Joan Smith: This is back-to-basics at its monocultural, muscular worst

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The Independent Online

Fossilised fish-hooks, as Jennings used to say! I think I've finally grasped the Government's cunning plot for state education! They're going to take us back to the Fifties when every pupil learned poetry by heart, played rugger – except for soppy girls – and was able to recite the kings and queens of England in date order. It's going to be jolly hockey sticks, Britain's island story and absolutely no swearing; the kids will be too tired, anyway, after charging across a muddy playing field all afternoon.

You think I'm joking? Pay attention at the back! Old-fashioned discipline, competitive sport, English literature – and I mean English literature, not any of that foreign rubbish – and lots of British history. That'll soon sort out the nation's problems. Oh, and every lad will be proud to wear a cap and badge, encouraging healthy competition with neighbouring schools and bringing back the manly pride of the British Empire.

I'm caricaturing, up to a point. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, sees some of the traps along the way to achieving the Government's conservative vision for state education; his "history tsar", Simon Schama, says that a "renewed sense of our common story" in history lessons will be "full of contention not self-congratulation".

I don't have a problem with the curriculum becoming more academically rigorous; at grammar school, I read Cicero and Tacitus in Latin, Plato and Euripides in translation. But I hated PE so much that it's left me with a loathing of competitive sport, and I almost cheered last week when David Cameron complained during Prime Minister's Questions that only two out of five pupils regularly play competitive sport. When I was forced to play in goal during a hockey match, my sole aim was to avoid being struck by the ball, a feat I managed so successfully that I wasn't ever made to do it again. Sadly, I was also put off all forms of exertion, only returning to it years later when I discovered yoga and joined a gym.

The Prime Minister doesn't get this at all. He's obsessed with competitive games, sneering across the Dispatch Box at the Labour leader last week about his party's "terrible record" in this area. Miliband (mi), as he would have been called at the kind of school Cameron attended, provoked the Prime Minister's ire when he criticised Gove's plan to axe the £162m budget for the Schools Sports Partnership. But that doesn't tell the whole story about what happened in schools under the last government.

According to the Youth Sports Trust, the average number of physical activities offered in schools has risen from 14 to 19, including dance, fitness classes, martial arts and canoeing. There's no reason why exercise has to involve an element of competition and Cameron's lament for rugby, hockey and netball (which aren't endangered, more's the pity) is as anachronistic as Gove's list of great writers. I don't like the literary chauvinism inherent in the Education Secretary's claim that "our literature is the best in the world"; children who are force-fed Dryden, Pope, Swift and Hardy risk missing out on some of the world's greatest writers.

This is back-to-basics in its worst form: muscular and monocultural. I don't recall Jennings and Darbyshire doing yoga or reading Dostoevsky, but then they belong on the fiction shelves, not in 21st-century schools.

Joan Smith is Political Blonde at:

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