No nearer to a truce with Britain’s teachers

Michael Gove says the new national curriculum is only a foundation for learning


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page


In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine