Last month, writing in our sister publication, Times Higher Education, the behavioural ecologist Tim Birkhead complained that many of today's pupils "cannot string together a simple argument or understand concepts".
The reason for this decline, he argued, was an increased emphasis on process and training in education. "Focusing on process and training, and teaching to the test, generates a plethora of poorly educated individuals, some of whom then become dull, unimaginative bureaucrats, posing as educators, poised to mis-educate the next generation," he concluded.
The spark for his ire was a misrepresentation of the concept of natural selection he discovered in several published resources for teaching science at key stage 3. But such accusations of dumbing down could just as easily be applied to other subject disciplines. Our report today (page 20) that many subject associations are struggling to recruit members raises further questions about whether recent developments in education have emphasised skills and social concerns at the expense of knowledge and understanding.
These are complex issues. In many schools, standards have risen markedly as a result of focusing on teaching skills. The Government's current concern to promote children's wellbeing through the Every Child Matters agenda has the potential, if implemented flexibly (not bureaucratically) to improve further the experience of learning, especially for the children who need support most.
The question is: have we, in our quest to make the curriculum accessible to all, lost out on rigour and challenge? As Professor Birkhead argues, children need to be able to grasp concepts and develop arguments based on sound subject teaching. The current vogue for assessing skills by means of tick boxes and the pressure to teach to the test to get results does not help. There needs to be a sensible rebalancing with a move back from skills to knowledge.
Subject associations have a vital part to play. A reason for their decline is the rise of the worldwide web which means teachers no longer need to rely on them for teaching materials. Where associations can really score is by helping teachers to develop skills through understanding their subjects better, so ensuring their own future.