Is 'core knowledge' the pub quiz of learning?

Depending on your perspective, it's a rigorous academic curriculum or just a list of facts. Richard Garner reports on the controversial teaching approach being pioneered in north London schools

Opponents of the "core knowledge" approach to teaching in schools have likened it to a sort of glorified "pub quiz". "Ah," say some of those who support it, "what's wrong with having the kind of knowledge that would help you to do well in a pub quiz?"

Matthew Laban, the headteacher of Kingfisher Hall school in Edmonton, north London, and Steven Brown, the assistant head of Cuckoo Hall primary school, its parent school which is currently on the same site, would argue that the approach has been a great spur to fostering a love of learning among their pupils – contrary to what critics would have you believe.

Their schools are pioneering a "core knowledge" approach to teaching this coming term, in advance of the introduction of the new curriculum brought into schools by Education Secretary Michael Gove from September 2014.

Cuckoo Hall is an academy. In fact, it was one of the first primary schools to convert to academy status as a result of the new legislation introduced by Mr Gove at the start of his tenure. It served a ward that is on the list of the 10 per cent most deprived wards in the country but was hugely successful in getting its pupils to reach their targets in national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds and hence was oversubscribed.

As a result of its new-found freedom with academy status, it set up two satellite primary schools – Woodpecker and Kingfisher Hall – to try to satisfy some of the demands for places from parents. Heron Hall, a fourth school in the stable, will open this September as a secondary school so pupils can have an all-through education in the same style up until 18.

All three of the satellite schools are free schools, not, says Mr Laban, because they are part of some ideological crusade but because the free school movement is the only show in town when it comes to opening new schools. Free schools are exempt from the national curriculum and can deliver the kind of curriculum they want.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, a few are now banding together and, rather than deliver hundreds of different versions of a curriculum to their charges, they are looking to make use of existing curriculum materials such as the core knowledge approach devised by Professor ED Hirsch in the United States.

Where Cuckoo, Kingfisher and Woodpecker lead, others will follow. The latest to express an interest is the West London Free School, a primary adjunct to the secondary school opened by Toby Young, the journalist and broadcaster, which was one of the first to open under the programme that offers its pupils a diet of Latin and a traditional academic curriculum. Civitas, the education think-tank, has devised a UK interpretation of the Professor ED Hirsch approach and published guidelines to help parents understand what the curriculum demands of their children. "Our task is to build the bricks for our children so they can go on and succeed," says Steven Brown, who has already introduced the Core Knowledge curriculum for his second- and third-year pupils at Cuckoo Hall.

"We will roll it out across all year groups and in all our primary schools from September. It will be ready for the new academic year – working in conjunction with Civitas.

"The old curriculum used to emphasise the skills that pupils needed but the children didn't actually know anything. This is learning about learning – giving them the factual information they need to know, which will help them develop arguments and thinking skills later in life."

Mr Laban adds: "By the time they reach secondary school, it is shocking that teenagers don't have the background knowledge to access certain aspects of the curriculum. They don't know the basic geography of places like Spain and France. If they had the basic knowledge, they would be able to do more in-depth study later."

One of the approaches they have adopted is to organise outings and school trips to places such as the House of Commons. "Many of our pupils haven't ever been to the centre of London," he adds. "The only landmark they knew was Big Ben."

In primary science, they adopt a more hands-on approach with time devoted to pupils doing more practical work and experiments.

"Because of the rigorous testing regime, schools are chasing results," said Mr Brown. "It is possible in some schools that teachers are teaching to the test but – if they have the background knowledge developed from early on – they have the understanding to go with it." Of course, events have moved on since the schools started piloting the core knowledge approach. Mr Gove has announced his new national curriculum – to be introduced in 2014 – which adopts the style of approach favoured by Professor Hirsch.

Fractions are to be introduced in the first year of primary school for children from the age of five, more accent will be put on the learning of times tables, with pupils expected to recite their 12 times table by the age of nine. It means that what will be taught in maintained schools will be moving nearer to the approach of those free schools that adopt the core knowledge approach.

In a resumé of the changes proposed by Mr Gove, the Department for Education said it would place "a strong focus on getting basic skills right".

"In primary maths, there's more emphasis on arithmetic and fractions to build solid foundations for more advanced algebra and statistics," said Mr Gove. "In science, children will study core scientific concepts such as evolution and energy.

"This curriculum is a foundation for learning the vital advanced skills that universities and businesses desperately need – skills such as essay writing, problem-solving, mathematical modelling and computer programming. The package has already been condemned by many academies and teachers' leaders for focusing on "lists of facts".

Some 100 academics signed a letter to The Independent warning that the approach would bore pupils and put them off learning; in other words, the "pub quiz" curriculum, as Alex Kenny, of the executive of the National Union of Teachers, put it at the annual conference.

For David Green, of Civitas, though, Mr Gove's proposals do not go far enough. The core knowledge approach is finding favour with growing numbers of free schools, he says, including two Muslim primary schools.

He is critical of Ofsted inspectors – many of whom earned their stripes as teachers during an era when the knowledge approach was out of favour and, as such, are marking teachers down who use it. He would like to see a separate inspection set up for free schools and academies – in the same way as the independent sector enjoys its own inspection service.

"They [the inspectors] need to have some understanding of what the teachers are trying to do," he says. "Many schools have been short-changed by inspectors. We are definitely saying that schools should be teacher-led and there should be a return to teaching as a vocation."

Whatever the pros and cons of the argument, there is no doubt this one will run and run. At the moment, though, the pendulum is definitely swinging in favour of the core knowledge approach.