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What Should Schools Teach?

A new series of books from the independent think tank Civitas could revolutionise primary school teaching:

  • By ending the narrowing of the curriculum that has been the result of a corrupted testing regime. Instead of ‘teaching to the test’, schools will be able to offer a broader, deeper and richer experience.
  • By ending the climate of low expectations. Genuine solidarity with children from disadvantaged homes calls for high expectations, not lowering their sights in case they encounter failure. Low expectations have entrenched elitism and prevented schools from overcoming background disadvantages.
  • By encouraging a renewal of teaching as a vocation. Teachers will be able to break away from the tyranny of tests that were calculated to show how well the government was doing, rather than to serve educational purposes.

Escaping the perverse effects of testing

Testing became a measure of political success instead of serving as a guide to children about how well they were doing and an aid to teachers keen to improve their skills. It is now acknowledged that exam and testing regimes, especially at ages 11 and 16, became corrupted. But not only did the results overstate the achieved reality, lesson time in primary schools was used to rehearse answers parrot-fashion and not to deepen and extend knowledge. An official report in June 2011, by Lord Bew, recognised that narrow ‘drilling’ had become common, squeezing out real learning and denying children a broad education.

The national curriculum controversy

The latest book in the series, What Your Year 2 Child Needs to Know, is edited by the American education reformer E.D. Hirsch, who this summer found himself dragged into the controversy about the national curriculum. Two of the four members of Michael Gove’s Expert Panel on the curriculum resigned, claiming that Hirsch had been the ‘voice that really counted’ in preparing the new version.

The most prominent critic, Professor Andrew Pollard set out his concerns in an Institute of Education blog. He wrongly associated Hirsch with a narrowly prescribed curriculum combined with ‘punitive inspection’ and testing, and claimed that over-prescription of the curriculum would prevent schools from teaching a broad and balanced curriculum as required by the 2002 Education Act.

The claim that Hirsch is associated with a narrowing of the curriculum is in fact quite the opposite of the truth. The books he has edited provide a broad curriculum aimed to ensure that children can grow up to play a full part in the life of society. Out of six chapters in the UK edition, for example, one covers music and another art. Far from prescribing what must be taught, the core-knowledge curriculum leaves schools free to decide what they teach as well as how they teach it. Teachers are able to be true professionals and respond to their particular pupils’ needs.

A description of the content can be found here.

Low expectations and failure

Professor Pollard argues for children to be taught in two-year stages ostensibly to permit schools greater freedom, not least to avoid squeezing out topics like music and art. He blames the imposition of a detailed ‘year-on-year model’ on Hirsch’s influence and argues that the expectations of the national curriculum were too high for slower learners. If targets are unreasonable ‘they will simply generate a widespread sense of failure’, he asserts.

But in reality Hirsch is a Democrat-voting egalitarian who thinks that schools should have high expectations of every child. He has more in common with traditional Labour writers such as R.H. Tawney than with many of today’s self-defined progressives. It is odd that making excuses for low expectations is identified with the progressive left. Lowering expectations is a reactionary view and Hirsch stands for a renewal of the traditional commitment of the left to seeking the best for every child.

Renewing the ideal of teaching as a vocation

High expectations are especially important for children who come from disadvantaged or unsupportive homes. It is the mission of teachers to raise children’s sights by setting out what every child should aim to learn. In recent years governments have subjected teachers to compliance regimes that have de-professionalised teaching and failed to raise standards. The ‘core knowledge’ curriculum is intended to help teachers rebuild their profession as a vocation.

Not a scheme of assessment

The books do not provide a scheme of assessment, precisely because that is a matter for schools and allowing them to take the lead helps to avoid excessive politicisation. The books offer examples of what a broad and balanced education could be in the hope that schools will teach a wide range of subjects to the greatest depth that the age of the children will allow.



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