Michael Gove’s new National Curriculum requirements might have been finalised, but the debate about what young people should learn and how; must continue. If there is an area where Gove is both weak and wobbly, then it continues to be on the curriculum, where he has made a series of retreats, if not U-turns – starting with the fiasco around the English Baccalaureate Certificates, but continuing with the concessions on History and to a lesser extent English. On all occasions, Gove has faced campaigns of opposition.
Gove frames many of his arguments in the context of what he considers to be the UK’s declining international performance and portrays himself as a ‘moderniser’, looking to the education practices of high performing countries for inspiration. In other words, his concern about ‘standards’ is justifiable and necessary for the longer term ability of the UK economy to ‘compete’.
‘…the emphasis on effort is particularly marked in the Confucian-heritage countries such as China, Hong Kong SAR, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. The assumption here is that deep engagement with subject matter, including through memorisation where appropriate, leads to deeper understanding.’ (8.6) and ‘Hong Kong… as with South Korea and Singapore also operates with a curriculum model focusing on “fewer things in greater depth”.’ (2010 White Paper 8.10)
This allegation has continued unabated throughout Gove’s offensive. Launching the new National Curriculum that requires 5 year olds to calculate fractions and write computer programmes, 9 year olds to recite 12 times tables and 11 year olds to memorise poetry, Gove told ITV’s Daybreak (08/07/13), ‘I want my children, who are in primary school at the moment, to have the sort of curriculum that children in other countries have, which are doing better than our own.’
Despite Gove’s claims that officials in the Department for Education have spent years examining and analysing the curricula used in the world’s supposedly most successful school systems, this type of comparative justification has always been highly selective and compares very different traditions of education, including those requiring pictographic characters as opposed to phonic literacy! Commenting on this week’s announcement, Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union said:
‘Several successful international systems are quoted as the inspiration for the new curriculum but only one of these (Massachusetts) has the same school starting age as England. The rest start at 6 or 7, undermining the argument that more demanding content should be presented to children earlier. In fact, the opposite should be the case. The Secretary of State also quotes Finland at a time when Finland is taking a different direction for its curriculum by emphasising critical thinking over factual content, boosting cross-curricular themes and reducing content to give more time to learning.’
Even Sir Michael Barber, architect of many ‘school improvement’ reforms during the last two decades, warned about the dangers of copying policy on the hoof (Guardian 22/8/12). Barber also pointed out that, as policy makers in the Asian Tiger economies recognise that their economic systems need to become ‘more innovative’ and their schools ‘more creative’, some of the countries held up by Gove are looking to European education systems for inspiration.
Finally, as the Guardian’s Peter Wilby (08/12/2012) has pointed out, the specific OECD international tests on which Gove based much of his evidence have since been declared invalid with officials reprimanded. For example, less than three months after Gove had published his proposals for exam reform, new ‘global league tables’ published by the multi-national education supplier Pearson and compiled by The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the UK sixth best in the world – although Finland and South Korea remained first and second. Oxford University researchers have also argued that international test data as a whole cannot be taken at face value and are extremely limited ways of measuring a country’s educational standards. (www.oucea.education.ox.ac.uk/research/recent-research-projects/research-evidence-relating-to-proposals-for-reform-of-the-gcse/)
Gove has claimed ‘unprecedented interest’ in his curriculum proposals. There has been, yet much of it continues to be critical. Now that the NUT and NASUWT have commenced joint strike action against Gove’s Draconian policies for teachers’ pay, it is crucial that the campaign integrates the concerns of teachers, some of whom will be bounced into teaching parts the new NC from this September as the current model has been ‘disapplied’. With poll after poll continuing to show that parents see teachers as the people who know most about the curriculum and learning, not government ministers, opportunities to involve parents in a general campaign on both teaching and learning, can only grow.