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Alive and kicking

Little has changed in the core curriculum since the 19th century, says Pat Smith, who argues for more recognition of the only subjects that face up to modern dilemmas

What sort of curriculum do pupils need to fit them for the next century? Will the current curriculum review engage with this serious question or just tinker with existing provision because, as there has been so much change, schools need stability? But how much real curriculum change has there been this century?

When people are asked what they think it is important to learn at school they still answer: "reading, writing and figuring," and it seems that the Government, which toyed with an expanded curriculum content for primary, has now agreed. So what has changed since the 19th century? There are many learned people who are discussing the cultural heritage which we, as a civilised society, must hand on to the next generation. But who will vote for a content which makes sense of the world as it is now? The "now" is very troublesome, and only when it becomes the past do we feel we can safely make sense of it. The ephemera of the Sixties - soup cans and plastic images - are now worth a fortune because the establishment has called it "Art". And yet the "now" is full of confusing questions for young people. Only the social sciences have faced up to present dilemmas, but there will never be strong support for them as core subjects because they deal with areas that are controversial, but more importantly, would take scarce time from areas where there are powerful vested interests.

Look at psychology. Here is a body of knowledge that deals with our neuroses and delusions, how we perceive and how we socialise our children. Yet only very few pupils - usually those over 16 - shall have access to this knowledge. Maslow's hierarchy of needs (where creative ideas come after you've got a full belly) or Stanley Milgram's disturbing conformity experiments (where ordinary people are prepared to torture other people so long as someone else takes responsibility) will not be available to pupils for whom Turnip Townsend and the formation of the ox-bow lake are deemed essential knowledge.

The most likely job which most young people will have in common is that of parent, and yet there is no education available for this task. We can accept that abuse leads to abuse and that poor child care leads to disturbed adults but we must only deduce this from 19th-century novels, if we can overcome the language barrier. (I do not denigrate Dickens here because his writing was in weekly instalments and had all the immediacy of modern soaps and deals, as did Shakespeare, with current problems.) Consider politics, which is seen as so tedious only a few people could possibly be interested in it. But young people understand totalitarianism if they are told they can only watch Leeds United on Saturday afternoon, and the flaws of majority voting if the vote for the best Spice Girl is Scary Spice and they don't agree. These examples were used with a Year 10 group in an inner-city comprehensive school, children who would never be tempted to understand the nature of democracy without being taught. There is, however, a problem. There are few creative politics teachers about who care, as they did after the Second World War, that no naive electorate shall vote in a fascist dictator.

And what of philosophy and ethics? Are we to teach science but never consider the ethical issues? Economic forces have driven the pharmaceutical companies to contemplate a merger that will facilitate enough money to research the new generation of drugs, which will inevitably produce questions about the nature of life itself or at least the genetics of existence. The fragility of life is now characterised by an electricity failure or a virus in computers. How will the new millennium children reconcile conflicting demands on scarce resources against the background of global warming? The children of the Sixties feared the Bomb. Now their children live in a post-modern world and "work-out at the gym", buy designer clothes but try to remember to recycle their Coke cans.

Sociology seeks to explain the modern dilemmas so that all education does not come from Watchdog, Cosmopolitan, Loaded and EastEnders. Shall the curriculum be only about what is assessed, compared and forgotten? What do you remember of your curriculum? Have you found your old exercise books and been amazed at what you have forgotten?

No one disputes that we must have skills in all forms of communication, especially information technology, but what shall we speak about? Some people will argue about the place in history of the artist Damien Hirst, but most people will wonder how they went wrong with rearing their children. Some will be enthralled by The Magic Flute, but most people will wonder where the magic went in their lives. Education is about articulation and it is not about regurgitation, even if that is easier to standardise so that progress can be seen to have been made.

The social sciences are the subjects that seek to articulate the modern dilemmas and express them in a balanced, evidence-based way that illuminates without preaching. Why will the social sciences not figure more largely in the new curriculum for the 21st century? Perhaps they will be allowed into the education action zones, where young people are not enraptured by Milton or Tennyson. So will they figure in the lower reaches of an accepted two-tier system that we all thought had gone with the coming of GCSE? Have we really moved since the 1840s, when gentrification was seen as the only way to educate the masses?

There is no need to fear the social sciences, and the young people who have degrees and want to teach are not alarming revolutionaries. If they were, they would never survive the rigours of the PGCE.

When we look forward to the next century and listen to the bells at midnight, let the curriculum have escaped the 19th century and embraced the present with humour and re-invention, which is the best aspect of the post-modern world.

Pat Smith is PGCE tutor for socialscience at Keele University and reviews editor for the Association for the Teaching of Social Science

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