As the education philosopher John White points out in a forthcoming pamphlet ("What schools are for and why"), subjects are virtually the same as those laid down for state secondaries in 1904 and similar to those proposed in the Taunton report of 1868. He argues that our ancestors were clear about the aims: to acquire "a solid knowledge of the structure and manifold glories of God's creation", ensuring not earthly well-being but the salvation of the immortal soul. Modern defenders of the traditional curriculum echo that view when they say subjects should not be judged by their usefulness or their contribution to personal development.
But the traditional curriculum is under strain. People constantly propose new things for pupils to learn: race relations, healthy eating, money management, happiness, and much more. Few of these fit easily inside traditional subjects. Some have gone into subjects such as citizenship that have been added recently largely to accommodate the realisation that schools don't prepare children for the world as it now is. The whole thing feels patched up and incoherent. We need, as White says, to think through the aims of the curriculum before we decide how to organise it.
Astonishingly, this has never been done. We have had a national curriculum since 1988, but only since the late 1990s have various bodies tried to formulate aims. Unfortunately, it is not clear how they map on to the statutory curriculum subjects. Many of them are in any case banal. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, for example, wants "successful learners", a goal that might as well be achieved by mugging up on Wayne Rooney or Jade Goody as by studying Henry VIII or Winston Churchill.
The case for studying, say, science may seem obvious. But it will clear minds if teachers debate what they hope to achieve. If, as many would say, it is to show how we should use evidence to reach hypotheses about the world, they are failing, since a significant number of the population, including university students, claim to believe in the Biblical account of creation.
White's aims would include money management and financial planning; the social roles and influence of the media; the rights of workers and employers. Traditionalists would say these are not "proper" subjects. But they can hardly deny that they play vital roles in modern life, and children are unlikely to learn much about them outside school. We continue with the present curriculum structure because it has been there so long and we assume there is no other way of organising knowledge. White thinks thatis no longer good enough. And I agree.
John White's pamphlet (pound;6.99) and details of a symposium to launch it at London university's Institute of Education on February 27 are available from firstname.lastname@example.org