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Turning the clock back to subject slavery

Comment | Published in TES Newspaper on 5 February, 2010 | By: John White

The Conservatives' views on the kind of education that will hold pupils in good stead are too narrow

The Conservatives talked tough about the school curriculum in their recently launched draft education manifesto. But does their case stand up?

The manifesto calls for a rigorous, more challenging national curriculum. This reflects Michael Gove's infatuation with discrete school subjects, as compared with other ways of organising learning. So does the manifesto's statement that the primary curriculum will be "organised around subjects like maths, science and history".

Mr Gove, like Ken Baker two decades ago, owes everything to the subject-structured, knowledge-rich, grammar school education he himself received. It enabled the unprivileged Aberdeen lad he was, in his own words, "to shape my own destiny". In Mr Gove's view, the whole nation, especially its poorest stratum, deserves nothing less.

This is noble stuff, but more rigid than rigorous. As Mr Gove's argument implies, the traditional curriculum is not self-justifying. It serves, in his view, wider aims - not only personal destiny-shaping, but also social cohesion and the strengthening of democracy. I go with him all the way on these as purposes that should underlie school education. But few aims in life dictate just one means of realising them. Normally, we think more flexibly, more intelligently.

Not so Mr Gove. For him, there is only one vehicle to get us to these destinations: the traditional school subject. He sets his face against everything else. Cross-curricular teaching is out. Projects and themes are anathemas. The primary curriculum is to shun the Rose report's regrouping of subjects into wider "areas of learning". "Subjects like maths, science and history" are the only way of moving forward.

Mr Gove labels those who advocate greater flexibility "progressives". These are his enemy. They are part of the spreading, amoeba-like "blob" that constitutes the educational establishment. It is they who have, since 1997, worsened the life-chances of the underprivileged by depriving them of a traditional education. It is these followers of Rousseau who want to leave children "free to discover at their own pace, to follow their own hearts", who see subjects as "a form of petty tyranny", and the acquisition of facts as "an outdated prejudice". What has united the followers of this ideology "has been hostility towards traditional, academic, fact-rich, knowledge-centred, subject-based, teacher-led education".

This is another piece of high-flown Govery - but more rhetorical than right. Just because you believe that subjects are not the only way of filling a timetable, you don't have to think children should be left free to discover things on their own. You can be all for teacher-directedness. Just because you believe that subjects are not the only vehicles, you don't have to see them as petty tyranny. You can be all for subject-teaching in some circumstances, and themes or projects in others.

It's a pity that the schooling on which Mr Gove so dotes did not free him from the fetters of black-and-white thinking. His polarisation of the educational world into traditionalists and progressives reminds me of the Black Paper writers of the 1970s who saw Reds under every B.Ed. Look at how his enthusiasm for the one true path affects his judgment about the present national curriculum and its demands on pupils. "Much of what they are expected to know is not, for the sake of argument, algebra by a certain age, but the social importance of mathematics or the history of mathematics, which is all peripheral." Really? Under 'Algebra', the handbook I use has headings for key stage 3 such as "algebra as generalised arithmetic", "linear equations, formulae, expressions and identities". These are what pupils are expected to understand by age 14. By 16, at key stage 4, they are expected to grasp "linear, quadratic and other expressions and equations". There are the briefest of references to the social applications of mathematics, and its history.

Unlike a certain colleague of his, Mr Gove is no two-brained politico. He gets too carried away by his prejudices. Look again at his insistence on a knowledge-centred, fact-rich curriculum. Especially in connection with his answer to the question "what is education for?" It is "above all, about giving people the chance to take control of their own lives - to be authors of their own life story". Those of us who are likewise attached to personal autonomy as an aim would agree with Mr Gove that knowing a lot of things is a prerequisite for this. But what kind of things? And where choices have to be made, which sorts of knowledge should have priority?

Mr Gove's is the one-track, rigid answer. Algebra, as we have seen, is especially dear to him. So are "crucial events" in our "Island Story" such as the Wars of the Roses. I don't want to deny outright that knowledge such as this can help us to shape our own destinies - although if you pressed me to say what algebra I have found useful in my own life quest since the School Certificate I took in 1949, I'm sorry to say I have not used it at all. But the more central point is that types of knowledge quite outside Mr Gove's pantheon are also, and perhaps more obviously, helpful to pupils in putting them in control of their lives. Knowing about relationships, for instance, knowing how to manage their money, knowing how to look after their health.

Since 1997 we have broken away from the rigidities of Ken Baker's original national curriculum. Not fast enough for many of us, perhaps, but in the right direction. Mr Gove would wind the clock back to the 1988 curriculum, itself a virtual copy of the curriculum for the new state secondary schools introduced in 1904. This is conservatism indeed. But is this creation of a horse-drawn, narrowly franchised, imperial age the beacon we should be following a century and more later?

John White, Emeritus professor of philosophy of education, the Institute of Education, London.


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