Making a Balls-up of education

As schools minister Ed Balls calls for lessons in emotional and economic wellbeing, it’s clear the Brown government is as philistine as the Blairites.

Frank Furedi

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Over the past 10 years, New Labour’s ministers for education and schools have been remarkably consistent. That is, they have consistently screwed up the school curriculum.

Those who thought that Estelle Morris (UK secretary of state for education and skills from 2001 to 2002) was as bad as it gets must now realise that dumbing down education is part of the job description for school ministers under New Labour. And it looks like Ed Balls, who has been appointed secretary of state for children, schools and families by new PM Gordon Brown, possesses a formidable skill for generating dumb ideas.

Balls’ first major initiative, announced last week, was to introduce the teaching of social and emotional skills to schoolchildren. Schools in England will get £13.7million in government funds to teach pupils manners, respect and good behaviour. So at a time when many children can barely spell ‘respect’, Balls reveals that lessons in emotional intelligence will be the driver of his education revolution.

Last week it was respect – this week it’s money-management. Balls has announced that, as part of an overhaul of the Key Stage 3 curriculum for older pupils, 11- to 16-year-olds will be introduced to a new subject: ‘economic wellbeing and financial capability’. Apparently Balls wants children to learn how to manage their money, since ‘money plays a crucial part in all our lives’; the aim is to ‘help youngsters to prepare for financial pressures after leaving school’ (1).

Tomorrow, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will unveil these reforms to the curriculum in full, as more and more worthy issues are recycled as academic subjects. For example, it is likely that there will be further tampering with the geography curriculum, to give it an even ‘greener interpretation’ and an ‘additional focus on climate change and recycling’ (2).

New Labour’s pick’n’mix approach to the curriculum is underpinned by a belief that education is far too important to be left to educators, their pupils and families. The government seems to believe that if only schools would teach children enough about sex education, emotional intelligence and respect, then problems like teenage pregnancy, crime and community corrosion might disappear.

They simply don’t understand that the best way to turn children into inspired and socially responsible citizens is to challenge them through real academic subjects.

You don’t need a degree from Harvard to know that a pupil who has grasped basic maths is likely to be better at handling money than a kid who got an A in ‘economic wellbeing and financial capability’. Decades of experience also show that citizenship classes do not produce brilliant citizens, that sex education does not reduce teenage sexual activity, and that emotional education has not given rise to a cohort of self-aware and confident young people. All that has happened as education has been instrumentalised by New Labour is that teachers and children have been distracted from engaging with the academic subjects that could take their classrooms forward and really prepare children for the future.

New Labour’s philistinism towards education can seem contradictory. Both the Blairites and now the Brownites have appeared to have ‘too little’ and ‘too much’ interest in education. They are not very interested in the content of basic subjects like maths, English and science – but they are excessively interested in constantly changing the curriculum to make it reflect the government’s policy agenda.

If I were a betting man, I would put my money on there being a further erosion of the important dividing line between education and the promotion of political values.

Frank Furedi is author most recently of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right published by Continuum. He wrote the introduction to The Corruption of the Curriculum, published last month by CIVITAS. Buy this book from Amazon(UK). Visit Frank Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi asked why teaching the pieties of environmentalism in schools is celebrated as ‘awareness raising’. David Perks explained how to get the buggers to behave. Shirley Lawes defended foreign languages as a field of knowledge in their own terms. Alex Standish said ‘children’s geography’ is pointless. Michele Ledda believed children need to be challenged. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) Children to get lessons in money – and debt, The Times (London), 9 July 2007

(2) Pupils to get lessons in money, BBC News, 9 July 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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