It is a year since the Independent’s front page published an open letter warning Michael Gove that his new National Curriculum could severely erode educational standards. Our letter, under the headline Too Much Too Young, had attracted almost overnight over a hundred signatures from lecturers and professors of education in many English universities.
We pointed out that endless lists of spellings, facts and rules would not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity. This narrow curriculum would put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding, thus dumbing down teaching and learning. Furthermore, placing inappropriate demands on young children would lead to failure and demoralisation.
Unfortunately, the Secretary of State chose to slander us as ‘bad academics’ and ‘enemies of promise’ rather than engage with the argument. Thus, from September, five-year-olds who have barely started to read will be expected to spell Tuesday and Wednesday accurately, and seven-year-olds will be expected to explain the difference between affect and effect or accept and except. Maths and science are littered with similarly absurd demands, and already parents of six-year-olds are receiving letters informing them that their children are failures at reading.
Ignoring all advice, ridiculing academic expertise, dismissing the collective wisdom of the teacher unions and other professional organisations and even ignoring the CBI, the current Education Secretary, as arrogant as he is ill-informed, seems intent on undermining education and making learning a misery for millions of children. The question which arises, in the end, is: how much power one man should have over the education of 7m children?
The problem, in finality, is not Michael Gove’s boundless zeal but the 1988 Education Reform Act, created under a previous Conservative government, which gave future Secretaries of State for Education hundreds of new powers without even a discussion in Parliament, let alone the need to build consensus among teachers, parents and school governors. Invariably this unbridled centralisation and top-down control is justified in terms of ‘raising standards’, though the international PISA tests suggest the reverse is happening.
Fortunately academics in our field have not been put off by Gove’s dismissive remarks; indeed work has accelerated to generate alternatives to the current ideology of competition, surveillance and privatisation by which the school system is governed. Some of us, for example, have written policy papers for the progressive think tank CLASS (Centre for Labour and Social Studies) to take stock of educational change since 1945 and particularly since 1988. Internationally renowned professors of education such as Stephen Ball (London Institute) and Diane Reay (Cambridge) have published their research and suggestions on the CLASSonline.org.uk website, alongside well known experts in other fields such as Allyson Pollock (health) and Danny Dorling (inequality).
My own contribution, published on the anniversary of the “Too Much Too Young” letter, reviews curriculum change under successive governments, including the dogmatism about synthetic phonics, mandated even though the Department for Education admits it has no evidence that it improves reading for understanding, as opposed to simply sounding out words.
There have been two major trends in policy in the past twenty years, sometimes entwined with one another. The application of neoliberal principles to schooling has limited the education to the production of human capital, sidelining other aims such as democratic citizenship and cultural participation. Alternatively, New Right elitism insists on restoring an early 20th Century curriculum regardless of how much the world has changed, and, in the name of raising standards, seems intent on writing off the majority of young people.
Serious dilemmas lie ahead. How can a future government establish a common curriculum entitlement whilst allowing schools sufficient flexibility to adapt to their particular students’ needs and interests? How can a balance be achieved between written exams and the accreditation of more practical independent projects involving problem-solving, research and design? How can schools ensure that 14-16 year-olds choosing to begin work-related courses are not deprived of history, geography and creative arts?
Michael Gove will not last forever. Sadly, there is little sign that his Labour challenger Tristram Hunt, a formidable intellect in his own field, is engaging with serious educational thinking. At this stage, perhaps, the most important thing is to develop alternative thinking and make it available to a wide readership.
Dr Terry Wrigley is editor of Improving Schools and visiting professor at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is the author of a new paper published by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies: The Politics of Curriculum in Schools (http://classonline.org.uk/pubs/item/the-politics-of-curriculum-in-schools)