“Mama said I was a dancer before I could walk. She said I began to sing long before I could talk”…so went the lyrics to the song ‘Thank You for the Music’ by seventies Swedish super-group, Abba. Lovely stuff and so reminiscent of its time, maybe in more ways than one.
Back in the 1970s, education underwent a major overhaul, apparently designed to rebel completely against its 1950s forefather. Almost anything went. No need for grammar..there are plenty of other ways to express yourself! Don’t bother learning your times tables! We’ll just stick them in the front of your book. Go and measure the playground with a wheel-thing that clicks every metre, just count the clicks, simple! Enough of this reading lark! Let’s go and be a tree growing in the school hall! Just let it all flow, be creative! In history, I recall, we lurched from a topic on Greek Myths to building a papier-mâché WW1 trench, hardly pausing for breath. Did anything happen in between? Not that I was aware of. Medusa could have suffered from trench foot, for all I knew.
As a result, to this day I admit that I struggle with the fundamentals of punctuation and arithmetic, in particular. Does it really matter? To me, yes it does. I feel cheated when I realise my English and Maths skills are inferior to friends and family who happened to have been educated in a different era.
I won’t dwell on the various shape-shifting, incarnations of the school curriculum that have been introduced since the 1970s. As someone commented on Twitter last week: “education likes to re-invent itself every 10 years or so”; suffice it to say that none of these reinventions and initiatives have done very much to raise the overall standard. Although, the now infamous exam system would appear to suggest otherwise: that’s more smoke and mirrors and another story altogether. Whichever way you look at it, in the 1950s kids learnt stuff and exams were tough.
Information apparently not lost on our current Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and his team of ‘advisors’ (whoever they may be). We all knew they were cooking something up behind the closed doors of the DfE, In January they finally unleashed their conclusions:
“The review team’s work has uncovered a consistent theme: … high-performing jurisdictions set materially higher expectations in terms of what they believe children can and should master at different ages. This comes as no surprise. Over the past ten years our education system as measured by performance in the OECD’s PISA international league tables has deteriorated significantly. If our schools, and young people, are to become internationally competitive again we must learn from the best in the world.”
So, we are falling behind other countries and low expectations are rife. The solution? To introduce a knowledge-based curriculum where all children are expected to learn key facts and skills, regardless of background or ability.
It may seem surprising, therefore, that quite a proportion of the great and the good of academia seem to be so dead-set against the plans. Historians were the first to begin bellyaching, finding fault with the plans for a chronological and fact-based history curriculum. Then, on Tuesday 19th March, 100 of our most esteemed academics put their names to a letter in The Independent. The message was clear:
“The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity. Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding.”
Simon Kelner writing in Thursday’s Independent had this to say in response:
‘Well, it never did me any harm to learn my twelve times table, or to be told that i comes before e except after c. Increasingly these days, I have to stop myself beginning a column with a similar sentiment. But I can’t find a more direct expression of my antipathy to the cabal of academics who have come out in opposition to Michael Gove’s proposed new national curriculum … who am I to argue with this posse of professors? But ..Mr Gove’s way will stop young people writing to me, saying “hope your well”, or their reliance on a calculator to work out even the simplest sum..’
If that piece is complimentary of Gove’s plans, Cristina Odone writing in the Telegraph on Friday, is verging on hero-worship:
But it was when Gove locked horns with Thornberry on his vision (plans is too shallow a word to convey this revolution) for education that Gove was masterful. Listen to him (start about 40 minutes into the programme) putting Thornberry firmly in her place when the Labour lawyer accused him of wanting to “push us back to the future” with a curriculum that emphasises grammar, spelling, English history, RE and chronology. Gove kept his temper but rolled his eyes and with the timing of a comedian (or a Mayor of London) he unleashed an impatient “Yadda,yadda”. Then he demolished her arguments as “standard political boilerplate, fashioned by the Labour whips’ office”.
Here Odone refers to Mr Gove’s performance on BBC Question Time. Mr Gove was, predictably, asked to explain his plans for educational reform. On the subject of the English and History curriculum, he had this to say:
“You need to know how the English language is constructed..grammar, spelling, punctuation…You need a solid foundation of facts to work from” And referring to the curriculum in general: ”Creativity depends on you having mastered certain skills”..”You need to establish a firm foundation from which creativity can flourish”..
Therein lies the crux, the holy grail, of the matter. However eminent and respected the ‘Independent’ letter-endorsing academics may be, they are surely missing one crucial point. There is simply no sense in being ‘creative’ or ‘thoughtful’ unless you have something to be creative or thoughtful about.
As Gove himself said on Question Time on Thursday night, “You cannot be creative unless you understand how sentences are constructed”. For example, no child will progress very far in writing a poem, unless they can use language and at least form letters into words, lines and stanzas. Once you’ve mastered the skills and knowledge then you can get really creative. The trouble with the 1970s curriculum – many of the sentiments of which are still firmly in place today – is that it is too ‘creativity focused’ without expecting or providing the vital footings of knowledge. Much like the Abba song I referred to earlier, is it really possible to sing and dance before you can walk and talk? Seemingly they thought so in the 1970s, perhaps some still think so now.
And what of the ‘low expectation’ part of the argument? I have spent the last 11 years teaching English to some of the most disaffected 11-16 year olds in the country. I can confirm, at least in my experience, that almost no one has expected very much of them. The current curriculum only serves to reinforce that.
In English, the texts recommended have become steadily less and less challenging. Watching a DVD of the prescribed text is now an accepted way of studying it. I have rebelled against this at every opportunity, finding ways to work Dickens and Shakespeare extracts and texts into the curriculum, even when not expressly required to. The results are nearly always positive. Young people from any background really are capable of understanding and relating to far more than we often give them credit for. They just are. Following a lesson on Oliver Twist recently, I elicited the response “Dickens rocks, Miss!” from a fourteen year old boy who has spent his whole life in children’s homes. Result.
I leave it to the mouthpiece of public opinion and free-speech that is Twitter to surmise. Here are two tweets on this subject, both written by prolific tweeters; both teachers; both sentiments shared publicly in the last twelve hours:
“Who needs knowledge? I have a computer..the man (Gove) knows nothing”
“With regard to the knowledge/creativity debate. Anyone ever had a parent complain that their child knows too much?”
Maybe a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, after all. Or should that read: ” TOO little knowledge”?
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