Jim Rose: education becomes a sideshow

The government’s review of primary education is about training children to conform to political pieties.

David Perks

Topics Politics

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The publication last week of the interim report of Sir Jim Rose’s independent review of the primary curriculum for England only underlined the lack of thought in education policy today (1). The same lazy message is now being repeated every time the school curriculum comes up for review: less is more.

As Rose says: ‘Past reviews have been largely reactive, driven by the need to reduce curriculum overload and over-prescription.’ Rose obviously believes his pruning of the curriculum is more systematic and educationally driven. In fact, every review undertaken by the New Labour government since coming to power in 1997 has been driven by the explicit need to reduce the demands of the curriculum. The question is: why do we want children to know less?

According to Rose, ‘curriculum overload will lead to a superficial treatment of essential content’ rather than teach ‘worthwhile knowledge, skills and understanding to sufficient depth and make sure that children value and enjoy their learning’. But what does doing less in more depth really mean?

What caught the eye of the press was the demise of the subject-based curriculum in primary schools. In accepting the government’s remit and reducing the number of subjects taught in primary schools, Rose went further and amalgamated them into six broad areas of study. As The Times (London) put it, ‘Traditional subjects go in schools shakeup’ (2). History, geography and religious education are to be merged into ‘human, social and environmental understanding’.

The demise of subjects is meant to make room for more cross-curricula teaching dealing with broader issues about the environment and health. Yet at the same time, Rose is at pains to point out that he doesn’t mean a return to topic- and project-based teaching. Mick Waters, director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), made the same point to me about the recent Key Stage 3 curriculum reforms for 11- to 14-year-olds, insisting that he never used the words ‘project work’. Yet how else do Rose and Waters envisage teachers will tackle broad-themed areas of study whilst encouraging student-initiated ‘enquiry and exploration’?

Rose ignores the importance of developing an understanding of subjects as a discipline within which pupils can structure their understanding of the world. It is through learning the basis upon which each subject works that an intellectual framework is created and deeper understanding is made possible. You can’t skip this and suddenly arrive at a level of intellectual development that incorporates all the connections between subjects if you don’t have the tools with which to do it. Dismissing subject teaching is denuding pupils’ capacity to think abstractly and to build an intellectual framework upon which their understanding can grow.

But the impetus for this approach is all-too-apparent when we look at the broad themes that Rose proposes should take the place of subject-based curriculum. Health and wellbeing – including happiness and self-esteem – are emphasised. This taps into the government’s obsession with displacing parents in the process of bringing up children. It means more lessons on healthy diet and more time counselling pupils about behaviour management. There will also be constant carping on about the environment and the need to modify our behaviour to save the planet.

These issues are not educational; they are political imperatives being pushed into the curriculum in a crude and unmediated form. These are the messages that the government wants all children to learn. This is why subjects have been displaced in the curriculum: to allow room for the government’s own agenda to have direct access to classroom practice. Rose is arguing that political priorities should take precedence over developing the intellectual framework of young people when it comes to curriculum design.

But then the underlying message that permeates all discussion about education is that we can’t really expect to be able to educate children. When you consider all of Rose’s shifts in approach to teaching and learning he is really being condescending to pupils and saying they can’t cope with formal teaching. For example, he insists that computers play a larger part in primary education. He wants information and communication technology (ICT) treated on a par with literacy and numeracy as an essential skill. But anyone who knows the reality of computer use in schools could tell him that putting a child in front of a computer can easily become a distraction from learning or, worse, a way of keeping children quiet and occupied. Children may like playing on computers, whether it is the latest fad for ‘brain training’ or searching the internet, but that doesn’t mean they are being educated.

In a similar way, the cross-curricula approach to learning that Rose advocates means having little imperative to master subject disciplines, replaced by building up a superficial montage of ideas around a theme that gives the illusion of complexity, but reveals nothing new about an issue. Whether it’s called project work or not, cross-curricula themed approaches to education might keep pupils occupied, but such approaches rarely challenge students intellectually.

We can argue about which subjects we want children to learn at primary school, but to dismiss a subject-led approach is to dilute education to such an extent that it hardly exists at all.

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney School, London. He is the co-author of What is Science Education For?. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

David Perks attacked the introduction into the curriculum of ‘thinking skills’ and argued that schools should teach science for science’s sake. In his review of The Corruption of the Curriculum, Dolan Cummings said New Labour’s education policy is all about intrusion. Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes criticised the rise of ‘therapeutic education’. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) The Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum, Sir Jim Rose, 8 December 2008

(2) Traditional subjects go in schools shake-up, The Times (London), 8 December 2008

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Topics Politics


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