Thursday, 29 May 2014

Cultural capital in the core curriculum

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I argue that there are important social mobility implications surrounding what children study in the core curriculum, in the wake of the Of Mice and Men Twitter storm.

Of Mice and Men may not be quite flavour of the month, but To Kill A Mockingbird certainly has the imprimatur of the Education Secretary. Michael Gove hit back on Monday after a Bank Holiday weekend Twitter storm denounced the supposed banning of Arthur Miller in favour of a British and Irish literary canon.

The facts of the case are murky: the Secretary of State has upped the compulsion on the study of British and Irish authors, so exam boards are apparently interpreting this as meaning that the greats of American literature that have been a staple of English classrooms are no longer an essential part of their GCSE syllabus.

This isn’t the first time such debates have occurred. But they still have important implications for the cause of social mobility and educational equality. Having a breadth of cultural knowledge and awareness is an important part of success in later life and engaging with the networks where power resides.

When I worked with David Blunkett during an earlier National Curriculum review there were voices arguing in favour of dropping compulsory Shakespeare and ending a requirement that all students should read at least one significant pre-1900 work of fiction. We resisted their siren call.

The rationale for doing so is clear. Despite the supposed homogeneity of our tech-obsessed lives, there remains a significant access gap when it comes to works of great literature, drama and poetry. For many young people, their primary access to their literary heritage – and a global canon of great writing - will be at school, and often before the age of 14. So it is right that there should be a clear entitlement to such access, just as there are fundamentals of history, geography, science and art where school is the gatekeeper to such knowledge.

This is not to say we need wholesale to adopt the philosophy of E.D. Hirsch or still more his Amero-centric fact lists, but it is to say that it does matter that we have a core curriculum and an expectation  that every young person will have a basic entitlement to cultural knowledge as well English, Maths and Science.

There is, of course, a counter argument. Some say that the accumulation of knowledge and facts is rather less important than the acquisition of skills – learning to research, knowing how to study, the ability to communicate well, working in teams. The Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit rates meta-cognition, sometimes called ‘learning to learn’ – in plain terms, study skills – among the highest scoring interventions for raising attainment.

But I have always thought this to be an artificial divide. Without some basic knowledge, Google is an unholy mix of the irrelevant, the interesting and the positively ill-informed. Knowing what is likely to be correct is an important part of assessing the relevant over the ridiculous. A false dichotomy between knowledge and skills has emerged.

Yet it must equally be the case that learning such important skills through the curriculum is important. It is no good getting to university and finding oneself with hours of time intended for independent learning when you don’t know how to use that time as effectively as possible. This is not to excuse the dearth of contact time increasingly complained about but to note that the absence of such skills makes it far harder to make the most of university life.

As the former Chief Inspector of Schools, Christine Gilbert, made clear in her seminal review of personalised learning nearly a decade ago, personalised learning, which is particularly important for disadvantaged pupils, “should involve a broad and rich curriculum that takes account of prior learning and experiences and helps pupils to develop the full range of knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes.”

That seems the right balance in a debate too often needlessly polarised. That’s why this weekend’s controversy highlights an issue about the curriculum – and the syllabuses of our competing exam boards – that is more important than the literary merits of John Steinbeck or Harper Lee. The National Curriculum should not simply be the preserve of whoever happens to be in power at the time of its revision. But nor should it be left to ‘independent experts’ whose instincts may be to strip the masters for modernity.

We need to have a proper mix of politicians of all parties, headteachers and subject specialists whose role is to decide on the subject matter of the curriculum and to reach consensus in doing so. It should not really be for David Blunkett or Michael Gove to decide the preferred authors in the curriculum, based on their personal prejudices or preferences.

Yet, whoever takes on responsibility for the curriculum should remember the fundamental responsibility they have to ensure that the next generation has access to a breadth of knowledge and skills that gives them the cultural capital that is as important to social mobility as good exam results

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