Thursday 20 January 2011

The chance to get the curriculum right

Michael Gove has finally launched his curriculum review today. It is a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, the education secretary is keen to promote greater freedoms for schools, with more academies and free schools. For many schools converting to academy status, the freedoms in the curriculum are an important incentive. On the other, he clearly believes that there is a body of knowledge that every young person should experience during their school days.

I find myself similarly conflicted in this debate, as a supporter of academies and someone who has seen the benefits of a more imaginative skills-led curriculum, provided it is anchored in a strong core of knowledge. Which is why Gove is right to present his proposals as benchmarks rather than a prescriptive core. The truth is that the national curriculum has always been a difficult balancing act. I worked with David Blunkett in the 2000 curriculum review when he battled to keep locational geography, key historical figures and leading Victorian authors on the secondary curriculum. The reduction in prescription that followed the more recent curriculum review arguably went too far in diminishing the entitlement to such knowledge.

For many young people, school is the only time they will experience Shakespeare or Dickens, and learn about the extraordinary history of Britain and the wider world. It is a chance to acquire a basic understanding of how the world works, and where places are located. It should be an introduction, too, to our democracy and to an understanding of scientific concepts that are a part of our everyday discourse and debate. Between the ages of 7 and 14 there should be some basic knowledge that any educated youngster should have. That knowledge will be different today from what might have been taught 25 years ago, and Gove should say so. At the same time, it is no good saying that as adults, they can look things up on the Internet: without that core, it is impossible to separate the online wheat from the chaff.

Equally, I think the last curriculum review went too far in spelling out non-academic subjects, but there are important skills and attributes that schools can and should teach. I personally worked to get cooking on the curriculum, as what was taught in design and technology would leave children none the wiser in a real kitchen. Equally, there are attributes like communication, research skills and teamwork that should be expected in schools without prescription.

The real difficulty arises after 14. Kenneth Baker's University Technical Colleges will want to teach a different curriculum from a traditional academically inclined comprehensive or grammar school. Academies serving our most disadvantaged areas succeed because they have the flexibility to mix the academic and the vocational. It was not because she despised languages that Estelle Morris removed post-14 prescription, it was because she believed learning should start sooner and that schools needed that flexibility beyond 14. The English Bac will reward schools that teach languages and history or geography as standard through to 16. But many of our best heads can tell Gove that there are also many bright technically-minded students for whom a Tech Bac - with English, Maths and Science + two technology/technical GCSEs - would be more appropriate.

If this curriculum review simply reinforces the EBacc straightjacket, it will be a retrograde step. But if it focuses on getting a consensus on the body of knowledge that a well educated young person should know by 14, and allowing a sensible and rigorous flexibility beyond that, it could prove an important educational step forward.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

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