The value of an academic curriculum

I gather some university PGCE tutors are understandably upset when their training of teachers is criticised. I actually enjoyed my PGCE course. Yes – progressive stuff was pushed, but we weren’t forced into it. The conventional view at the time was that moving schools from local control was a bad idea. I remember writing an essay arguing the opposite – that by allowing every school to opt out of local control, we could have a truly national education service (sounds like Labour party policy in 2017!). My lecturer disagreed, but wrote me an excellent reference.

Back in the late 1980s, I was training to be an MFL teacher when communicative language teaching was at its height. The accepted wisdom was that grammar shouldn’t be taught and that children would work out the rule for themselves. A few lecturers had moved to a position whereby it was acceptable to tell children about grammar if they asked about it, but otherwise don’t bother with it. I had assumed that we would be given strategies for introducing the “less able” children to grammatical concepts and terminology, but was surprised to find that this was not the case. “It’s all too difficult for them” seemed to be the premise. I remember that we were all asked to name the textbook used in our schools for teaching German. Mine was “Deutsches Leben” a 1950s tome typical of its epoch (“Werner – let’s look at the map while your mother and Uschi do the washing up”), which was ridiculously out of date in the egalitarian 1970s. The lecturer smiled. “It’s amazing how many people who used these sort of textbooks go on to study languages”, he mused.

Teaching English in eastern Europe in the 1980s, the classes there used a similar textbook to learn English. I was quite embarrassed by it at the time, giving as it did a totally outdated picture of the UK, interspersed with texts about British communists I had never heard of (Harry Pollitt?). By the time they left school, the children were incredibly dismissive of the book and the lessons in it. Yet I remember thinking at the time, “Yes – but your English is superb considering that you have never been outside your country and had no access to UK media”.

There is a danger that if you start defending the past you end up being classified as a Luddite wearer of rose tinted spectacles, wallowing in nostalgia for a bygone age. Not with me. In my 1970s grammar school I remember some good teaching, but I also remember the bad stuff. The bullying which was often ignored because it was thought to make a man of you, the petty rules, the petty tyrannies, the crazy punishments. I am glad that education has moved on from this. However I also remember an atmosphere of scholarship, where the head and the staff respected academic study in itself, rather than just a means to an examination certificate. Staff frequently went “beyond the syllabus” and we certainly did not spend lesson time poring over mark schemes and success criteria.

I get quite irritated when I see very successful people denigrate and dismiss their education. I remember arguing with a lecturer who was convinced that grammar teaching was harmful. “Has it harmed you?” I asked. “Well yes, yes it has. I’m not very creative” was the response. This from a man who had written books and papers on his subject. When you have knowledge of something, there is always a danger that you forget the effort it took to gain that knowledge, or how that knowledge has helped you in your life or career.

I agree with Amanda Spielman about a damaging trend in the education system of today which seems to view the academic curriculum as just a means of obtaining “badges and stickers”. I think she is right to say that Ofsted will focus on the curriculum offered by schools. Yet I fear that she will be told that it is a choice between constant examination preparation, or a “Claxton” curriculum of children learning how to learn. Or she may be told something on the lines that “the curriculum we have is what we deem appropriate for our particular students” and that this will be used to justify decisions to enter students for any qualification which is likely to raise the school’s Progress 8 score, to give excessive curriculum time to English and mathematics, or to discourage students from persevering with subjects less likely to contribute positively to that score (eg. MFL).

As long as Progress 8 exists, the focus of a school will inevitably focus on the mechanics of boosting that score, rather than scholarship. So, in short, before we denigrate the education we received, perhaps those of us who succeeded in that admittedly flawed system of the past (yes, I know, there were plenty who didn’t) should consider ourselves lucky that we went to schools which did not have to worry about such measures and could focus on academic scholarship. The challenge was always to get a larger number of schools to focus on this, hence Harold Wilson’s designation of comprehensives as “grammar schools for all”. I guess a school focussing on the mechanics of boosting Progress 8 is better than a school focussing on some of the more whacky 1970s curricula (project based learning etc). But that doesn’t stop me being nostalgic for a time when an academic curriculum could be prized for its own sake, rather than a tiresome necessity for obtaining exam certificates and a Progress 8 score.



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