Education, Consultation and Frustration

It is right that every member of society should care about the content of the national curriculum, not only because it helps to define the ambitions that we set for our young people, but because of what it says about the knowledge that we, as a society, think it is essential that we should pass down from one generation to the next.

Finally, Michael Gove says something I agree with. And in public, too. With 17,000 separate responses from teachers, unions, institutions, authorities, young people, employers and subject associations responding to the consultation on his deranged National Curriculum proposals, it seems like the UK agrees. And now we’re at the point where the Department for Education has taken our views, listened to them and presented its shiny new, updated, democratic alternatives.

If you haven’t already seen the new proposals, the Huffington Post has a great summary here. The headlines are pretty dramatic – children will start learning fractions at the age of five instead of seven and will know their 12 times table by nine. ICT will be replaced by Computing, which in turn will teach children to write and develop programs from as early as five. Evolution will be taught in primary schools. Pupils will learn a foreign language from seven.

Not everything in the new curriculum is bad. Teaching a programming language is a bloody good idea, especially since we’re already desperately short of IT talent both in the UK and Europe as a whole. If we expect pupils to learn a language well, they need to start as early as possible – ideally even younger than seven, if it’s done in a structured but simple manner. God knows I’m not going to complain about emphasising grammar and spelling, nor the basic principle that pupils should study literature from different periods including poetry, prose and drama.

But does anyone know how we’re going to teach all this? Primary schools will suffer the most. Taking a large (often too large) group of mixed ability children and teaching them every single subject, albeit to a fairly simple level, is already hard work. But it’s safe to say very few primary teachers are masters of code: with IT skills so thin on the ground, schools can’t pay enough to compete for Computer Science graduates. Similarly, a sizeable number of educators don’t speak a foreign language.

Above all, the whole thing just stinks of too much, too young. I can’t say I’m surprised that most of the experts who spoke to the BBC agreed that the new proposals are “beginning to exceed the personal and developmental capacity of children who are five and six years old”. I know I’ve always been better with words than numbers, but as a bright kid who worked hard and loved to learn I honestly think I’d have struggled. Who knows how less able kids will manage – and if they hit a wall, the sense of frustration and failure will be all the more debilitating.

The same is true of history which, because it consists of narratives, is also the perfect vehicle for drumming ideology into the minds of the young. Having accepted that teaching the whole of British history in chronological order up to the Act of Union by the end of primary school may be a tad ambitious, Gove has eased off a little. Instead, children will now learn from the Stone Age up to 1066 over the same period, with a single aspect or theme in British history from a later period. Ancient Greece will also be compulsory, as will “a non European society that provides contrast with British history”.

The big problem is the one politicians refuse to touch. I’ve written about it elsewhere so I won’t repeat myself, but the fundamental issue is that the Department for Education fails to understand the nature of history. It will still be taught in chronological order as a single, unified narrative – and when pupils get to secondary school, they’ll get a thousand years of Our Island Story. It’s dangerous, ideologically loaded, and breeds far too narrow a sense of national identity. Our children deserve better than that.

I foster a suspicion that English is being used to the same end. Secondary school pupils will need to read at least two Shakespeare plays, as well as studying two authors in depth every year. I hope there’ll be some scope to broaden that, because two writers plus Shakespeare is pretty restrictive. But the sudden emphasis on reading two full plays by the Bard, rather than one and then another play by another dramatist? Shakespeare’s status as ‘England’s greatest writer’ in the romanticised ‘golden age of Gloriana’ surely can’t be unrelated.

This is the information that Gove wants passed down generations. He wants technical skills taught in excessive depth early on and the arts reduced to an accepted version of ‘truth’, fostering an acute Anglocentrism which could prove damaging in a globalised world. This is the society Gove imagines – we compete in the world marketplace, but we lose so much more.

We constantly hear about how the UK’s education system lags behind the rest of the world. Gove has clearly worked hard to make courses more difficult and breed proper little patriots – but in the process, he seems to have forgotten the children. If he’d ever done a day’s teaching in his life, he’d know that’s the biggest mistake you can make.

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