Friday, 21 January 2011

More ‘facts’ and less technique

Michael Gove, easily the busiest man in British politics has been at it again, prescribing changes to the education system whilst loudly proclaiming not to be in favour of prescription I mean. This time it is the National Curriculum used in England’s schools he has in his sights.

The curriculum was, he told the BBC at the launch of a major review ‘sub standard’ and had contributed to Britain falling behind many of its international competitors in educational achievement. There was, he said, too much emphasis on teaching methods and not nearly enough ‘facts’.

He wants to remove ‘unnecessary prescription’ (that word again) over what is taught in schools and has set up a review chaired by Tim Oates, Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, to stir things up saying : ‘I’m not going to be coming up with any prescriptive lists. I just think there should be facts.’

This isn’t, of course, true, like every Education Secretary before him Dr Gove has arrived at the bedside of the nation’s ailing education system with a patent medicine of his own brewing in his black bag. In this case what he feels we need is a return to the traditional way of teaching history, meaning long lists of dates and lots of lovely facts.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday of this week he lamented the lack of a ‘connected narrative’ in the way history is taught in English schools, with students instead hopping about between Hitler, Henry (the eighth of course) and the Holocaust without figures of the stature of Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale getting more than a passing mention if they’re lucky.

Education, he wrote, should be delivered via a curriculum that embodies ‘their cultural and scientific inheritance enhances their understanding of the world around them and that introduces them to the best that has been thought and written.’

Stirring language backed, I don’t doubt, by the most noble of sentiments, you can almost hear the patriotic music starting to swell along with countless youthful hearts as they learn for the first time about Francis Drake and Richard the Lionheart. As ever though when change to the education system is broached the heroic rhetoric is interrupted by a raspberry blown by the teaching unions.

Chris Keates of the NASUWT said that teachers wanted ‘another curriculum review like a hole in the head’, and accused the government of being ‘already determined that children should have a 1950’s style curriculum.’

This theme was taken up by Andy Burnham, Gove’s Labour shadow, who said the Education Secretary was ‘stuck in the past, foisting his 1950’s vision of education on to today’s schools.’

I’m sure even a dyed in the wool traditionalist like Michael Gove doesn’t advocate a return to the days of teachers wearing mortar boards and black gowns and you have to admire his enthusiasm for the proper teaching of history. Unfortunately, as with many of the ideas buzzing around in his busy little brain, he has missed the real target for reform.

Teaching a clear narrative in history, or any other subject for that matter, is important, but so is the way that narrative is interpreted. Stirring stories about the men who built the empire won’t do in an age when there are legitimate questions to be asked about their attitudes and actions.

Far more troubling though is the attitude Mr Gove shows to vocational learning, of course students need a sound academic foundation but that does not mean vocational subjects should be downgraded; the very idea really is a throwback to the 1950’s. If the vocational qualifications currently on offer aren’t fit for purpose, then change them, bring businesses in to deliver the training; but don’t write off students who don’t fit into the academic template.

If this review of the national curriculum fails to fully address the problem of how to provide decent vocational education for Britain’s young people then it will join all the others in the graveyard of history.

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