Look at the facts, not the fiction

Putting core knowledge at the heart of the new curriculum is progressive, argues Nick Gibb

Nick Gibb

Sometimes it is difficult to believe that the national curriculum is still less than 25 years old. It has become, in a fairly short space of time, everyone's answer to everything.

MPs are lobbied daily by campaign groups demanding that their particular issue - from animal welfare to media literacy - is included in the national curriculum. But for the curriculum to achieve all these ambitions it would have to be so long as to be unusable or so vague as to be meaningless. To achieve anything, it must have more focused objectives - and our objectives for the new primary curriculum are clear.

We want to ensure that all young people are offered a rigorous grounding in the core subjects of English, maths and science so that they can cope with the demands of secondary school, while still ensuring that they study a wide range of other subjects including, for the first time, a foreign language.

In developing this new core curriculum we looked to the most successful education systems around the world, in places such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Massachusetts in the US and Alberta in Canada. The first key lesson we learned was the importance of setting high expectations across the board and a relentless focus on ensuring that all pupils grasp key curriculum content. That is why our expert panel recommended, and we agreed, to remove level descriptors.

Many teachers over the past few years have told me about their concerns that levels force them to focus on labelling differential performance rather than ensuring that all pupils reach expected standards. There will still be graded tests at the end of primary school - it is important that we can measure progress and stretch the brightest - but fewer children will, unintentionally, have a ceiling placed on their achievement.

The second key lesson from abroad is the importance of increasing the demands posed by the core subjects. For instance, the new science programme of study will require, for the first time, Year 6 pupils to learn about the solar system and galaxies as they do in Alberta. The new expectations around decimals and fractions in the maths programme of study are consistent with those in Singapore, Hong Kong and Massachusetts.

It is easy, of course, to dismiss a more knowledge-based core curriculum as a return to the Victorian period or the 1950s. But the most up-to-date studies show us that thinking skills and knowledge are inextricable. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham puts it: "Thinking well requires knowing facts ... the very processes that teachers care about most - critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem-solving - are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory." Or to put it another way, George Orwell could spell and punctuate; Ludwig van Beethoven practised his scales; and Albert Einstein knew his times tables.

One recent study in New York, based on Willingham's work, found that children studying a core knowledge curriculum outperformed others in reading comprehension because they had been given access to more information, which aided their understanding.

Not only does knowledge underpin higher order thinking, but it also gives children - especially those from disadvantaged families - access to cultural capital. This is something that many on the Left as well as the Right have instinctively understood. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci put it in his critique of "progressive" education: "Previously, pupils at least acquired a certain baggage of concrete facts. Now there will no longer be any baggage to put in order ... The most paradoxical aspect of it all is that this new type of school is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but to crystallise them ..."

And this goes to the heart of why we are introducing a new national curriculum. This government has introduced a whole series of policies, from the pupil premium to a huge expansion of Teach First, to help remedy the gap between rich and poor. But if we are going to truly break the link between poverty and destiny we need to ensure that every child goes to secondary school secure in the basics: able to read and write, and comprehend what they are reading; proficient in arithmetic and with a solid base of scientific knowledge. Other countries show us that it can be done. With your help it can happen here, too.

Nick Gibb is schools minister.

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