A curriculum out of time

What should be the aims of modern schools? Adi Bloom reports


what is the point of school, anyway? Not to learn to read, write and count.

Or to study creative arts. Or, indeed, to acquire academic knowledge, according to one academic.

John White, of London university's Institute of Education, says schools should be inculcating knowledge relevant to modern society, such as the ability to live healthily, to manage money and to find fulfilment.

In a pamphlet to be published next week, Professor White says: "Schools are widely seen as arenas of competition for success in public examinations and access to well-paid jobs. This picture has a poor understanding of fulfilment."

He believes the existing curriculum, with its emphasis on discrete subjects, is a relic of 19th-century attitudes to schooling. In the 21st century, he argues, such values no longer apply. Instead, policy-makers need to justify why English, maths and science should form part of the curriculum. "We all know some people like listening to music or solving mathematical puzzles," he says. "But when music and mathematics become part of a compulsory school curriculum, the ethical landscape changes."

Today's schools aim to create "successful learners", a term defined by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority as being able to study independently, communicate well and enjoy learning. But Professor White argues that such criteria would justify the compulsory teaching of Latin or ancient Persian. The QCA's aims, he says, do not answer the fundamental question: "Why do we want to learn the subject?"

He believes that teachers need to weigh up the qualities society considers important, such as basic literacy, numeracy and information technology, kindness and independence, and help inculcate these qualities upon pupils.

His curriculum aims come under four headings: personal fulfilment, social and civic involvement, contribution to the economy and practical wisdom.

The first covers the pursuit of knowledge. Pupils should acquire the skills to enable them to participate in their preferred activities.

The second helps pupils to understand that personal fulfilment is closely tied to other people's. "We want pupils, as citizens in the making, to be committed to such basic democratic values as political equality, self-determination, freedom of thought and action," says Professor White.

For people to contribute to the economy, they need to learn to work collaboratively and be aware of advances in science and technology. They should also understand how environmental concerns and workers' rights affect the economy.

Practical wisdom would be acquired through thinking rationally, imaginatively and flexibly, with respect for evidence.

"People differ over what they see as worthwhile," he says. "It is all too easy to impose one's own value judgments on others.

"Some believe, for instance, that intellectual and artistic activities pursued for their own sake are goods of higher value than any others. But are they right? Or are they really talking about their own personal preferences?"

What Schools Are For and Why by John White, pound;6.99. Email sarah.2.moore@kcl.ac.uk

The White way to teaching wisdom

Personal fulfilment

Experience many absorbing activities

Engage in close relationships

Live a healthy life and understand what makes for this

Make competent decisions in relation to managing money

Social and civic involvement

Communicate with other people appropriately

Play is a helpful part in the life of the school and community

Critically assess the role of the media

Reflect on human nature, its commonality and diversity Contribution to the economy

Work collaboratively in the production of goods or services for the school or community

Be aware of the rights of workers and employers

Critically examine how wealth is created and distributed

Be aware of the impact of science, technology and global markets on work prospects

Practical wisdom

Sensibly manage desires

Learn to cope with setback, change of circumstance and uncertainty

Resist pressure from peer groups, authority figures and the media

Strike a sensible balance between risk-taking and caution

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