Do old-style subjects deaden young minds?
The call for a new primary curriculum has met predictable opposition. But it is in a fine tradition of progressive thinking
I smiled to myself when reading our account of the latest interim report on primary school teaching yesterday. I was imagining a low rumble somewhere in Gloucestershire, gradually becoming an expostulation and then transforming itself into an inky missive, dispatched furiously in the direction of His Mother's ministers. Was anything more likely to provoke the heir to the throne to create one of his “black spiders” than the apparently untraditional approach to 5-11 education in England being offered by Sir Jim Rose, with the initial blessing of the Government?
A leading primary school head teacher, David Fann, supported Sir Jim in hernia-inducing terms. Children “do not need to know lots of dates. They can look up information on Google and store it on their mobile phones,” said Mr Fann, when what all good reactionaries know is that youngsters (prior to national service) should have their mobile phones confiscated forthwith. My middle daughter told me at the weekend that some of her friends use those high-pitched “mosquito” sounds - supposedly teen repellents - as their ring-tones, so that they can take calls in class without their teachers knowing. Talk about unintended consequences.
“The days of teachers,” continued Mr Fann, “barking out facts are long gone. Our job is to prepare children so that they can access information and knowledge in the modern world...” Exactly the thinking that has turned the Church of England into a soup of bisexual agnosticism.
The former inspector is removing every subject from the curriculum, and suggesting six broad areas within which learning should take place. They are: understanding English, communication and languages (which led to a slightly sniffy BBC reporter referring to, ho-ho, “learning French as part of English”); mathematical understanding; scientific and technological understanding; human, social and environmental understanding; understanding physical health and wellbeing; and understanding arts and design.
Sir Jim is also recommending that information technology competence should become the fourth “R”, regarded - alongside literacy and numeracy - as an essential skill, which, of course, it is to everyone except those who think that things started going downhill when they translated the Bible into English.
To prove it, I decided to find out something about the history of curricular discussions before the 1990s. This led me, search by search, to Derek Gillard's Education in England website (dg.dial.pipex.com). There I discovered Sir Henry Wotton arguing, in an essay of 1672 entitled Of the Education of Children, that Latin, Greek and Hebrew were the essentials of a good curriculum since the three languages combined “both the perfection of learning as well as philology and philosophy and the principal streams and rivers thereof”. Wotton's certainty reminded me of Michael Gove's slightly uncharacteristic dogmatism in condemning Sir Jim's report as a “throwback to the Sixties” and that, “the move away from traditional subject areas will lead to a further erosion of standards”.
You know what the Shadow Education Secretary is getting at. There was a fashion, in the old untested days of the 1970s, for doing too much through ad hoc projects and topics, under the guise of teaching in a way that was “relevant” to the lives of children. The result was no one learnt anything. The introduction of strict guidelines on the need to teach literacy and numeracy were an important antidote to the excesses of this period. But that is not at all the same thing as saying that we should continue to teach in the self-same subject areas as I was taught 45 years ago.
And my curriculum was, essentially, the same as that laid down by the Board of Education in 1921. There was much in there that wasn't valuable and that was quickly forgotten.
In the same way this one debate, I discovered from Derek Gillard's site, has remained constant: that between “pure” and “applied” learning. Thomas Arnold of Rugby believed that his job was not imparting information to his charges per se, but to help them get it later on, and to turn it to their account, once gained.
In 1931 the Hadow Report looked into the curriculum for English primary schools. It concluded, in Roseian terms, that “we must recognise the uselessness and the danger of seeking to inculcate inert ideas - that is, ideas which at the time when they are imparted have no bearing upon a child's natural activities of body or mind and do nothing to illuminate or guide his experience”. The report argued that “while there is plenty of teaching which is good in the abstract, there is too little which helps children directly to strengthen and enlarge their instinctive hold on the conditions of life by enriching, illuminating and giving point to their growing experience”.
Now, the problem is somewhat different today, in the sense that the best primary schools probably already do much of what Sir Jim is suggesting, effectively cutting free from subject-based prescription. It's the others - possibly intimidated, possibly too hidebound - who may seek shelter behind the covering of all subject bases, rather than deepening the cognitive skills of their pupils. It is, after all, what we know.
But as I looked through the Rose report, the more I became convinced that we should, at the very least, have a big discussion about how our educational needs and knowledge have developed in the past 20 years.
This made me all the more alarmed at the conservative philistinism of some of the responses. The knee-jerk Lib-Dem piece of populism from David Laws that “the last thing primary education needs is more messing around with the curriculum” was unworthy of anyone aspiring to run an education system. Even if you have no chance of power, you have to do better than that.
Even so, there is a huge psychological problem to overcome. Naturally, we can't be surprised that officers of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Geographical Society, as well as specialist teachers in secondary schools, are nervous about these proposals, sensitive as they are to any idea of their subjects being downgraded. Perhaps they could be reassured. But as Hadow recognised nearly 80 years ago: “No teacher can do his best work with a new method until he has welded it on to his educational faith and has coloured it with part of his personality.” As we were brought up in the language of subjects, versed in the taxonomy of history, geography and mathematics, wielding and feeling our allegiances like football club supporters, it is very hard to imagine something else, even if only for the under-11s.
As Sam Cooke didn't sing: “Don't know much about human, social and environmental understanding, don't much about no scientific and technological understanding, but I do know about understanding physical health and wellbeing, and if you know about it too, what a wonderful world this would be.”
Please, sir, what's history?
Dec 11th 2008
From The Economist print edition
A missed chance to make hard choices about what children should learn
IF YOU are in your 40s and British, it is quite possible that your spelling is an embarrassment. You may never have been taught the distinction between “there”, “their” and “they’re”, or perhaps even your times tables. If you moved house during your primary years you may have entirely missed some vital topic—joined-up writing, say. And you may have struggled to learn to read using the “initial teaching alphabet”, a concoction of 40 letters that was supposed to provide a stepping stone to literacy but tripped up many children when they had to switch to the standard 26.
Those days of swivel-eyed theorising and untrammelled experimentation—or, as the schools inspectorate put it at the time, “markedly individual decisions about what is to be taught”—ended in 1988 with the introduction of a national curriculum. But though that brought rigour and uniformity, it also created an unwieldy—and unworldly—blueprint for the Renaissance Child. Schools have struggled to fit it all in ever since. Now, 20 years later, the primary curriculum is to be cut down.
In January the government commissioned Sir Jim Rose, a former chief inspector of primary schools, to trim ten existing required subjects to give extra space to computing skills and to accommodate two new compulsory subjects: a foreign language and the now-optional “personal, social, health and economic education” (eating fruit and veg, refraining from hitting one’s classmates and much more). On December 8th he published his interim report—and many fear that, as well as losing fat, education will see a lot of meat go too.
Sir Jim proposes merging the subjects into six “learning areas”. History and geography will become “human, social and environmental understanding”; reading, writing and foreign languages, “understanding English, communication and languages”. Physical education, some bits of science and various odds and ends will merge into “understanding physical health and well-being”, and so on. His plan would “reduce prescription”, he says, and, far from downgrading important ideas, “embed and intensify [them] to better effect in cross-curricular studies”.
Learned societies are livid. “An erosion of specialist knowledge,” harrumphs the Royal Historical Society; its geographical counterpart is worried about “losing rigour and the teaching of basics”. Even those with no brief for a particular subject are concerned. Pouring 12 subjects into six “learning areas” is not the same as slimming down; if the curriculum is to become more digestible something must be lost, and just what is being glossed over. “Wouldn’t it be better to address the question of subjects directly—which ones, for how long and what to specify?” asks Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University.
One answer is that making hard choices openly would provoke complaints that the curriculum was being dumbed down. Attempts to cut it outright would run counter to powerful forces, as politicians look to schools to solve myriad social ills—from obesity to teenage pregnancy to low turnout in elections—and to pick up the slack left by poor parenting. But Sir Jim’s prescription indicates more than the difficulty of his job. He has been asked to solve tricky educational conundrums before and, every time, he has managed to catch the prevailing political wind.
In 2006 he reviewed reading tuition, and plumped for the back-to-basics “synthetic phonics”—to the delight of a government already mustard-keen on the method. In 1999 he answered “no” to the charge that rising exam results were a sign of less exacting exams rather than of better teaching. In 1991 the Tory government of the day was equally thrilled to be told that primary education had become too progressive.
This time, too, Sir Jim has captured the Zeitgeist. Synthesis and cross-cutting are once more fashionable in educational circles: since July 2007 England’s schools have been overseen not by an education ministry but by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which is responsible for pretty much everything to do with young people, from health to criminal justice to learning. (The three other bits of the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—go their own way on education.) Primary schools were turning away from discrete subjects even before he pronounced: a 2007 survey found a third taught mostly “themed” lessons; another 40% were planning to do so soon. Another recent review, this time of what 11-14-year-olds should learn, also plumped for more cross-curricular learning.
Many countries’ curriculums consist of high-flown descriptions of the paragonic citizens that education is meant to help produce, couched in impenetrable educationalese. But alongside are usually some hard facts: which textbooks to use and how many hours to devote to each topic, for example. England’s lacks such a crib sheet. Schools can choose their own texts, even write their own, and apportion the school day as they please. Exams come in competing varieties from independent exam boards that must, like teachers, read between the lines to figure out what is meant to have been taught. That leaves England particularly exposed to the consequences of curricular woolliness.
Despite seeming vague, though, national curriculums do often encapsulate some aspect of national ideals. France’s is explicit about the primacy of la belle langue; Sweden’s elevates equality above all other virtues; Japan’s, love of country. That these match stereotypes so well suggests that they capture a national spirit, or create it, or a bit of both—and raises a worrying question for anyone looking at England’s proposed mishmash of a new curriculum.