Dumb Britannia 2. Education: The lost art of learning

The emphasis in education has returned to the three Rs. But will their rigid enforcement stifle creative learning?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In a world where Neighbours, Sweet Valley High and Tomb Raider are most teenagers' idea of culture, schools are embattled fortresses of civilisation. Far from descending into mindless modernity, teachers are fighting to keep afloat the notion that there is more to life than soap operas and shopping. And they are doing so more determinedly than at any time during the last 30 years. While society may be "dumbing down", schools are smartening up.

Think back to the Seventies and early Eighties. Those were the days before the national curriculum when a fashionable staffroom catch phrase was "start where the child is at": in drama, that meant soaps; in music, pop; and in history, just round the corner. Education had to be "relevant" or pupils would switch off. If they read, why worry too much about what they were reading?

The purveyors of this philosophy had a point - but they went too far. Teachers were free to teach what they liked, invent their own examinations - and mark them. Primary schools, freed from the constraints of the 11- plus exam, might do endless projects on the dinosaurs, or study the Romans three times over, without so much as a glance in the direction of the Tudors or the Industrial Revolution. Inspectors revealed in 1979 that only one in 10 primary schools had a decent science programme. For the rest it was all tadpoles and sticky buds.

Primary teachers could also take or leave music and art. At one end of the spectrum was a small number of schools that draped their walls in batik and majored in basketweaving, with a smattering of the three Rs in between. At the other were the many schools that concentrated too narrowly on English and maths.

The 1988 national curriculum was the biggest shock to the school system in 50 years. Primary schools were compelled by law to teach nine subjects, including art and music, and secondaries had to do 10. Detailed programmes of study in each subject were laid down. There have been alterations since, and pupils are now able to drop some subjects at 14, but the basic framework remains intact.

Since then, the changes have all been in one direction. There is an approved list of classic authors for 11-to-16-year-olds (Chuck Berry did not make it). Take a look at English O-level texts in 1976 and compare them with those prescribed for GCSE in the year 2000. A descent from the sublime to the mediocre which makes you long for a golden age? Far from it. The most remarkable feature of the lists is their similarity. Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge feature on both. The former has Chaucer and Conrad; the latter has Austen and Dickens. 1976 has Greene, Robert Bolt and Naipaul, whereas 2000 has Barstow, Golding and Susan Hill.

The idea that Shakespeare is not "relevant" has proved laughable. At 14, everyone must take a Shakespeare paper, legacy of the hapless John Patten, former secretary of state for education, who was ridiculed when he first proposed it. Last year, pupils performed better on this paper than any other; Shakespeare's lasting appeal must share at least some of the credit with Leonardo DiCaprio.

In history, empathy questions at GCSE ("imagine you are Harold's horse at the Battle of Hastings...") have gone, and facts are back in fashion. Perhaps there are fewer of them than before, but the quality of analysis demanded is much sharper than in the days of O-levels. Then, a mere recital of the facts, with only a limited understanding of the subject, would earn full marks. Under the new regime, grammar, spelling, punctuation and mental arithmetic all attract separate allocations of marks. Those syllabuses invented by teachers have been outlawed.

The next change in the name of rigour will come at A-level. New rules will make study of pre-1770, as well as pre-1900 works of literature, compulsory. Mathematicians will have to learn specified formulae in order to answer universities' complaints that new students have not covered the basics, and the use of calculators will be restricted. Modern linguists must all learn the same grammar.

In primary schools, thanks to the national curriculum, culture is now compulsory, rather than at the whim of the teacher. Every 10-year-old should have at least a nodding acquaintance with Picasso, Botticelli and Cezanne: they must study great painters, and try to paint in their style. They also have to listen to some of the great classical composers. Science, for the first time, is a serious proposition for under-11s.

So the last decade has seen steady progress in schools towards an ethos that refuses to accept that inner-city children have no need of Mozart and that there is no point in teaching teenagers about books which are not immediately "relevant" to their lives.

Alongside is a growing emphasis on reading and writing as the gateway to the rest of the curriculum. Primary education is shifting away from the child-centred learning of the Sixties and Seventies towards more structured methods of teaching. Ministers have introduced a literacy hour and a numeracy hour with detailed guidance on how to teach them. For the first time since the demise of the 11-plus, there is a national test for 11-year-olds. There are also national tests at five, seven and 14; today's pupils are the most tested generation ever.

Yet, just as the effect of reform is beginning to make itself felt, ministers have begun to send out some worrying signals. About a year ago David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, announced that primary schools would no longer have to follow programmes of study in subjects such as history, music and art. They would still have to teach them, but the details and amount of time would be left to schools. The aim was to allow teachers to concentrate on literacy and numeracy so that ambitious government targets would be met. Mr Blunkett protested his belief in a broad curriculum, but it sounded suspiciously like goodbye to Cezanne and the Tudors.

The present situation may change. A new version of the curriculum, to begin next year, is being drawn up by government advisers and some details may be restored. If they are not, the balance of the classroom will swing dangerously towards the utilitarian. Teachers are already under fierce pressure to raise standards in the three Rs. Only a brave headteacher will be prepared to sacrifice the targets to widen pupils' aesthetic horizons.

There's a similar whiff of utilitarianism about proposals for older pupils: 14-to-16-year-olds are to be wooed away from truancy by offers of more vocational courses and one day a week in the workplace. The idea that it is pointless to teach drama, music and art to inner-city kids is defeatist. Remember Vic Ecclestone, the teacher who persuaded pupils on the deprived Hartcliffe estate in Bristol to take an interest in ballet, opera and cricket. He ran hugely popular after-school workshops in a range of activities and persuaded members of the Royal Ballet, Rambert Dance and Sadler's Wells to coach both boys and girls.

The biggest danger of dumbing down in schools comes not from a diminished curriculum or trendy teachers, but from a government whose view of education is too narrow to encompass Mr Ecclestone.