation ... to improve the organisation and quality of education in maintained schools’.10 Manyof the policies contained therein can be traced back to New Right groupings (particularly the Hillgate Group, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the Centre for Policy Studies) which were beginning to exert more influence over the development of educational policy.11 Keith Joseph (Secretary of State for Education from 1981 to 1986) had been a key player in the development of the Conservative Party’s move in this direction, encouraging marketized neo-liberal approaches to state-run bodies including Education.
During Thatcher’s second term (1983-1987) a specific emphasis was put on increasing parental choice in children’s education, increasing independence of schools from Local Education Authorities, and increasing control over the curriculum.12 In 1984, Joseph disbanded the Schools Council (discussed in Chapter 3) considering it to be ‘plainly hostile to the department’.13 It was replaced by two bodies: the Secondary Examinations Council (SEC) and the School Curriculum Development Committee (SCDC), a move that significantly reduced the involvement of teachers in the development of the curriculum.
Kenneth Baker replaced Joseph at the DFE in May 1986. Charged with restoring confidence in the Conservatives’ ability to deliver educational reform, Baker continued in the direction that Joseph had set. The Next Move Forward (the Conservative Party Manifesto for the 1987 General Election) included a section ‘Raising Standards in Education’, providing a summary of ‘Four Major Reforms’, and setting out the requirement for new legislation.14 Prior to the General Election, Baker announced plans for new legislation to the recently created Education Select Committee in April 1987, rather than through the more conventional route of a Ministerial statement to the House of Commons. This might serve to support the claim made at the time that Baker was ‘more direct, less subtle, with an air of absolute certainty, a man not beset by any intellectual doubts as was his more thoughtful and philosophically-minded predecessor’.15
Religious Education and the Education Reform Bill 1987
The Education Reform Bill was one of the first pieces of legislation introduced to Parliament following the Conservatives’ third term General Election victory under Thatcher in June 1987. Incorporating many of the proposals originating from SOS: Save our Schools (produced in July 1986 by a right-wing group of Conservative MPs) and The Next Move Forward, the Bill was published in November 1987.16 There is wide agreement that it had been drafted hurriedly, with pressure to ensure that provisions were in place for the beginning of the school year starting September 1988.17 A number of consultation processes were quickly initiated; materials were published and circulated from mid-July (including The National Curriculum 5-16: A Consultation Document) with a deadline for responses of 30th September. Whether intentionally or not, such timing clearly militated against teacher responses. In combination with other attempts to reduce teacher influence in curriculum and policy development (mentioned above) it seems reasonable to conclude that the consultation was designed to promote minimal engagement from practitioners.
In relation to RE, The Consultation Document invited responses on ‘the proposed content of the legislation and on the other arrangements’.18 This document emphatically stated that ‘Religious education is already required by statute, and must continue to form an essential part of the curriculum’.19 This declaration requires further exploration than has hitherto been undertaken. A foil draft of the White Paper Better Schools, circulated in January 1985, included the statement ‘The place of religious education is governed by statute’, but a handwritten note adds to an earlier draft of the 1985 paper ‘and the Government does not intend to alter the relevant provisions’.20
Whilst the handwritten note here might suggest the addition of a newly adopted position on the matter, examination of the earlier Green Paper ( Parental Influence at School—A New Framework for School Government in England and Wales, 1984) reveals that this earlier document states that ‘religious education and worship at maintained schools is governed by statutory provisions in the Education Act 1944. The Government does not propose to disturb these arrangements.’21 Further, the Green Paper gives a rationale for this position, stating that ‘the Government does not intend to alter the basic structure of the dual system of county and voluntary schools which has served the country well since 1944?
This detailed comparison shows that the emphatic maintaining of the 1944 provisions pre-dated the 1987 Consultation document and that the handwritten note was a re-introduction of an existing notion that had been omitted from the drafting of the White Paper. Consequently, we can assert that the Government’s desire to resist change to the provisions governing RE date back to at least 1984. In the final, published, version of Better Schools, agreed by the Prime Minister in March 1985, the Government’s position was that23:
The place of religious education is governed by statute: the Government has no plans to propose changes in the provisions of the Education Act 1944 relating to religious education and collective worship in schools, provisions which have stood the test of time.24
The assertion that there were no plans to change the status quo, justified here by a claim that the existing provisions were effective (a claim that—as we will sec later—was only belatedly subjected to parliamentary scrutiny), suggests that the policy position had been arrived at deliberately, rather than by default or through passivity. This was the Government’s position at the first reading in the Commons on 20th November 1987.25
Baker tried to maintain the same position throughout the Bill’s journey through Parliament. The emphatic statement that ‘Religious education is already required by statute’ was repeated in the 1984 Green Paper and the 1985 White Paper, both of which were created under Joseph’s tenure. Baker repeated his predecessor’s position, as evident in the 1987 Consultation Document and—albeit with a slightly different phrasing—in the Bill itself.
After the 1987 Consultation responses, Baker’s line became more defensive. For example, the booklet Education Reform: The Government’s Proposals for Schools, prepared in November 1987, was insistent that:
Schools already have to provide religious education to all pupils in maintained schools, unless they arc withdrawn by their parents. The religious education provided must be in accordance with an agreed syllabus in county schools and with the trust deeds of voluntary schools. All this is laid down in the 1944 Education Act. So the position of religious education is already guaranteed.26
At the Second reading of the Bill, in December 1987, Baker emphasized that ‘clause 6 places a duty on heads, governors and local education authorities to ensure that religious education is provided. That is an advance upon the 1944 Act'. He added ‘It already has a statutory position. ... I have considerably strengthened the position of religious education as a compulsory subject and ensured that it will have to be taught and delivered’.27 The same emphatic resistance was articulated bluntly in a letter sent by Baker to all MPs in February 1988: ‘The Government believes that the 1944 Act got it right.’28
This brief survey of the circumstances in which Statements Four and Five were produced presents a picture of a policy context underpinned by a commitment to an ideologically-driven process of reforming education where the rhetoric was of de-centralization but the practice was of centralized control of education. The Education Reform Bill was only part of this process; earlier legislation had enshrined changes in school governance, the exercize of parental choice, and the reduction in the power and influence of local education authorities. Further, the locus of policy development was shifting from DES civil servants to increasingly influential New Right groupings within and beyond Parliament. Finally, the survey shows that there was a strong—possibly even entrenched—governmental rhetorical position that claimed to be satisfied with the prevailing legislative framework regarding RE and had no intention or desire to change the status quo with regard to the subject. The basis for this position is not quite clear, but it seems likely that the Government were keen to avoid any potential delays to the progress of the Bill through Parliament; the fear of religious debates that would be potentially divisive and time-consuming may be sufficient reason for the adherence to the stance they took.
All of this clearly set significant constraints on thinking; the strongly rooted right-wing ideology, combined with Baker’s repetition of a desire to maintain the 1944 settlement (both inherited from his predecessor) significantly curtailed the possibility of ‘new statements being made’ and other views being considered.