‘Taking education back to the 1950s – a classic mistake’

The Telegraph, 14.12.15, The problem with the knowledge-based curriculum is that many with a stake in its success want something different, says HMC member Keith Budge, headmaster of leading independent Bedales Schools.

Nick Gibb, the education minister, used his foreword for a Policy Exchange report Knowledge and the Curriculum, to put some flesh on the bones of his Government’s rationale for educational reform.

Sometimes it seems as if barely a week passes without the minister or one of his colleagues reminding us that only STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) and Russell Group 'facilitating subjects' are worth a candle as A-level subjects. That a ‘good education’ is dependent on a knowledge-based curriculum, and that this be transmitted largely from the front of the class by authoritative teachers to quiet, attentive children.

This, we learn from Gibb’s essay, is a necessary antidote to the progressive mistakes of preceding decades. The 2007 National Curriculum overlay of ‘Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills’ was arrant nonsense, he tells us, and was hostile to the teaching of prescribed knowledge.

"The kind of rote learning characteristic of Shanghai delivers ostensible results, but at a cost in terms of mental health and creativity."

Such knowledge he sees both as social glue and important intellectual capital, the widespread acquisition of which can help to reduce social disparities, insisting that it "belongs to everyone, regardless of background, circumstance or job".

How laudable is this aim, and how appealing is the idea of a static, trustworthy and more or less self-ordering world of ideas. The trouble is that it seems a million rather than 100 years away from our fluid, intellectually atomised and unpredictable early 21st century world.

Government ministers excepted, the response to the knowledge-based curriculum and associated examination-based assessment orthodoxy has been mixed.

In his recent article in The Telegraph, Vikas Pota of the Varkey Foundation accepts that child-centred learning sometimes came at the cost of the development of basic skills, but argues that the zeal with which recent and current reforms have been pursued has seen an overcorrection. This echoes criticism from other quarters.

For example, Government is happy to trumpet its efforts in rushing to import the teaching orthodoxies that have propelled Shanghai to the top of the PISA maths tables.

It is no secret that this learning takes place in a highly pressurised environment characterised by its emphasis on the transfer of knowledge and that, for all of their success, Chinese policymakers are now questioning the merits of this approach.

The kind of rote learning characteristic of Shanghai delivers ostensible results, but at a cost in terms of mental health and creativity that the Chinese appear increasingly unwilling to bear.

Of course, it was not so long ago that eager policymakers were beating a path to Finland’s door, keen to learn the secrets of the approach and methods that had propelled them to the top of the PISA tree.

With this in mind, it is noteworthy that despite Finland’s recent dip in form vis-à-vis PISA league table positions, their own people do not appear to have joined in with the rush to Shanghai.

Indeed, Pasi Sahlberg, a former director general at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, argues that the school system “should be designed to inspire students and to enable them to lead happy, fulfilled lives both at work and outside the workplace”.

Nor does industry appear uniformly enamoured of the direction of reform. In its policy document First steps: a new approach for our schools, the CBI laments a tick-box approach that risks the prioritisation of league tables over the individual needs of children.

It was also not so long ago that the OECD argued for the importance of interpersonal as well as routine cognitive skills; the ability to learn, adapt and change; closer links between the worlds of work and that of education; and the avoidance of an overreliance on formal qualifications at the expense of actual skills.

So important is this, suggests Pota, that Siemens now teaches its people teamwork and problem solving alongside the enduring staples of literacy and numeracy.

"It was not so long ago that eager policymakers were beating a path to Finland’s door, keen to learn the secrets of the approach and methods that had propelled them to the top of the PISA tree."

Finally, and no less tellingly, a recent Demos report – Mind Over Matter – finds that a third of final year school students believe their school is focused only on preparing them to succeed in exams, rather than in life.

Ultimately, the problem with the knowledge-based curriculum, and associated assessment regime, is that many with a significant stake in its success appear to want something rather different.

In characterising Government’s approach, Pota invokes the Dickens character of Gradgrind and that Victorian’s arid obsession with facts.

I suppose one good thing about the current appetite for a ‘retro’ education is that students of English Literature have a greater chance than before of running across not only Gradgrind, but also Dickens’ social analysis of an approach to enterprise that is as myopic as it is joyless and rapacious.

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