By NORMAN ST JOHN-STEVAS
Education has been much to the fore again this week with the publication of the fourth in the now famous series of Black Papers edited by Professor Cox and Dr Rhodes Boyson, MP, and on Friday another Member of Parliament, Mr William Shelton, is to introduce a private member's Bill to confer new legal rights on parents over the education of their children.
Whatever one may think of the contents of the Black Paper or of the provisions of Mr Shelton's Bill, they both reflect the anxieties of millions of parents about the state of our educational system and of the schooling which their children are receiving.
The Black Paper in particular offers a further challenge to the educational orthodoxies which for so long have held undisputed possession of the field and about which there is now widespread doubt.
I myself would not go along with all the proposals put forward in the Black Paper, hut I think it a healthy sign that there should be an alternative view on education and I hope it will lead to a general and intelligent debate.
Certainly there is not the slightest justification for the rather hysterical reaction of Mr Fred Jarvis, the secretarygeneral of the National Union of Teachers, who has denounced it as "an appalling document". When I reflect that when I launched the Conservative Parents' Charter at Stockport last year, the same Mr Jarvis denounced it as "the greatest cover-up since Watergate", I conclude that his comments are not always wholly rational.
The proposals in the Black Paper need to be calmly and rationally assessed and the violent scorn to which Mr Jarvis has resorted will only cause thinking people to suspect that he and those who speak like him have something to hide.
The Black Paper starts off from a philosphical standpoint which will be familiar and acceptable to many Catholics, with their theological commitment to the idea of original sin and their rejection of the illusion that salvation can come through wholly secular means.
"Children are not naturally good", says the Black Paper. "They need firm, tactful discipline from parents and teachers with clear standards. Too much freedom for children breeds selfishness. vandalism and personal unhappiness."
say "Amen" to that : that sentence is a distillation of the purest common sense.
From that basic premise the conclusions of the Black Paper all flow: and while I would reject some. many of them seem to me reasonable enough. First there is the proposal to hold national tests for children at the ages of 7, II and 14, which has aroused the fury not only of Mr Jarvis but of Mr Ernest Armstrong, the Under Secretary for Education as well.
To assess the value of these tests it is essential to appreciate what they are intended to do. They are not, as I understand it, to be used to select children for different types of education but to provide objective tests to assess achievement in individual schools and to supply goals at which teachers and their pupils can aim.
One of the beneficial sideeffects of the old 11-plus examination was precisely to give the head teachers of secondary schools some idea of the standards achieved by the pupils they were about to receive, and to give the country in general some hard information about what was actually going on in primary schools.
With the passing of the I 1plus a vacuum has been left, which is why I have been advocating for some time the reintroduction of national examinations in literacy and numeracy. The examinations put forward by the editors of the Black Paper are similarly motivated.
1 must, however, register one point of disagreement and that IS with the suggestion that children should be allowed to leave school immediately if they pass the test proposed at 14. I believe' that the principle of educating children to the age of 16 is right.
It should certainly be made more flexible in application, but that is a long way from the drastic proposal put forward by Dr Rhodes Boyson of reducing it to 14. What I would like to see first of all is children allowed to leave school immediately after taking their final examination. At present they may be kept hanging around for months, causing trouble for themselves and everyone else and merely waiting for an examination result.
Second, I think the principle at stake is education to 16 and not merely schooling to 16. I would then be quite happy to see apprenticeships taken up at 15 provided that further education was involved.
In the same way I cannot see any objection to children going on to a technical college or a college of further education at 15 years of age. Again, if they wish to join the Armed Services, which have excellent educational facilities, they should be allowed to do so.
Third, 1 wholeheartedly agree with the view of the Black Paper, as expressed by Miss Iris Murdoch, a Socialist, that grammar, comprehensive and other types of school should be allowed to coexist together. It is far too early to proclaim dogmatically that there should be only one type of school for every type of child.
And how right the paper is in saying that without selection the clever working-class child stands little chance of a real academic education. Deprived of the grammar school outlet the only alternative is the neighbourhood comprehensive.
Parents may soon, however, be in a stronger position to put things right if Mr Shelton's Bill reaches the Statute Book.
It lays down that their wishes must be respected in the choice of education for their children: it provides for appeal boards to which dissatisfied parents can have recourse: it lays a duty on local authorities to see that proper methods of consultation exist between parents and teachers, directs that parents with children at a school should be elected to the governing body and provides for the publication of prospectuses to give parents information about all local schools.
This would be parent power indeed, and I wish the Bill all success.