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29 March 2013

Heresy of the week: There should be more than one National Curriculum

Toby Young has a fantastic post for the Telegraph with a title that says it all: 

  • “Why do Left-wing academics keep on on writing to newspapers posing as disinterested 'experts'? They're fooling no one”

Certainly not Mr Young, who provides an invaluable public service by fisking the living daylights out of these missives.

This week’s letter is signed by no less than fifty persons, who describe themselves as “the UK's leading experts on social policy and the welfare state”. One wonders how fifty people in any field can be described as “leading” it, let alone one as narrow as this. But all must have prizes – as they say in Wonderland.

Which brings us to another letter, which surfaced last week, signed by one hundred academic opponents of Michael Gove’s reformed National Curriculum. For a short and sharp take down of its contents see John Rentoul in the Independent. Toby Young, however, performs a more detailed dissection in the Telegraph, beginning with a key extract from the letter itself:

  • “The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.”

The scientific evidence (and common sense) would suggest otherwise – as summed up in the words of the American psychologist Daniel Willingham:

  • “Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).”

Despite their disdain for endless lists of facts, the letter writers trot out a few of their own, but get them wrong – for instance, in claiming that their position is supported by international comparisons of pupil performance:

  • “Far from undermining Gove's curriculum reforms, the PISA evidence supports them. Those countries at the top of the PISA league table – Shanghai, China, Hong Kong, China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore – all favour the old-fashioned, ‘drill and kill’ approach to education in which the children are expected to retain a good deal of factual knowledge...”
  • “The inclusion of Massachusetts in the list of educational regions favouring ‘cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity’ over ‘rote learning’ (the false dichotomy again) is an absolute howler. The reason schoolchildren in Massachusetts consistently outscore those in other states… is because in 1993 Massachusetts' schools adopted the core-knowledge curriculum devised by E.D. Hirsch. The new National Curriculum being proposed by Michael Gove is, to a large extent, an English adaptation of Hirsch's work.”

A few months ago, the Deep End featured a brilliant essay in which Hirsch explains why the learning facts and vocabulary is so important to cognitive development. If Michael Gove’s reforms are based on this analysis then that is all the more reason to support them.

But there’s a problem. If Labour wins the next election, as the polls currently suggest, then the Marxist dementors of the educational establishment will be back in charge. Thanks to their independence, academies and free schools will have a measure of protection, but the National Curriculum is under central government control.

In order to protect his legacy, Michael Gove should extend the principle of choice and independence from individual schools to the National Curriculum. In other words, there should be a choice of national curricula – each openly declaring the purpose and ethos of its founders. Each school would then decide which curriculum to follow, something that parents would be able to take into account when deciding where to send their children.

Leftwing lecturers in 'progressive' educational theory would, of course, be entitled to put forward a curriculum of their own devising – but school governors and parents would be equally free to have nothing to do with it.


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