A relic of the Victorian middle class

The existing school curriculum is a Victorian relic, designed to save pupils' immortal souls via neatly timetabled subjects, says John White, of London university's Institute of Education. He believes the origins of our subject-based education system trace back to 19th-century middle class values.

While upper class public schools focused largely on the classics, and working class elementaries on the three Rs, middle class schools taught a range of academic subjects. These included English, maths, history, geography, science and Latin or a modern language. The reason for this, Professor White argues, was religious.

He says: "Personal salvation was a central preoccupation, and for this one had to possess a solid knowledge of the structure and manifold glories of God's universe ...

"Our task on Earth is dutifully to follow God's prescriptions.

"To make the individual's well-being the focus of education would have seemed to most Victorians a recipe for selfishness."

Education was still seen in these terms in the 20th century. In 1923, Fred Clarke, a future director of the Institute of Education, wrote: "The ultimate reason for teaching long division to little Johnny is that he is an immortal soul."

But the academic curriculum also became a badge indicating membership, or suitability for membership, of the middle classes.

Professor White argues that when, as Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker introduced the subject-based national curriculum in 1988, he was imposing these middle class values on all children.

"The effect ... has been to make it difficult for many children not from a middle class background to adjust to a highly academic school culture," he says.

And, he adds, the notion of saving pupils' souls remains.

"The prospect of social salvation - stepping on an escalator to higher education and a well-paid job - may well have become a modern counterpart."

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