School haze

One vivid memory from my primary school days involves the dire warnings of the future from a traditional old sort of a teacher about the forthcoming “National Curriculum”. His fire-and-brimstone approach painted the newly created world of education would be all “format” and no “freedom”. Standards would be prescribed, classrooms would become cages for our dreams.

That was in the 1990s, and now Education Secretary Michael Gove is undertaking the most significant review since its creation. Somewhat predictably, the review and its remit is tinged with political posturing on all sides of the education debate; is the naming of anti-Slavery campaigners and the axing of Winston Churchill ideological, should children learn from rote, should children be filled with facts without opinion, why should children be forced into formal education in the first place, and so on, so on, so on…

Having been introduced to the NC at its inception, thousands of adults today retain the distant memories of learning certain subjects over and over again every other month (Oh good, the Roman Invasion again, it must be Tuesday!). The new regime was backed up with ‘attainment targets’ and ‘programmes of excellence’. Later on in the process, fake-leather ‘Records of Achievement’ would be handed out, all the better to keep our exam board certificates fresh within plastic pockets. (I have, long since, lost my ‘Record of Achievement’….).

Inevitably, subsequent political changes at Westminster have tended to dictate education reform. Nothing works on the stump more effectively than promising to shake-up the schools. The current National Curriculum document speaks in languages alien to my recollection of High School during the 1990s;

The most significant change is the development of
diploma qualifications in 14 lines of learning at levels
1, 2 and 3. The first five lines – engineering; society,
health and development; construction and the built
environment; IT; and creative and media – will be
piloted in schools from September 2008. The diplomas
combine practical skill development with theoretical
understanding, covering sector and general learning in
applied contexts.

“Society” – and “citizenship”, which now appears to have been scratched – are Labour reforms, and “practical skill development with theoretical understanding” is policy wonk speak which could only have been created by the kind of people my primary school teacher warned against. The tick-box education system did not happen on the day NC was introduced, though it certainly polluted everything else since.

Bad decisions were made in the race to be seen ‘responsive’ to education concerns – most infamously the decision to axe compulsory language education beyond Key Stage 3, effectively denying children the opportunities which come from being able to converse in either modern European languages or the new business world languages of Mandarin or Hindi. Search the current NC documents for “language” and no results are found.

Measuring standards across schools is the priority for Governments, fearful of judgements on the reading, writing and arithmetic skills of the children the State is tasked with educating. Sadly the urgency to be seen succeeding has filled most staff rooms with fog and bluster; it takes years for the education reforms of one Government to be seen “at the other end”, and the increasing impatience for instant results sees children’s educational experiences swapped and changed more times than management away-day agendas. It is hard not to feel sympathy for teachers whose lessons are built from continually changing materials; one year firm-but-fair could become freedom-and-expression. League tables, another on-high prescription for all which ills, force Local Education Authorities into a bizarre competition format within and beyond their borders, although the inability for low- and middle-income families to move children from one underperforming school to another – should they want to – means League Tables are often only useful for one partisan side of the education debate to criticise the other. Parents, children and teachers, whose work ultimately creates those Tables, are left shielding their heads from the sniping.

If Gove is serious about NC reforms, his rationale needs to be far more radical than his Department’s briefing notes suggest. It is shocking to me – as someone who relished learning the little things to keep the brain ticking over – that Ministers have highlighted omissions such as “geography curriculum does not identify any continents, rivers or mountains or name any countries apart from the UK.” If Gove is honest in his endeavour to reintroduce ‘facts’ into the classroom, this deserves support and praise. The curriculum was always ‘alien’ to Britain by its very nature; if it takes one Conservative to improve on the foundations from predecessor Conservatives, then that should be congratulated.

The wider education debate is far more involved than merely publishing new booklets explaining what can and cannot be taught to eager teenagers. The opportunities for learning and expression across younger years has been blanketed under boardroom tussles and Government grandstanding for decades, generations held within the grip of ideology and party politics. Gove is clearly an educational enthusiast, bias cut towards the schooling he received. In the wider education argument drafting prescriptive checklists and targets seem wholly inappropriate.

My teacher was concerned by how the National Curriculum would miss the specifics in its model for the wider ‘ambitions’ for education. I fear he has been proved correct. Gove should making ‘free schools’ with lowercase letters, and axe the National Curriculum entirely.