Let’s take a look at the aims of the new National Curriculum.
3.1 The National Curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.
3.2 The National Curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the National Curriculum specifications. The National Curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons.
For various reasons, we would like to say that we would be questioning these statements irrespective of the political party that wrote them.
What exactly does an “educated citizen” look like? Would it look anything like an undergraduate in a University Challenge team who has excelled at GCSE and A-Levels and is studying at University? Or would an “educated citizen” be someone who knows that the River Avon flows through Stratford (in Warwickshire), or that there were two Boer Wars, the first of which was from 1880 – 1881? Or would an “educated citizen” have the skills to look these facts up on a computer – like we’ve just done? Maybe an “educated citizen” is someone who knows how to talk to people constructively, who is polite, courteous and thoughtful and is “educated” in the effective use of “life skills”. We ask again, what exactly is an educated citizen? Surely this is subjective.
“It [the National Curriculum] introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said”. Again, on who’s judgment is something the “best”? Michael Gove thinks that children should be reciting 18th Century poetry. Is that better and more applicable and relevant to young people than, say the works of Bob Dylan or Stieg Larsson, author of the hugely successful “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy? What of philosophy? Are we saying that, due to their exclusion from the National Curriculum, the thoughts of Confucius or Lao Tzu are not as good as the thoughts of western philosophers? Are we not concerned with the cultural revolution in China because it’s never going to be relevant to our children and young people? Do we want to ignore people who have given us so much – like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama – because they’re not English?
All of these people have thought and said many great and valuable things – arguably but subjectively we could say they are amongst the best.
Here’s a good piece of news. We like the idea of a National Curriculum engendering an “appreciation of human creativity and achievement” but again, we’d like schools to be able to decide what is best and most relevant for their children and young people to study. Are all English children really going to appreciate human creativity and achievement through reciting Dryden and Alexander Pope? Really?
The final statement of the aim of the National Curriculum is positive. It enables schools to consider what they are going to teach that falls outside the National Curriculum. This all sounds really hopeful. It implies that schools will be free to choose additional aspects that are relevant to their children to include in their published curriculum but once more there are two issues that we would like to consider here.
Firstly, it says that the curriculum “provides an outline of core knowledge”. Any teacher worth their salt will tell you that knowledge is only one aspect of learning. The development of skills and attitudes are equally important. Valuing the knowledge and being able to use the knowledge is something else. What is the point of having a GCSE in maths if you can’t work out how much paint you need to paint a wall – if you can’t put the knowledge into real life situations because you haven’t been equipped to do so? We know that Mr Gove is concerned about this too but knowledge in itself is clearly not enough.
Secondly, although schools are to be given the freedom to teach what they want outside the constraints of the National Curriculum, you can bet your life that if they have been given a “notice to improve” or are in “special measures”, according to Ofsted criteria, they will be forced to concentrate on the narrowed focus of the National Curriculum. Whether Mr Gove agrees or not, you will have situations where schools look at league tables, which are still going to be significant in the eyes of many, and will decide that they have to “drop” the potentially exciting and invigorating learning in order to keep the department at bay who are aiming to make their “failing school” into an academy.
This isn’t just a hypothetical dystopia. This is happening, and has been happening for years. If Mr Gove truly wants to free people in schools to provide an exciting, challenging, broad and balanced curriculum, then he really must look at the divisive and destructive nature of league tables and how they have distorted and, in some cases, destroyed positive learning in this country. Of course, the other factor is that examinations will be based on the National Curriculum and not a curriculum chosen by the school. So which one is going to get more concentration?
We are more than happy for there to be a guiding programme of work through a National Curriculum, but it really ought to be a guidance document and not enforced with its subjective “best thoughts” and its ideas on what actually constitutes an “educated citizen”.
Instead, we would ask a question of every school, a question similar to one that both Lisa Nandy and Fiona Millar asked at a recent Fabian Society event. When you are developing a curriculum, ask yourselves the question – what would an “educated” (not schooled) 18 year old look like? Would they merely be stuffed full of knowledge with a handful of qualifications to prove that they remembered some important facts and recalled them in examinations? Or would a truly educated 18 year old have other skills and a set of values that is important to themselves and for society?
We asked recently, what is education for? Before anyone responds to this curriculum consultation, ask that question very carefully. Think of your own children, your own grandchildren. Think of the global society. Look at other countries and see what they are doing. Consider whether this document really does offer a broad and balanced curriculum. Think about whether it in any way promotes the wellbeing of the pupils. If it does, then fine. If it doesn’t, then we really need to think again.