Knowing stuff makes a comeback

Michael Gove’s new national curriculum elevates knowledge over skills. About time.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams
Columnist

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‘Five-year-olds to be taught fractions!’ The collective voice of Outraged of Twittersphere seethed even before the publication late last Monday of the draft national curriculum review, which set out what children in England should learn at school. By mid-morning, neutral observers could have been forgiven for thinking UK education secretary Michael Gove was set to announce the routine flogging of children instead of what topics to be taught. Then, in the afternoon, word got round that five-year-olds are taught fractions already – under the curriculum instigated by the previous Labour government. Panic over. Yet, by the end of the week, the alarmism returned: ‘New national curriculum abolishes childhood’, declared one professor of education.

This debacle over the teaching of fractions illustrates the mess commentators get themselves into when blindly opposing anything Gove says just because it’s the done thing. Dig deeper, though, and there’s something else underpinning this current educational hot potato: a sense of unease over the idea of having any kind of national curriculum at all.

While the exact nature of the national curriculum has been a source of debate ever since its introduction as part of the 1988 Education Reform Act, there had generally been some agreement that the idea of a national curriculum was a good thing. But this idea has become unfashionable. Admittedly, there is much to criticise in both the idea and the detail of the current curriculum. There is also no reason why government ministers should be the best people to determine what gets taught in schools. However, the nature of criticisms currently levelled against the curriculum should make those who care about education uneasy.

There are three aspects to the prevailing antipathy towards the national curriculum. First, having a national curriculum assumes knowledge is central to the project of education, and that the role of the teacher is to impart this knowledge. And today’s received wisdom among educationalists insists that teachers should focus less on imparting knowledge and more on cultivating children’s skills. This could be anything from literacy and numeracy skills; ‘learning to learn’; or personal and social skills. Skills are considered more transferable, more relevant and less likely to date than knowledge.

Secondly, determining the content of a national curriculum requires discrimination, the judgement, that is, that some subjects are more worthy of inclusion than others. At a time when knowledge is seen not as an end in itself but as a vehicle for promoting values or inculcating skills, then all content becomes relative. If the aim is to teach literacy skills rather than an appreciation of great literature, it doesn’t matter whether children read Stephenie Meyer or Shakespeare. The privileging of content has come to be seen as a highly political act, as debates around the teaching of history and geography demonstrate.

Thirdly, a national curriculum assumes that children are able to learn at a reasonably similar rate to their peers, and can be expected to master particular topics within a certain timeframe in order to move on to more complex knowledge at a later date. This assumption of a ‘normal’ rate of educational progress has been criticised by teachers’ unions for excluding ‘lower-attaining children’ and the 20 per cent of UK children registered as having special educational needs. Expecting children to work hard and perhaps even struggle with a subject runs counter to the prevailing wisdom that boosting a child’s self-esteem and protecting their wellbeing should be goals of education. No wonder some think teaching something difficult like fractions will not just challenge children, but abolish childhood.

It seems that teachers and their leaders share in today’s society-wide reluctance to discriminate and determine what children should know. At the same time, teachers have become increasingly humble about their ability to educate: it is widely assumed that what happens to children at home, often long before they even reach school-age, will determine their educational success far more than any one teacher. I believe that to the extent that having a national curriculum represents a conviction that there is a body of knowledge worth passing on to the next generation, and that every child is capable of successfully mastering this knowledge, it should be celebrated.

While there are serious problems with the national curriculum, the conviction that knowledge is worth passing on, and that all children are capable of mastering it, is not one of them. The difficulty is that successive governments have devalued the national curriculum by using it to answer an array of social problems, from teenage pregnancy and political disengagement, to drug-taking and cyber-bullying. So when campaigners and charity workers want their pet issue to be taken seriously, there is a tendency to try to have it included in the curriculum. There are currently campaigns to have mental health and financial education taught in schools. Schools can sign up to become a ‘Fair Trade School‘, a ‘Healthy School’ or an ‘Eco-School’. This leads to confusion over whether the role of a school is to teach knowledge or propagate values, which then plays itself out in the confusion over what should be in the curriculum. For example, Gove’s much-criticised and now much-altered history curriculum is still charged with not teaching children sufficiently about equity issues or about their place within the European Union.

An overloaded and politically charged national curriculum is a problem. It exposes children to whatever values are currently in vogue, not to what is worth knowing. Gove’s proposed reforms go some way towards redressing the balance by reintroducing an emphasis on subject knowledge and academic rigour into the school curriculum. He clearly has high expectations of pupils and their teachers, and this is to be welcomed.

The proposal to introduce more stringent tests for 11-year-olds and to rank their performance in comparison with their peer group is another attempt to raise standards. It’s a pretty instrumental, target-driven way of going about things and the assumption of competition has again upset the teachers’ unions. But the bigger cause of upset should surely be the low expectations fostered by the current curriculum. Education should be challenging, stimulating and exciting for all children. This requires teachers to have high standards and expect children to perform at their best. Ranking them may or may not achieve this, but more challenging tests are a step in the right direction. Both are surely an improvement upon the soul-crushingly dull and repetitive tests children currently sit. It is unfortunate that it is left to government ministers to champion the importance of knowledge and academic aspirations.

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).)

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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