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Gove's new National Curriculum demands too much, too young

It is not the underperformance of teachers that is harming young people's chances, but broader inequality in society. Mr Gove's proposals are change for the worse

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Last week, with 98 fellow academics, we had a letter in this newspaper headed “Gove will bury pupils in fact and rules”.  Our concern was that the proposed new National Curriculum “consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules”, that the sheer volume will lead to “rote learning without understanding” leaving too little time for the development of “problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity”, and demanding “too much too young”.

The English curriculum for children in the first two years (ages 5-7) of primary school contains 22 pages of statutory requirements, with a further 15 page glossary for teachers.  For example by the end of Year Two the requirement is to use correctly capital letters, full stops, question marks, exclamation marks, commas, and apostrophes.  The history curriculum is a short document which has led to much debate elsewhere: among much else by the end of Year Two is a requirement to have been taught about civilization, monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace.  Likewise the geography curriculum is brief but includes the expectation by the end of Year Two that pupils "should be taught" to use the terms beach, coast, forest, hill, mountain, ocean, river, soil, valley, vegetation, weather, city, town, village, factory, farm, house, office and shop. Yes, these are everyday words – but they are learned in conversation and from reading, not by being didactically taught by teachers. For some children this curriculum will present no problem, but for their teachers, trying to get all of their children to understand and use these matters, i.e beyond simply memorizing them, it will be impossible.

Gross attack

So, when Mr Gove says (as he did in the Mail on Sunday) that we are "hell-bent on destroying our schools" we reply with some of the evidence that it is he who is the destroyer.

He is a master at cherry-picking and so it is no surprise that looking at our co-signees he identifies a few who are on the far left politically and vilifies them for having an ideology different from his own.  Most of the list are not extreme in their politics and certainly none so extreme on the right as Michael Gove himself.  To describe us as "a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need" is gross rubbish, but to use such a falsehood to attack the university teacher training departments and the local authority schools department is rampant mischief.  

In a recent newspaper interview Mr Gove described himself as "a Marmite person: you love or hate me."  The trouble with Marmite comes when you put too much on your toast. Michael Gove puts too much change on our education system and has rarely taken significant heed of the views of teachers, parents, academics, writers, artists and others who have tried to advise him about his changes. 

Many would challenge the beliefs underpinning his changes to our education system.  Ex-soldiers will be good for school discipline; written examinations with time constraints are the best way of assessing ability; failure in examinations provides an incentive to succeed; rote learning is the best preliminary to understanding; teachers do not necessarily need training; science, history and geography are more important subjects for schools than art, music, drama, and design; it is poor teaching, not environmental deprivation, that leads to low achievements in schools; the design of buildings does not affect the quality of learning; young children should learn to read through the prime use of synthetic phonics and be tested at age six; league tables are an essential tool for state management of schools.

Primary concern

But it is his assault on the overall work of primary schools that is the most dangerous.  When Professor Robin Alexander edited the final report of the authoritative, research-based Cambridge Primary Review, ‘Children, their World, their Education’, in early 2010, he ended with these words:  "The politicisation of primary education has gone too far.  Discussion has been blocked by derision, truth has been supplanted by myth and spin, and alternatives to current arrangements have been reduced to crude dichotomy.  It is time to advance to a discourse which exemplifies rather than negates what education should be about." Alexander was particularly concerned about the Labour administration.  Michael Gove’s politicisation of education is much worse.

Gove’s concern for the low level of educational achievement of too many young people is, of course, one that we share.  However it is not underperformance of schools, but the inequality in our society, that is the problem. It is poverty in communities where there are too few jobs and little hope: where there is a culture of despair. It is not the failure of teachers.  

How is it that a man with no classroom teaching experience, no professional qualification in Education, and no evidence of having read any of the educational writing of people like Whitehead on ‘inert’ knowledge, Piaget on child development, Dewey on liberal education, and many other classics which are expected of post-graduate students of Education, can be endowed with dictatorial powers to change the education system affecting millions of children in England? 

There is an argument for government by amateurs.  It can bring an open mind to affairs of state. But surely there must be an expectation, if not a requirement, that proposed policies are critically analysed by professionals who examine their implications and likely consequences.  But at least there is a public consultation on the current proposals.

It closes on 16 April and those who share our concerns should speak out on the DfE website.  Unfortunately there is not a box that asks "Is it too much, too young?"

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