While reformers (now even many Tories) continue to emphasise education’s potential role in challenging inequalities through expanding opportunities, radical practitioners go further and argue an alternative curriculum is necessary. Here they are have been joined by left wing academics , who influenced by the writings of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci or, in this country, by the work of Raymond Williams, see education as a site of ideological or ‘hegemonic’ struggle, where there is potential to challenge, but also provide alternatives. (The extent of education’s ‘relative autonomy’ has been a long debate in academia.) Others have been influenced by the more practically based liberational pedagogy of Paulo Freire.
Central to curriculum struggles has been debate and interpretation about ‘powerful knowledge’. In a Marxist analysis, powerful knowledge is equated with the knowledge of the ruling class, appearing as ‘fixed’ and intrinsically superior and essential in ensuring ‘legitimacy’. This is contrasted with ‘critical knowledge’, or what 19th century radicals termed really useful knowledge – alternative views of how society works. But there is also the ‘everyday’ knowledge that students draw from the communities in which they live, but which is ignored if not openly despised in many academic institutions, because it’s seen as intrinsically inferior.
Following Freire, radical practitioners continue to be concerned with the processes through which knowledge is transmitted and rather than being handed down by teachers (and ‘banked’ by students) have emphasised the importance of ‘finding out’ through interactive activity such as group work, oral discussion or using new technology in a collaborative way. Examples of this have been the various ‘project based’ courses, that were part of with mode 3 CSEs in the 1980s but also significant in the early GCSE’s. But also the ‘new vocationalism’ claiming to reflect workplace changes and emphasising learning by ‘doing,’ rather than listening to teachers; the recording of ‘outcomes’ rather than remembering factual knowledge and building portfolios of evidence rather than sitting examinations.
In recent years however, developing, let alone implementing alternative curriculum models has become extremely challenging, if not impossible, because of the rolling back of many of the progressive gains of comprehensive education and the influence of New Right ideas. The current National Curriculum is far away from the ‘broad and balanced’ learning, said to exist in previous times. Neither do teacher unions, increasingly overwhelmed with protecting members immediate interests – working conditions, security and pay – intervene in curriculum and pedagogy issues like they used to.
Yet attempts to develop alternative approaches to the curriculum should be given some context. The mode 3 CSEs were aimed at particular groups of students, not seen as being suitable for academic learning and who’s participation in it could be potentially ‘disruptive’. In other words rather than challenging academic learning, the new courses were responses to control problems in schools, provided parallel channels alongside it. The reality was also one where, as Paul Willis documented in his historic study Learning to Labour, many students would move in to local and traditional employment without the need for any educational qualifications. Likewise, the new vocational courses were never properly recognised by employers because they were not needed. On the contrary, vocational education grew up in response to the increased participation in post-16 education by working class young people, the result of the absence of work.
This is worlds away from the ‘credentialised’ societies of today, where any real secure employment is dependent on gaining high levels of qualifications – even to degree level, as more and more jobs become ‘graduatised’. As a result, powerful knowledge takes on a different role, with students seeking particular qualifications because of their (extrinsic) exchange value in the labour market, rather than any intrinsic educational qualities. It’s for this reason that right wing commentators have attacked alternative styles of learning. Rather than empowering socially deprived students, they claim they deny access to knowledge that will help them ‘get on’. In order to improve their status, vocational qualifications have adopted more traditional forms of assessment like written exams.
Understanding that a collective need to challenge powerful knowledge might contradict the individual needs of student to obtain it, should not mean that the two are incompatible. Recognising the importance of gaining particular qualifications doesn’t mean that we need to endorse their content like right wing commentators do. It also clear these days, that signing up for traditional academic subjects, doesn’t guarantee social mobility (‘getting on’) as fewer and fewer students, despite their qualifications end up with the employment they want or reflects their time spent in education – a situation of education without jobs. But it does mean that without a new relationship between education and the labour market there will always be inbuilt tensions.