Education Secretary Michael Gove protested at the “infantilisation” of the school curriculum after revealing teenagers were being asked to liken key historical figures to Disney and Mr Men characters in preparation for exams for 16-year-olds.
In one history exercise, 15 and 16-year-olds studying for the IGCSE were told they should liken members of the Third Reich such as Hitler to Mr Men characters.
In another lesson plan for primary school pupils, it was suggested that children studying the Middle Ages should look at King John’s depiction as a cowardly lion in Disney’s Robin Hood film.
“If that proved too taxing then they are asked to organise a fashion parade or make plasticine models (to help them learn history),” he told a conference of independent school heads organised by Brighton College.
“It would be bad enough if this approach were restricted to primary schools but even at GCSE level this infantilisation continues.”
Mr Gove was speaking against the background of growing opposition to his plans to reform the national curriculum with 100 academics signing a letter to The Independent claiming his plans for a more traditional emphasis would involve youngsters having to learn “too much too young”.
He said that – during the debate – “precious little attention is being given to what has actually gone wrong in too many of our classrooms”.
“One set of history teaching resources aimed at year 11 (15 to 16-year-olds) suggests spending time depicting the rise of Hitler as a ‘Mr Men’ story,” he added.
Mr Gove said he doubted whether Roger Hargreaves, the author of the Mr Men series, had ever contemplated inventing characters like “Mr Anti-Semitic Dictator” or “Mr Dutch Communist Scapegoat”.
However, Russell Tarr, who devised the lesson plan on the website activehistory.co.uk, accused Mr Gove of “academic snobbery” – saying the pupils only did the Mr Men exercise after completing a six week course on the Rise of Hitler which included a 1,000-word in-depth essay.
Mr Tarr, who teaches at the International School in Toulouse, France, added: “I’m not trying to give pupils history lite. I’m trying to get them interested.”
In his speech, Mr Gove also hit out at the “low expectations” of exam boards – particularly over GCSE English where very few pupils studied pre 20th century novels or plays. He said he was “surprised how relatively low expectations have been set in our existing national examinations”.
He dropped the broadest hint that he would be introducing further prescription in the English curriculum by insisting that secondary school pupils should study pre 19th century authors – such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.
Mr Gove praised the work of inner city primary schools like Thomas Jones in west London where pupils were reading “A Christmas Carol” and “Oliver Twist” by the age of 11 – whereas in Edexcel English Literature not a single student had opted to study a pre-20th century novel or play.
He quoted other figures which showed that – of the 280,000 pupils who had taken the AQA exam board English exam – less than one per cent had studied pre 20th century novels whereas 190,000 had opted for John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
He said that – in deciding upon the national curriculum – he had to “weigh carefully” the submissions he had received from “gifted and idealistic young teachers that we are not being rigorous enough and we should be specifying more content”.
He added he would much prefer a child of his to be reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch than Stephenie Meyer’s vampire series Twilight.
“Too many children are only too happy to lose themselves in Stephenie Meyer,” he added. “There is a great tradition of English, a canon of transcendent works and Breaking Dawn is not one of them.”
He said that illiteracy amongst pupils was “one of the scandals of our time”.
Of primary schools like Thomas Jones, he added: “This level of ambition set and received by teachers without any directions by Government or its agencies is all the more impressive when you consider how relatively low expectations have been set in our existing national examinations.”
Earlier, former Labour Schools Minister Andrew Adonis predicted the virtual demise of the independent sector over the next two decades as more and more private schools schools opted to join the state sector as academies or free schools. So far 15 have opted to become state schools – the latest recruit being one of the founders of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, Liverpool College. The HMC represents 250 of the country’s most elite private schools.