Lynn FulfordBy Lynn Fulford – Associate Dean of Faculty of Education, Law and Social Sciences at Birmingham City University

Oh good – we are having a review of the school curriculum… again.  Apologies if I sound bored. In fact, curriculum debate is always lively and engaging but – too often – it simply becomes subverted into tedious rhetoric as is currently happening. A trawl through the Daily Mail website – always good for a laugh – reveals that we have been going round the same circles for years, with one or two variations on the same theme. My favourite headline is from last year when we were told ‘Teaching Unions call for porn lessons on the national curriculum’ but I’m also amused by  one from 2009 which berates Ed Balls, then Secretary of State for Education, for – allegedly – wishing to introduce the ‘art of Twitter’ to primary school children.

The problem with discussions about the curriculum is that they are rarely about what we teach children but about our own preoccupations about what we think is valuable and – often – what we think we were taught at school ourselves. So, Michael Gove in a politically-charged, rather predictable call to go ‘back to basics’, attacks those academics who are critical of the proposed curriculum for being pitched unrealistically high, accusing them of opposing children being taught how to spell, know their times tables and use an extensive vocabulary. A genuinely interesting, and very important, debate has been transformed into crass, simplistic sound-bites where ‘common sense’ Gove is pitched against academics who, for some mysterious reason, wish to deny children access to the skills that will enable them to become socially mobile.

The reality is rather different. Professor Andrew Pollard, originally one of the team tasked by the Department for Education (DfE) to review the curriculum, criticises Gove’s proposals as being ‘fatally flawed’, ‘crude’ and ‘over-prescriptive’. He does so because of the high level of detail of the subject specifications, their underlying assumption that learning is linear and that all children should make progress in the same way and at the same time. The new specifications are so detailed that they make it harder for teachers to make professional judgements based on the needs of their individual children – despite the DfE’s protestations that flexibility is central to the new curriculum. For example, six year old children are now going to enjoy the poetry of Christina Rossetti and understand the work of the scientists Michael Faraday and William Harvey. In history they will understand concepts such as civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, and war and peace.

Such a high level of prescription inevitably leads to familiar curriculum arguments about why some things are included whilst others are omitted. It is really rather more important than that: instead, it is about training highly intelligent, interesting people to become inspiring teachers who will motivate our children so that they can think, challenge and develop their ideas. There is something seductive about knowing ‘stuff’ – and there is an important body of knowledge in every subject area – but more important is to be able to apply and use knowledge in creative ways.

A visit to any primary school demonstrates very quickly the truth. Children are still learning most of the things that I was taught in the sixties: spelling still features highly, as do times tables, reading skills and writing. In our best schools, what is different is the way in which these ‘basics’ are taught, using strategies that encourage children to think, investigate and question – and by teachers who understand the value of creativity and a broad curriculum, rather than one stuffed full of dates and idiosyncratic lists of poets.

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Lynn Fulford

Lynn Fulford

Associate Dean - Student Experience & Quality Assurance