There are clear signs of a change in the weather – not just that spring is coming at last, and perhaps the prospect of a route out of lockdown, but a change also in the conversations we are now beginning to have about our education system.
This conversation is born out of the experience that parents have had homeschooling their children. If education was, as in Jim Callaghan’s famous 1976 speech on education, “a secret garden”, it is no longer. Many parents have had an immersive experience in their children’s remote education – and many have not liked what they have learned about the current school curriculum.
Some of their opinions are very well informed. Dr Kit Yates, senior lecturer in the department of mathematical sciences at the University of Bath, said that he was shocked by how many different “intimidating” methods and models primary school children are expected to use to solve basic maths problems.
In a Guardian report on expert professional parents’ views of what their children are learning, he said: “I’ve never needed to use them – you don’t need to know all these different mental models to do maths.”
School curriculum: 'Practically Dickensian'
Erin Kelley, a best-selling novelist who teaches creative writing, called the English curriculum being taught to her seven-year-old daughter “practically Dickensian”. She added: “It’s not about the content of what they’re saying, or its effectiveness. It’s about labelling every word in a sentence until the idea of language itself is just horrible to children.”
And there has been a bit of a rebellion by Lucy Kellaway, the well-known late entrant to teaching who, after a successful career as an associate editor at the Financial Times, wrote recently in that paper about the 8 March return to school: “When I go back to school next week, I will have no choice but to buckle down and teach GCSE economics exactly as the OCR exam board tells me to.
“I will obediently tell pupils that there are advantages and disadvantages to countries of rising productivity – and that one of the disadvantages is that if one country increases its productivity then others might follow suit and end up overtaking it. It pains me to teach such bilge. I despise the limited way of thinking that says you need two advantages and two disadvantages to everything, and you must structure every six-mark answer in the same way. It is boring, stupid and bears no relation to the economy.”
I think two uncomfortable truths about what is being taught have been revealed to informed experts in their field. The first is the Gradgrind approach to knowledge acquisition that is required, because the national curriculum is overstuffed with content – so much to cover in so little time. It is no surprise that the UK comes third in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development international league tables for rote memorisation – reported from surveys of both teachers and students about the learning methods they employ.
When asked why this was the case, Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the OECD, replied: “The English education system is disproportionately dominated by exams. Your children face more exams than nearly any other country. Exams focus on the reproduction of subject knowledge content – so why would teachers invest in cognitive elaboration strategies?”
The “cognitive elaboration strategies” Schleicher is referring to are learning activities that promote enquiry, investigation, consideration of evidence, teamwork and communication.
He is clear that not enough of these strategies underpin teaching and learning in English schools – and that this lack is leaving young people unprepared for the real world, where collaborating in problem-based learning activities, requiring interdisciplinary content knowledge, is on the rise.
Feeding students half-truths
The other uncomfortable truth is that the route march through content is intensified by the presentation of knowledge that is required by the exams that so dominate children and young people’s education prospects.
So much rests on these exams that the complexity of the subject matter, as Kellaway asserts, is compromised by the required format of the exam answer – to the point that the “knowledge” students download, in timed stressful conditions, on to the exam paper is so reduced and simplified as to be plain wrong. It is not knowledge necessary to unravelling the complexities of the matter: an essential training for the future lives of young people as professionals, parents and people – as citizens of an increasingly complex, interdependent world.
And the result, according to Yates, is that a significant amount of the work that he does teaching first-year undergraduates is merely “undoing the half-truths” students have been fed throughout their school days. “Maths can be a really creative subject. I wish there were time built in to just explore,” he says.
As questions about the content of the current national curriculum and its consequences for children and young people’s learning are rising – reflected in editorial comments in right-of-centre newspapers like The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph – so the defenders of the current status quo become ever more anxious. They know very well that the fragility of the current qualification system is being ruthlessly exposed as, for the second year, exams cannot be taken because of the Covid pandemic.
These questions about the curriculum and its assessment will continue to be asked. The NEU has commissioned an independent review of assessment, which will report by the end of this year, with academic experts in assessment, accountability, curriculum and equality working alongside the CBI, ParentKind, the NUS, the Chartered College of Teaching, and the Edge Foundation.
By engaging with employers, parents, practitioners, researchers, students and policymakers, the commission will build a shared vision for the future of assessment and school qualifications in England.
The genie is out of the bottle, and no amount of outrage and denial from staunch adherents of ED Hirsch will silence the fundamental questions being asked of the current educational status quo. It is too important a debate to be suppressed.
Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU