National Curriculum proposals in various subjects are now out for consultation. While it is important that teachers, trade unions and subject associations respond to these, it’s also important to develop a more general critique of the underlying principles behind them.
The new National Curriculum represents a reactionary step back –part of a more general programme of reversing progressive reform in education. Gove’s curriculum does not allow teachers the freedom promised in the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching. On the contrary, its themes and organising principles are not considered to be educationally sound by the majority of practitioners and do not provide children and young people with the skills they need to cope with the challenge, but also the problems of the 21st century In particular:
- claims that the proposals are based on educational practices in high performing countries are misguided, selective and based on inaccurate data
- arguments about the need to return to a more ‘knowledge based’ curriculum are being used to narrow learning and to introduce emphasise particular interpretations of culture, traditions and values in subjects like history and English, rather than encouraging the ‘cultural diversity and responsible citizenship’ emphasised in the Experts Report
- ‘core’ subjects will be oversubscribed while others left largely to schools to interpret –reducing their status in the eyes of students and their parents
- rather than a ‘broad curriculum’, Gove restores traditional curriculum hierarchies, including the primacy of ‘academic’ learning over the practical and vocational, ‘hard facts’ rather than enquiry and critical thinking while there is little room for developing skills that promote personal and emotional development or encourage collaboration and oral self-confidence
- creativity and enjoyment at school will be reduced further
- Gove’s curriculum will be driven by assessment systems designed to divide students and lower aspirations. Attempts to ration exam success being considered appropriate for an economy where employment opportunities for young people are at their worst ever and a society where social mobility has gone into reverse
There are clear inequities that can serve as the basis for an immediate campaign. For example, phonics and reading tests for young children in primary schools. Requirements that children concentrate on learning tables or particular types of mathematical calculations at the expense of other numeracy skills. The introduction of new GCSE and A-level examinations that fewer will pass. A narrow ‘Kings and Queens’ history curriculum and the obsession with particular literary texts rather than others. Teaching and learning will continue to be dictated by external assessment requirements rather than learning needs.
With Labour promising little in the way of alternatives, there is an urgent need to reclaim the debate about the aims and principles behind the curriculum from Michael Gove and the Coalition. Producing an alternative curriculum framework that is based on principles of social justice and equality and that encourages young people to become self –confident, reflective but also critical citizens, must be central to any new national campaign to defend and promote state education.
In this respect discussion about the curriculum must also be a discussion about what education is for and in the context of continued economic decline, the marginalisation of young people from employment and the likelihood that more will see education as something that has failed them; what we can expect it to achieve.