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National Curriculum will set out what our children are entitled to learn - not how they should learn it

JohnbaldJohn Bald says the education reforms are still on track

My promise to review of technical and vocational education this week has been overtaken by events, so first congratulations to Michael Gove on his good press this morning, and on a wonderful defence and explanation of his educational reforms to the Social Market Foundation on Tuesday. The speech is here and it is well worth reading, as it brings out the underlying issues in the debate and exposes the catastrophic errors made by progressive education in effectively keeping children in ignorance in pursuit of the goal of equality.

First, following his earlier praise for Educating Rita, Michael picked out Jane Goody's careful use of her earnings to provide for her children the education she never had herself, and that she'd been ridiculed for not having. Then he shot the progressives' fox by taking one of the heroes of the Left, Antonio Gramsci, and quoting what he really said about progressive education, to wit:

"The new concept of schooling is in its romantic phase, in which the replacement of "mechanical" by "natural" methods has become unhealthily exaggerated….previously pupils at least acquired a certain baggage of concrete facts. Now there will no longer be any baggage to put in order…the most paradoxical aspect of it all is that this new type of school is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but crystallise them in Chinese complexity."

Most Guardian readers did not like it, or indeed the reference to the other Leftist concept of "cultural capital", originated by their more recent icon, the French neo-Marxist Pierre Bourdieu. Education (in Ken Livingstone's London, not Essex) gave Jane Goody no cultural capital. She did at least find the means to provide some for her children. Ebacc aims to widen its distribution further, however the acronym happens to be spelled.

Michael Rosen's latest monthly free attack in The Guardian was a series of sarcastic congratulations for "making the poor poorer". It is more accurate to see it as an attempt to free them from the bonds of ignorance, not by distributing cultural capital more widely - it is not something that can be handed out - but by giving them the means to acquire it. Hence my recent reference to Michael Rose's The Intellectual Life of the Working Classes, a key text in this argument.

The Left, which likes to think of itself as more intellectual than the rest of us - intellectual snobbery is the basis of Trotskyism and New Labour - has also been suggesting that Michael has misunderstood the American Daniel Willingham, who has argued for more emphasis on factual knowledge in education. This posting by Professor Willingham taking Michael's shadow, Stephen Twigg, to task for not seeing that there is more to this than Gradgrindery. Well worth reading, and here is a quote:

But I find the response from Stephen Twigg (Labour's shadow education secretary) disquieting, because he seems to have missed Gove's point.

"Instead of lecturing others, he should listen to business leaders, entrepreneurs, headteachers and parents who think his plans are backward looking and narrow. We need to get young people ready for a challenging and competitive world of work, not just dwell on the past." (As quoted in the Financial Times.)

It's easy to scoff at a knowledge-based curriculum as backward-looking. Memorization of math facts when we have calculators? Knowledge in the age of Google?

But if you mistake advocacy for a knowledge-based curriculum as wistful nostalgia for a better time, or as "old fashioned" you just don't get it.

Surprising though it may seem, you can't just Google everything. You actually need to have knowledge in your head to think well. So a knowledge-based curriculum is the best way to get young people "ready for the world of work."

Mr. Gove is rare, if not unique, among high-level education policy makers in understanding the scientific point he made in yesterday's speech. You may agree or disagree with the policies Mr. Gove sees as the logical consequence of that scientific point, but education policies that clearly contradict it are unlikely to help close the achievement gap between wealthy and poor.

The thing that really annoys the Left is that Conservative ministers respect evidence and are accurate. This is, admittedly, a novelty in our educational debate, but they had better get used to it, as there is more to come.

The new National Curriculum is a further step in this direction, setting out in a more succinct manner than before what our children are entitled to learn, without over-prescription as to how they should learn it. In languages, Labour's "framework" of 134 pages, loaded with its social agenda, has been reduced to two.

Another constructive measure is the decision to use graded scores in a pupil's best eight GCSEs - rather than Labour's straitjacket of 5 A* to C to evaluate schools. This measure, which was used under Sir Mike Tomlinson's Ofsted, rewards the excellence of A* grades and adds breadth to the Ebacc core, without encouraging people to collect large numbers of GCSEs for the sake of it. It is also fair to the state sector, and to pupils who do not enjoy the best of working conditions outside school.

The final element of the Conservative intellectual revival is our right of centre think tanks, and particularly Policy Exchange. I had the pleasure of working with PX's new director, Dean Godson, and his brilliant colleagues on a report designed to keep extremists out of free schools and academies (Faith Schools We Can Believe in). This attracted cross-party support, and led to key safeguards in legislation. Its new report on vocational education, Technical Matters (Dr. Owen Corrigan, Ed. Lucy Lee) is a powerful and critical survey of the mangled state of this sector, in which poor performance, corruption (six-month "apprenticeships"), waste and duplication have had free rein, largely due to Labour's attempt to make every initiative part of its agenda of remoulding society, under the heading "parity of esteem".

Labour's current idea of a Technical Baccalaureate - not one of Professor Woolf's recommendations - is in the same vein, and in my view would soon turn into another exercise in putting certificates on the incompetence of providers. A key conclusion is that "... it seems clear on the basis of the international evidence that what is needed is not a commitment to an unattainable parity but rather a recognition of the ways in which technical-vocational education is qualitatively different."


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