Lessons of History: Playing party games with education: A national curriculum that nullifies choice is a step backwards, writes Rosemary O'Day

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The Independent Online
English, mathematics, science, history, geography, foreign language, drawing, physical exercise, manual work/housewifery.

Alist of the subjects included in the national curriculum? Not quite: no music and the foreign language does not have to be modern. This is a list of the subjects prescribed by the Board of Education in 1904 for pupils up to the age of 16 in the state secondary schools established under the 1902 Education Act.

'Adequate provision must be made for instruction in the English language and literature, at least one language other than English, geography, history, mathematics, science, drawing, singing, manual instruction in the case of boys, domestic subjects in the case of girls, physical exercises and for organised games.'

Again, a similarity, but this list applies to 1935 not 1993. The national curriculum as proposed perpetuates a long tradition of a curriculum based around subjects within the state system. This syllabus was in its turn derived by early 20th-century educationalists such as Sir Robert Morant from that of the public schools. And now this subject-centred approach is to be extended to the first schools and the comprehensive middle and upper schools.

The Government would be justified in claiming sound historical antecedents for its programme. By exempting the independent sector from the compulsory curriculum, it implies that those schools which have already subscribed to subject-centred education require no change.

Dealing with the state schools, the Government much prefers, however, to renounce the past, to present itself as radical, reforming and forward looking and to cast the teachers as a profession hiding behind the muddle of history and theory, resistant to change.

A former Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker, described the state system as a 'bit of a muddle, one of those institutionalised muddles that the English have made peculiarly their own'. The national curriculum, and the educational ideology it expresses, would straighten the mess out.

Would that it were so easy. The argument about the national curriculum is over the purpose of education, how this is to be achieved and how change, if it is felt to be desirable, is to be implemented.

Is its purpose to communicate to today's young an established body of knowledge? Or is the job of educators to teach the skills necessary to discover new knowledge and reconstruct the world? Is it possible or desirable to educate everyone in the same way and to expect to achieve the same results? The curriculum cannot be disassociated from the prevalent philosophy of education, teaching resources or, for that matter, the relationship between the state and independent sectors.

I do not advocate an examination of the historical record to discover a tried and trusted formula for solving any of these debates. Each milestone in the history of education should be seen as firmly located in the geography of its time and place.

We should not attempt to implement a policy because it worked in the past nor reject it out of hand because it once failed. But at the same time the past, carefully studied, does supply us with one of the nearest equivalents to a controlled laboratory experiment. Warning bells should sound when we know that a particular policy failed in the past. Such study should not be in the hands of, and therefore the handmaid to, politicians: history is too serious for that.

The curriculum (the term comes from the Latin currere meaning to run) was even in cave-dwelling days a trinity of emphases - child-centred, in that a weakling in physical or cerebral ways was not given the same tasks as the strong; subject-centred, showing how to seek out and hunt prey, how to prepare food; and society-centred, showing how to fit in with the group, how to add to the material possessions of the group - approaches identified by today's educationalists.

As time went on the process of education became increasingly formalised and codified, though not for all members of society and not for the young alone, and eventually it involved schooling. Although a good deal was written about education from the middle ages onwards, this writing was not part of an attempt by central government to intervene to determine the nature and content of education. It was the church, the law and medicine and a few crafts which sought to influence the content of the curriculum for school and university and so regulate entry into the various professions.

A fraction of the total population was thus 'schooled'. Illiteracy was most people's lot until Bible reading became regarded by the few as a desirable occupation for the many. Even then, the job of teaching children and adults to read did not necessarily involve a school. Children learnt to read at their mother's knee.

At this level, then, formal schooling was vocational. Children went to school to equip themselves for future life. Yet great emphasis was laid by 16th-century writers upon the need to look at the talents of the child before deciding on that future life.

It was not social or economic background or even a parent's occupation, but gender, aptitude and inclination that was supposed to determine a child's suitability for the clergy or the law. These features were thought to reveal the vocation to which each child was called by God. The curriculum was designed for each child - inside or outside school. It was skill-centred. After the basic skills of reading and counting and writing for those who 'needed' them, the medieval liberal arts syllabus included grammar, rhetoric (oral communication) and logic and - for the more advanced - arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy.

The whole of education was permeated by the ideas of the ancients. Socrates had taught that the purpose of education was to know oneself and to eradicate ignorance by exposing it through dialogue - question, probe, discuss and clarify were the key stages in this system of discovery.

Didacticism - which underlay so much of the English grammar school tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries - had little place in this scheme. Rote learning was not the object.

Yet when we read the text-books of the great 16th-century teachers we can be in no doubt that children also learnt a good deal about the world around them.

Erasmus, Ascham and Brinsley were as aware as any modern teacher that children learn most when they are enjoying themselves. Erasmus taught the young to write elegant and accurate Latin by engaging them in absorbing and racy dialogues about the society in which they lived. Huguenot refugees taught French through entertaining and sprightly conversations.

In the centuries that followed, society as a whole became more schooled. New types of school - each designed for a specific clientele - emerged. Dissenting academies. Grammar schools. Public schools designed for the upper classes. Public schools designed for the new business and industrial elites. Ragged schools. Board schools. Sunday schools. Higher grade schools. The list is seemingly endless.

At the same time, there were disparate movements in educational thought. Locke, remembered for his belief that the child was a passive receptor of education, also thought that to learn, the child had first to experience, and that enthusiasm for learning was more important than attainment. Rousseau questioned the concept of schooling and lobbied for the treatment of children as children not potential adults. Herbert Spencer, the author of the enormously influential Education: Intellectual, Moral and Physical (1861) thought that science was all- important and envisaged an education including experiences which would lead each child to a happier and more productive life. Muddle there certainly is if we search for a uniform system in the past. But it was a muddle born of choice. Of course, it was not a free choice. Today most would not subscribe to its assumptions that class, race and gender predetermined an individual's future and, therefore, education. That aside, the type of syllabus offered was a matter of negotiation for all except the working classes and the very poor. And even here there were unending debates about the role of education.

The advent of the national curriculum, linked with belief in education as 'imparted knowledge' and to testing, represents an unwelcome break from this tradition of pluralism. All this when society itself is becoming increasingly pluralistic and when we no longer share a well-defined, unquestioned value system.

In 1862 Robert Lowe, vice-president of the Council on Education, introduced a system of payment by results whereby grants to schools were based upon standards of attainment reached by children in a limited number of subjects - the three Rs and little else. This led to the introduction of 'standards'. It accentuated a tendency towards minimalism as the curriculum was subordinated to the demands of the test procedure.

The damaging effects of the imposition of a curriculum coupled with a crude policy of testing and an ideological assumption that those within the state system have only minimal educational requirements can be seen again in the 1990s.

In the earlier part of this century there was a sharp reaction: the child and not a rigid syllabus became the starting point in education. In 1929 the Board of Education said: 'Variations in the curriculum will often correspond to the special needs and circumstances of the scholars'.

In 1944, backtracking from an intention to stipulate the syllabus, Labour's Secretary of State for Education, James Chuter-Ede, said during the Education Bill's Second Reading: 'State control of the curriculum prevented the development of a wise and sound system of education . . . there is no, one curriculum for every child.'

There should be such a sharp reaction now. Despite its many admirable aspects, the national curriculum and its testing assume that all children within the state system are alike and come similarly prepared, with identical capabilities and foreseeable futures. It assumes little change in knowledge since 1904. New subjects are marginalised.

By rubbishing Rousseau, belittling Locke and scorning Spencer, successive Secretaries of State have rejected human experience and committed the state system to a blinkered view of education as the business of acquiring existing knowledge.

There is no place for encouraging an awareness of the gaps in human knowledge and the motivation and ability to supply them. Only by overloading the timetable, themselves and the children can teachers retain the discovery element in learning.

The policy displays a touching faith in the state's ability to predict the requirements of the economy. It assumes unrealistically that the economic growth of our European neighbours was in some way linked to their possession of a state-imposed curriculum, ignoring the fact that France, for example, has a tradition of state intervention in education which it had in the economic doldrums.

Worrying also is the hidden class dimension of the system. At a time when, the Government says, the traditional family is not doing its job properly, schools are either unable or unwilling to act as parents. The resources needed for small classes, excellent facilities and fully-trained teachers are not to be provided to enable all children to attain.

Instead of encouraging children to live fulfilled and productive lives, formal education will condemn the great majority to losing an irrelevant party game. This party game was played often in the 19th and 20th centuries. Someone has again found the rules. Education is in danger of once more becoming a trivial pursuit.

Dr Rosemary O'Day was formerly lecturer in the history of education at the University of Birmingham and is now senior lecturer in history at the Open University. She is the author of several books, including Education and Society 1500- 1800: The Social Foundations of Education in Early Modern Britain; and Mr Charles Booth's Inquiry: Life and Labour of the People in London Reconsidered.

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