I don’t think the current debate about reforms to the National Curriculum and assessment has quite hit the nail on the head: while many complain that what the DfE are proposing is overambitious and impossible to have ready in time for first implementation, I would like to argue that what has been proposed is, in fact, lacking in ambition.
Reading Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, it is hard to reconcile the significant developments made in Western democracies with the vision proposed by the new National Curriculum. One of the biggest criticisms of the current education system is that it is not preparing its young people for the world of work; the other is that it is not preparing them to be citizens in a democracy that is part of a global market. A lot of Government thinking is terribly parochial and reinforces the worst features of our nation’s traditional insularity. To downgrade the importance of our place in the modern world with a ‘back to basics’ History curriculum, to remove key aspect s of modern learning by relying on handwritten terminal examinations, and to create a ‘one size fits all’ model that will segregate students yet further into winners and losers is not what the times require. This educational revolution seems to suggest that a crisis has been ignored for far too long and that a very large new broom is needed. That group-think may be having an impact on the judgement of those making decisions is of course a possibility.
What is also of concern is the hovering around the carcass of the old model of the state system. Diane Ravitch wrote recently in the United States about the new philanthropists, including the Gates Foundation, warning that they support a very narrow-minded approach to educational improvement programmes. These will all sound very familiar if you have read posts from The Sutton Trust and some of the views from the hierarchy at TeachFirst. Performance-related pay, measurement of outcomes, regular publishing of data and demonising University Education departments are just some of the common features, as are bypassing the Unions and pedalling a line that teaching is not really that much of a craft. Another aspect of the debate that needs airing concerns Social Mobility: the idea that character education is going to prove to be the lever required as opposed to improving the conditions of the most disadvantaged in society is not far off washing your hands of the problem. That teachers and schools should carry a disproportionate burden for the failings of the political establishment is a point that needs to be made more clearly.
The less obvious conclusion from all of this is that a quick fix to the ‘systemic failings’ is a combination of reinventing the past and wiping the slate clean. These contradictory forces show a distinct lack of ambition in the thinking: a slower fix, to paraphrase Carl Honore, would involve building bridges between a large number of groups with vested interests in the education system, looking to understand opposing positions and reaching a consensus that can be enacted (ironically, the sort of critical and open-minded thinking that has been largely removed from the History curriculum). Although this would have taken time, it would have led to far less mistrust and far less emotional response; it may have also created something sustainable and manageable for the long-term. In short, slow thinking would have created a lasting peace. Instead, we face the prospect of yet more years of conflict and strife.