Amid the myriad controversies of a new national curriculum, it was the plan to teach fractions to five-year-olds that made the biggest waves.
It is easy to see why: the image of browbeaten children forced into what many consider an educational torture chamber when they might otherwise be playing in the sun is a strikingly emotive one. The reality is rather less Victorian, though. Indeed, it says much of adult Britain’s relationship with maths that the mere mention of fractions causes such concern.
It should not. After all, there is no reason that basic concepts – even mathematical ones – cannot be imparted to young children in a way that is as accessible as it is educational. There is also a strong case for introducing number skills earlier (not least to try to ensure that future generations grow up less fraction-phobic than the current one). But this is just the latest in a series of storms in response to the new curriculum which, taken together, speak volumes of the enduringly problematic relationship between the Education Secretary and many in the educational establishment.
When the initial draft of Michael Gove’s plans was published in February, it sparked a furore of condemnation. Creativity was to be sacrificed to a reactionary focus on facts, critics presaged. The focus on details was “elitist”, counselled others. At the National Union of Teachers’ conference, one speaker derided “Gradgrind Gove’s pub quiz curriculum”, and more than 100 academics wrote to The Independent to warn that the history syllabus was “jingoistic” to the point of illegality.
In fairness, the Education Secretary has given ground. Yesterday’s final version includes more world history than its predecessor and puts climate change back into geography lessons. Design and technology has also been substantially revised. But the overall thrust – more rigour and more facts – is unchanged. And Mr Gove’s opponents are no more reconciled than they were.
The most serious worry is a practical one: that the introduction of the new measures in 2014 does not give teachers sufficient time to prepare. With an election in 2015, the Education Secretary’s motivation is not difficult to spot. Neither is it necessarily wrong. But it is here that the greatest dangers lie and it is to this that the greatest attention must now be paid.
Teachers’ practical concerns might be more manageable, though, were Mr Gove himself not viewed with quite such distrust. Indeed, at least as much ire is focused on the charge that the Education Secretary has allowed “personal prejudices” to politicise the curriculum. The suggestion that politicians have a monopoly on political agendas is at best naive, at worst disingenuous, however. And although it is reasonable enough to expect Mr Gove to seek the advice of professionals, ultimately the decisions must be made by those who are accountable, rather than those who are not.
Nor can it credibly be argued that the existing system is working. Employers’ consistent complaints about school-leavers’ lack of basic skills are a damning indictment that cannot be ignored; and it is not unreasonable to conclude that a more rigorous, fact-centred approach to learning might help.
Mr Gove’s most compelling defence for his tighter focus is that the new syllabus is only a foundation upon which individual teachers can build. If true, then the balance outlined yesterday is the right one. The problem is that teachers maintain that no such time is allowed. This dispute is not only emblematic of the distrust between the Education Secretary and much of the teaching profession. Its resolution is also central to the success of the new curriculum.