Civitas report finds that the curriculum is less academic than it was
Civitas, the Centre Right think tank, has become very active recently on the education front.
Having suggested, in its last report, at the end of last year, that the Academies are not performing as well as at first it might seem ,because they choose softer qualifications and lack transparency in what they are really up to (gaming to improve their league table position etc), they have just published a report on the curriculum.
It finds that the drive to make subjects more “relevant” – combined with the introduction of increasing numbers of practical courses – means many pupils are unable to “access the world of high culture, which could transform their lives” Worse, perhaps, Civitas also claim that the retreat from traditional subjects is leading to a decline in social mobility. The perceived failure of the Government to improve social mobility, particularly within disadvantaged communities, is a big stick with which opposition parties are currently beating the government.
In Liberal Education and the National Curriculum, Professor David Conway defines a liberal education as an education of which the primary purpose is not training for work, but rather a form of education whose purpose and rationale is to prepare children for life in a free and democratic society. The democratic way of living uniquely demands much of its rank and file members. Such an education was considered, from the days of the Schools of Athens, to reside in its uniquely civilising and humanising capacity. Conway has brought together attempts to formulate a curriculum for the vast majority of children in state-sector schools, from Matthew Arnold in 1864 to the 1988 Education Act. He finds that that there was complete agreement, over a long period of time, about what the basic elements of such an education should be .There was a consensus, amongst educationists of all persuasions, that all children, not just the elite of grammar and public schools, should learn maths, English, science, geography, history and foreign languages.
He acknowledges the criticisms of the current National Curriculum, as well as the rigid regime of testing to which it is tied, as overly prescriptive. However, he also argues that these criticisms should not necessarily rule out the idea of a national curriculum altogether. The Swedish curriculum runs to only 17 pages, and covers most of the same subjects as its British counterpart, but the Swedish educational model is widely admired and may be imitated by a future Conservative government. What is needed, according to Professor Conway, is not the complete scrapping of the National Curriculum: ‘state schools only need freeing from excessive testing, an overly bureaucratised regime of inspection, and excessively prescriptive programmes of study, to be able once again to make provision of liberal education their central purpose.’ Conway adds that repeated attempts to “weaken the academic basis of the curriculum” – a backbone of the education system since the mid-1800s – had widened the gap between rich and poor pupils. “All these changes to the national curriculum are progressively making it ever less academic,” said the Civitas report.
The drive for “relevance” had also led to a significant increase in the number of skills-based courses. This includes a new wave of Government-backed diplomas in subjects such as hair and beauty, media, engineering and health. Ministers have said that diplomas for 14- to 19-year-olds could eventually replace GCSEs and A-levels. In a further development, Labour has announced a new curriculum will be introduced in English primary schools this year that will remove traditional subject headings to allow staff to teach by “theme”.
But Conway claims that “These children will be unable to access the world of high culture, which could transform their lives, because teachers have decided that they should not be challenged by anything beyond the scope of their immediate experience,” A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families, reacting to the report, said: “Children sit just one set of national tests between starting primary school and taking their GCSEs, and we simply don’t agree that this amounts to ‘excessive testing’. “It’s absolutely right that children get a broad education and our brand new primary curriculum – with overwhelming support from teachers – will not only teach pupils subjects like art, science and history, but will also help them develop the essential literacy, numeracy and social skills they will need for life.”
However, constant changes to the curriculum at Foundation, Primary and Secondary levels have led to a lack of stability, continuity and confusion among stakeholders. A Select Committee report on Schools Accountability out this week, backed teachers complaints about too many central government initiatives and interventions and concluded that it it might damage schools ability to deliver improvement. The constant stream of Government interventions remain controversial and particularly so at the Foundation stage where academics remain polarized over the evidence base. One critic of Government reforms, Dr Richard House, wrote recently ‘the government takes upon itself the right legally to impose pedagogical practices that have no evidence base on very young children, practices many authorities on childcare believe to be developmentally inappropriate and even harmful to those children.’ The Reform think tank recently called for a return to basic academic qualifications placing them at the core of the curriculum and league tables, which is pretty much what this report champions, and it is certainly worthy of note that those education systems we most admire abroad have very settled curricula and feel no inclination to tinker endlessly with their respective curriculum to make it more ‘relevant’ and better suited to the ‘ real world’.
The DCSF claims that teachers are happy with the changes but omit to mention, rather significantly (as it tells us much about official’s mindset), other key stakeholders- the parents and pupils.
This suggests that producer interests prevail.
Surely, it was ever thus. Heads will also tell you that they desperately want a period of relative calm, the end to initiativitis, consolidation and a reduction in the demands made of them and school governors. It is no coincidence that there is a huge shortage of teachers wanting to be Heads. And the Tories believe that growing bureaucracy is driving many good teachers out of the profession (although the Recession seems to have encouraged others to enter) Good teachers know what Headship entails and many don’t much like the look of it. There is a growing perception that teachers and indeed governors are little more than agents of Government policy, conduits of Whitehall prescriptions, disempowered, with their professionalism and ability to think for themselves constantly undermined. Hardly a day seems to go by without a Minister announcing that schools will be required to teach children something else, (look at this weeks headlines schools will now have to teach children about debt and Mandarin) which by definition leaves teachers even less time to teach the core curriculum subjects to ensure that pupils have at the very least a sound grounding in the basics.