Maths? You can count me out

Now we know what the new national curriculum is for, shouldn't we be examining what subjects to have in it?
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The Independent Online

At last we know what the national curriculum is supposed to be "for". The new version in force from this September comes with a full set of aims attached. The nonsense of 1988 is now behind us - that byzantine structure of foundation subjects, attainment targets, programmes of study with next-to-no picture of what purposes it was meant to serve. For the first time in our history we have a clear idea of what the nation wants for its children.

At last we know what the national curriculum is supposed to be "for". The new version in force from this September comes with a full set of aims attached. The nonsense of 1988 is now behind us - that byzantine structure of foundation subjects, attainment targets, programmes of study with next-to-no picture of what purposes it was meant to serve. For the first time in our history we have a clear idea of what the nation wants for its children.

The new aims are pretty good and focus on promoting the well-being of the pupil. They emphasise fairness and justice, communal and global attachments. They are in line with the needs of an active, modern liberal democracy. They target the country's economic needs yet are not in thrall to them. They include acquaintance with outstanding human achievements in artistic, scientific and other fields. So at last we know that the national curriculum is a vehicle for purposes like these. And now we have a yardstick for deciding which activities should be included in it.

Kenneth Baker's simple-minded traditionalism of 1988 is a world away. His approach - take the 10 subjects of the 1904 Secondary Regs, tweak them a bit, make all but one compulsory for all 11 years of schooling, fix 10 levels of attainment for each, and there's your national curriculum.

From now on it has to be different. The subjects of the curriculum cannot come first. Aims must. The subjects must earn their keep as good vehicles for realising the aims. The new curriculum introduces personal, social and health education (PSHE) and citizenship. We can readily see how well they serve the new aims.

New subjects apart, Baker's 10 by 11 by 10 structure remains largely intact. The question is now: what will happen to it? If the aims are to be taken seriously, the grid can no longer be sacrosanct.

Each of the foundation subjects now needs to be examined in detail. Does it deserve a place at all? If so, for how many years should it be compulsory? Which parts of it cohere with the new aims? Are there curriculum subjects outside the present structure which, like citizenship, need to be brought in?

History: This is not compulsory beyond 14. In a packed, chronologically arranged curriculum, there is time for only a handful of lessons on the 20th century. Is this enough? If the general aims and values of the curriculum come first, don't they suggest a more extensive understanding of the modern world? And isn't this required by the new foundation subject, citizenship? Given the latter is compulsory until 16, why not history?

Mathematics: Is so well entrenched from five to 16 that its key place in the curriculum seems secure. But how does it look from the perspective of general aims and values? How much mathematics do they suggest every pupil needs? How important is mathematics in personal fulfilment and civic involvement?

Some elementary mathematics is essential. Basic computational ability most obviously, but also knowing how to handle the elementary statistics that face every citizen and consumer. And many jobs require more mathematics than this, not least as a tool used in science.

Here are some good reasons for learning maths broadly consonant with the new aims. But what do they suggest about how much, and what kind of maths should be compulsory for all? The controversial issue is: what happens after basic numeracy is achieved? Should more advanced maths be a universal requirement even though not all will need this in a job or can be expected to find delight in it for its own sake? Or are there grounds for making it a voluntary rather than a compulsory subject towards the end of Key Stage 3?

Modern Foreign Languages: Like mathematics, another grizzled old-stager. As long as no one asked fundamental questions about general aims, MFL has been equally unchallenged.

But for how long? As a senior citizen of the curriculum, does it have a statutory right to compulsory status throughout secondary education? As Kevin Williams argued in The Independent ("Foreign languages? Nein danke", EDUCATION, 11 May), none of these is strong enough to justify compulsory languages through to 16.

Just because French or Japanese is necessary in some jobs, this is no ground for making "everyone" slog through a modern foreign language course. Kevin Williams may well be right that modern foreign languages should be a voluntary activity after a brief taster course between the ages of 11 and 14. Just like advanced maths.

Pruning the traditional school curriculum may leave more room for student choice at the secondary stage. It may also create space for new activities better suited to realising the overall aims. Might it be the case that understanding other cultures is better achieved through some form of broader cultural studies rather than simply languages? Doesn't citizenship require an ongoing political education? If moral development is an important aim, isn't it a priority to introduce older pupils to elementary ethics or moral philosophy?

The legacy of the past remains in the heavily "academic" emphasis of the current curriculum. But in line with the new aims children also need to learn how to make better "practical" judgements about their lives. It is time to question the traditional idea of the subject-based curriculum.

Do the new aims herald a new policy direction, or are they simply window-dressing? If David Blunkett is serious about the aims, he will institute a reappraisal of the national curriculum so that it better reflects them.

 

Dr Steve Bramall and Professor John White both teach philosophy of education at the Institute of Education. Their IMPACT pamphlet "Will the new National Curriculum live up to its aims?" is available from the Institute of Education (020-7612 6050) £6.99 plus £1 p&p. A symposium on the pamphlet will be held at the Institute on 28 June. For details ring Judy Morrison on 020-7612 6750; e-mail j.morrison@ioe.ac.uk

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