It’s time to end this phoney education war

The start of a new school year in the UK promises far more to look forward to than just the delicious blank-paged expectation of new exercise books. Months from now, as teachers and pupils begin to gear up for the next exam season, the General Election will be underway, and despite prime minister David Cameron’s obvious wishes, education will inevitably be a key battleground.

In the recent Cabinet reshuffle, the controversial Michael Gove was replaced as education secretary by Nicky Morgan, whose chief qualification for the role appears to be her lack of public profile. Cameron clearly doesn’t want to upset teachers or parents in this important election year. But with the implementation of Gove’s reforms, in particular the introduction of his new ‘more challenging’ curriculum to children of all age groups, opposition between teachers’ unions on the one hand and the Department for Education on the other, shows few signs of abating. Despite the spectacular bluster and seemingly entrenched positions in education debates, the fuss around the new curriculum shows that the unions and the DfE have far more in common than they ever publicly acknowledge.

From this week, school children aged five to 14 will be expected to get to grips with more difficult material and at a younger age than in the recent past. While some teachers have been up in arms at the prospect of having to teach fractions to five-year-olds and whole Shakespeare plays to recalcitrant teens, the DfE has defended the latest round of reforms, claiming they will help to ‘ensure every child leaves school prepared for life in modern Britain’. So, alongside more Shakespeare, spelling and history, children will be expected to master computer programming, problem solving and mathematical modelling. The teachers’ unions are complaining that too many changes are being implemented in one go, and that their members have not had time to assimilate the new requirements. This adds to their previous vocal opposition to a curriculum they wrote-off as too prescriptive, too difficult, elitist, and irrelevant to the lives of most pupils.

Gove’s reforms at least have the redeeming feature of a modicum of aspiration and ambition. The desperately low expectations of pupils which the unions convey unhelpfully condemns working-class children in particular to an impoverished educational experience. However, underlying the supposed debate we can see that while Cameron and Co want school to be more relevant to the world of work, the teachers’ unions want it to be appropriate to the social circumstances of pupils’ lives. One side want a curriculum that is economically relevant, while the other wants a curriculum that’s culturally relevant. For a real debate about education in this election year, we need to move away from such unhelpful false dichotomies. The real battle lines are between those who think education should provide all children with access to the best that has been thought and said and those who wish to restrict children to that which is deemed relevant to their lives - economically or culturally.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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