Goodbye Mr Chips, Hello Mr Squeers.

One of my largest gripes with the current government’s handling of primary education was the snatching away of (then) current frameworks and curriculum guidance with no replacement in sight for years. I know, I know! As a Head Teacher I could have quite easily mapped out a whole school framework for English & Maths based on a set of principles laid down in the renewed (old) framework for Literacy & Maths.  However that would mean messing around Google looking for the archive files, Gove’s online lair for banned practical and useful resources, like Indiana Jones’s less brave nephew.

But it wasn’t just the new (old) Literacy & Maths framework that had gone: the whole ruddy renewed (old) national curriculum had gone! The good one, which Rose had contributed to – that was almost but not totally the same as the current (old, old) national curriculum but with a bit more skills and the long sentences split into smaller ones. I know, I know! I could have bought into a corporate curriculum that ‘guaranteed’ to be in line with current government legislation and also ‘promised’ to be fun. (You could tell it was fun because one of the topics was called ‘Chocolate’. )

No it was far easier for me to sit back and wait for the new National Curriculum. And wait I did.  After a lot of waiting I could only think that this new curriculum was going to be amazing! I mean they were not doing a rushed job; they were really taking their time. And I waited, and waited and carried on waiting, even when the rumours starting flying around that it was just going to be about knowledge and content. ‘No!’ I said, standing on my chair batting older, more grumpy heads on the nose with a rolled up copy of Gove’s Bible, ‘Our Government are not taking this long to craft a national curriculum based on lists of stuff children should know and they are definitely not taking this long because they’ve nicked it from an American approach to education and they have to go through all 6000 pages changing ‘Math’ to ‘Maths’.  

So I carried on waiting until the day finally came and the proposed national curriculum arrived. I missed it actually, but luckily quite a few people were tweeting it about so I got me a copy. It’s getting a bit of flak but I think there are some good bits in it. Most commentators however are tooling up and blog-bashing Gove over the wider curriculum elements and History in particular is getting firmly happy-slapped.

Granted, it does appear to be rather long lists of historical facts that are to be learnt and this does beg the question did Mr Gove get his ideas on effective education from Mr Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby? ‘When the boy knows this out of book, he goes and does it. That’s our system.’ But, I personally don’t mind the scope of historical study outlined in the document but then again, I like history. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: I like knowing about stuff that happened in the past.

My biggest problem (about me not the curriculum) is that while I enjoy each episode of ‘Simon Schama’s A History of Britain’ I cannot retain a single sustained fact about any of Schama’s lessons six weeks afterwards. My biggest problem (about the curriculum, not me) is that it is in danger of producing a system of education that will not enable any child to retain a single sustained fact about any teacher’s lesson six weeks afterwards.

Effective education…really effective education, in my mind, is about: acquiring knowledge through the application of skills.  Just giving away knowledge isn’t good enough. The joy of primary school education is teaching children facts by equipping them with skills and this can only be done through a broad and balanced curriculum that allows teachers to combine subject skills to create well-crafted topics. Topics that inspire, allow children to think critically about the information they receive and allow them to actively engage in finding out about the world around them. Only then will you get passionate learners who are then ready to consume knowledge at a more advanced level. As much as Gove wants, children are not going to leave Key Stage 2 with a complete knowledge (let alone understanding) of the British Isles based upon his mighty list alone.

I am sure that Gove is not expecting teachers to just churn out facts and get children to memorise Kings and Queens but his draft history curriculum does seems disproportionately weighted towards understanding historical events through knowing FACTS. The fact that you can get children to learn about historical events, personalities, bias, politics, and culture through, say, art seems to be lost.

This, as I see it is the biggest disappointment of the national curriculum: it’s just a list that he want children to know. At least the old (old, old) national curriculum had the dignity to suggest some interesting schemes of work that linked with other subjects. (Yes, I know they got a bit over-subscribed to but they were a start) Gove apparently has neither the time nor the inclination to attempt something as complex as joined up thinking across the subjects. The idea that some subject’s skills lend themselves well to learning about other subject’s content is less important it seems than promoting selfish, single minded subjects.  The idea that education is about developing true intelligence and nurturing talent is less important than being able to test an individual’s penchant for fact regurgitation at the end of each year.

This expectation for mass content knowledge coupled with a lack of thought on curriculum skills may, I fear, mean that topics as I know and love them will disappear. Lessons will be dis-jointed. Children will learn isolated facts. The concept of cross-referencing skills over a series of subjects linked by one over-arching topic will be lost. Pupils will be judged on memory. Our nation will become a nation of pub quiz bores. Sadly the battle between producing ‘historians’ or ‘Statisticians’ will have been won and the interested, well-rounded and skilled citizens of the future will lie dead, underneath a car park full of cars parked by knowledgeable but ultimately useless eggheads.