In a flashback to the 1970s and early 80s, last Tuesday’s Guardian Education profiled sociologist Michael Young, then a curriculum radical, author of books and articles on the relationship between knowledge, power and control and influential in teacher education
Young and colleagues argued that the school curriculum reflected the culture and interests of the powerful , marginalising and devaluing working class ‘everyday’ knowledge. This new sociology of education questioned the way learning took place and formed the basis of an alternative pedagogy, promoting a more integrated approach to the curriculum, a more egalitarian style of assessment, but also a more democratic relationship between teachers and students. This is a world away from the SATs and exam-based culture of today’s schools.
But Young has now distanced himself from his early beliefs and ( so the article claimed) supports a Michael Gove type curriculum based around established academic subjects, where providing proper access to ‘powerful knowledge’ can allow working class students to move on in society. In other words, the notion of social justice and education has been turned on its head. Yet is it quite that simple? Almost 50 years later, what do we make of all this?
Firstly recognising that certain knowledge is ‘powerful’ in terms of what it will buy, doesn’t mean that it should be considered intrinsically superior. We should accept that individual students, largely for instrumental reasons might want to sign up for particular subjects that improve their chances of entering more elitist institutions, while at the same time, arguing for a different curriculum for all students. One that includes a variety of learning, knowledge and skills.
Secondly, it isn’t clear how much the ‘alternative’ curriculum of the 1970s and 1980s, despite its radicalism, really advanced the interests of working class students. New ideas about learning and assessment did find their way into established subjects like English and Humanities and were influential in the creation of new ones like sociology for example. At the same time though , many of the new courses were seen as alternatives for ‘non academic’ students who were waiting to leave school. It arguably reinforced educational divides as undermine them.
This was particularly the case with vocational education, which armed with a progressive and student friendly pedagogy, grew up alongside, but didn’t really challenge the position of academic learning. It certainly didn’t enjoy equal status and was not taken seriously by employers. Though it did allow progression to higher education for many students who would never have gone, but to new post 94 institutions not the Russell Group.
Finally, in the current era where learning has become commodified and the reason for increased participation rates is as much to do with declining employment opportunities as it is a new ‘love of learning’ we should recognise that strategies for changing education must go further than the classroom and linked to wider initiatives to improve the role of young people. This has always been the case!