The Golden Age – part 1


the-golden-ageThe Golden Age in Greek mythology refers to the first of several sequences of the ‘Ages of Man’.  Being ‘Gold’, it is obviously the best and the subsequent ages: Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron denote a period of steady decline. So, even by the 1st century BC life in general was already past it. Even by the Daily Mail standards this is pretty gloomy but it shows quite neatly that as a race our default setting seems to be: it was better yesterday but enjoy today because it will be worse tomorrow. As a result every single conceivable idea or movement has apparently already had its golden age: Hollywood, comics, sci-fi, hip-hop, there has, I am reliably informed by Wikipedia, even been a golden age of porn-but due to internet restrictions on my broadband I am unable to inform you of when or what that was.

Presumably there was a golden age in education and presumably we all missed it. However our brave Secretary of State for Education, dear little Micky Gove is determined to find it and put it back in its rightful place. This personal quest of his helps to explain why each week he spews out more and more demented policy ideas in the hope that one day he’ll hit gold. He’s not having a great deal of success with this strategy; I mean if you read all of his ideas for schools and education in order it’s as if he’s playing his own version of the BBC game show ‘Pointless’ where he’s gradually trying to find the one idea that absolutely no teacher will like.

Give every school a free bible? ‘Not bad, 85 teachers liked that idea.’

2014 Proposed Curriculum? ‘Ooh that’s a good one, only 35 teachers liked that one.’

Longer school days? ‘Very close, 8 teachers were in favour of that.’

Shorter holidays? ‘Wow, that’s a very low score with only 4 teachers being in favour of that.’

Inset a device into a teacher’s inner ear so they self-destruct after two successive ‘less than good’ lessons as voted for by pupils who weren’t there at the time ? ‘Congratulations! That is a totally pointless answer.’

There are three only possible sensible reasons why Gove seems to be selecting education policy as if he’s playing a blind ‘education policy’ lucky dip whilst taking vast quantities of crystal meth that is having a serious effect on his ability to apply reason:

  1.  He is an idiot.
  2. He is a genius who is subversively managing the government’s plan to have every school a privatised academy by the May bank holiday by enforcing unpopular policy.
  3. He is really bad at playing ‘truth or dare?’


Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain: Thanks to Mr Gove, we are definitely not living in the golden age of education.

Come on Mr Mayor…don’t just plant a tree, sow the seeds of change!


Bristol has a Mayor. This is fine, I have nothing against Bristol having a Mayor; in fact I imagine it could be quite exciting, shake things up a bit. Bristol’s Mayor is a man called George Ferguson. So far there are three things that I know about him:

  1. He wears red trousers a lot.
  2. He played a significant and important role in the redevelopment of Bedminster’s Tobacco Factory.
  3. He wants every child in Bristol to plant a tree.

Of these three statements one impresses me and causes me to think all is not lost; one has made me confine the wearing of my own pair of red trousers to when I’m gardening; and one of these statements really, really annoys me. I think it should be clear to most people that the red trousers issue is taken care of; I think the Tobacco Factory is great so that leaves us with statement three: he wants every child in Bristol to plant a tree.

It was a couple of days after his election victory that Mr Ferguson addressed a room full of Head Teachers at the University of the West of England. Poor bugger, he was probably still hung over from celebrating but his PA had obviously said ‘Get on that stage Mr Mayor, this is an opportunity’. So he came on and I remember two feelings: slight surprise because close up his red trousers were actually tartan, but more than that I remember feeling a bit sorry for him. He seemed a bit flustered and who could blame him? He hadn’t talked that much about education before and suddenly here he was talking to a load of Head Teachers, I mean what was he meant to say? Turned out he did some crowd pleasing material on us all being heroes and then, in what I imagined was a stream of consciousness, he said that he wanted every child in Bristol to plant a tree.

I quite naturally ignored this as did most people on my table. It was just a bit of fluff and nonsense designed to sound inspirational in a ‘children are the future of this planet and so are trees’ kind of way. It didn’t carry any weight, no we would forget about this idea. Put it at the back of the cupboard with the other ‘big’ ideas like building a solar powered snow plough and running a competition to find Bristol’s favourite soup.

So imagine my surprise when I received an email asking me to sign up for the Mayor’s big scheme of getting every child in Bristol to plant a tree. Why? Will it make Bristol a green city? Will it provide a safe canopy for our children to walk under on their way to school? I don’t think it will. It might make Bristol a better shaded city in the summer months and it may encourage more tree climbing therein creating a more risk taking generation which could be a good thing but…I think that might be it.

No, what really annoys me about this idea is that it is in danger of being really small minded and for a man who displayed such vision when saving such a culturally significant building as the beloved Tobacco Factory and who proudly wears red tartan trousers in public, this paper thin initiative is a massive disappointment. Education at this precise moment in time is not in the best of places and I would have thought that the proposed National Curriculum, which seems to be unifying all educators through their hatred of it, would be seen as the golden egg squeezed out from Gove’s massive egghole (urgh) to be picked up and capitalised on.

Imagine a whole city turning its back on a badly formatted and politically engineered curriculum and instead creating something truly inspiring and meaningful for its children. A City Curriculum with local and global dimensions agreed upon by all educators and pushed forward by the city’s Mayor. A newly elected Mayor should seize this opportunity to engage with school leaders and play a part in developing something far greater than the sum of its parts. A city curriculum could truly lay the foundations that would allow an entire city becoming ‘outstanding’ based on any set of criteria from anybody’s score-book. Schools may not be able to do it on their own, they carry with them too much baggage, but with a leader or a figurehead to help facilitate the journey we could do it. The Mayor is in the correct neutral position to at least give it a try. Or…we could plant a tree and then get on with teaching 7 year olds about the house of Plantagenet. Your call Mr Mayor.

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.