Michael Gove’s proposed new national curriculum will severely damage education standards by insisting children learn “endless lists of spellings, facts and rules”, experts are warning. In a letter to The Independent, 100 education academics warn that the new curriculum promotes “rote learning without understanding” and demands “too much too young”.
The academics, all of whom are either professors of education or teach in university education departments, write: “This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think – including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.”
Their intervention means the Education Secretary faces dissent on yet another front over his education reforms – coming just 36 hours after teachers’ leaders warned of strike action over plans to squeeze their pensions and end automatic annual incremental pay rises for the profession, plus opposition to his plans to force under-performing schools to become academies.
The signatories to the letter, who include leading figures in the world of academia such as Professor Terry Wrigley, from Leeds Metropolitan University, who co-ordinated the letter with Professor Michael Bassey from Nottingham Trent University, said: “A system which is very, very heavily prescribed and which encourages cramming through tests actually reduces fairly sharply the development of thinking. The pupils memorise just enough detail to get over the hurdle of the tests.”
Professor Wrigley added: “I think if these reforms go ahead it will be miserable for the children. Secondly, I think it will put further emphasis on memorisation and rote learning rather than understanding.”
The academics’ intervention also follows a controversy over changes planned for the history curriculum – where historians and teachers claim the proposals neglect world history in favour of the chronological learning of facts about British history. Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of history at Cambridge University, said they would restore “rote learning of the patriotic stocking-fillers so beloved of traditionalists”.
Under Mr Gove’s plans – out for consultation until mid-April – children should be taught standard English with more weight given to spelling, punctuation and grammar. In maths, they should know their times tables up to 12 by the age of nine and start learning about algebra and geometry by the time they leave primary school.
In history, the document says pupils should know “how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world”.
In languages, children will for the first time have to learn a language – ancient or modern – from the age of seven.
In their letter, the academics say of the proposed curriculum: “Much of it demands too much, too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation.”
They say the plan “betrays a serious distrust of teachers in its amount of detailed instructions”.
“Whatever the intention, the proposed curriculum in England will result in a ‘dumbing down’ of teaching and learning,” they add.
It is also “too narrow”, they argue. “The mountains of detail for English, maths and science leave little space for other learning. Speaking and listening, drama and modern media have almost disappeared from English.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “This distinction made by the signatories between knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy. The new curriculum is based on careful analysis of the world’s most successful school system. We are giving schools more freedom over the curriculum and teaching, not less. We are reforming the exam system to test deeper cognitive skills such as mathematical problem-solving and extended writing, which are neglected now, but these skills... depend on solid foundations.”
The DfE released the results of a Freedom of Information request which listed more than 400 people who had been consulted. It said it received 5,763 responses to its call for evidence to be submitted to the curriculum review.