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Set their sights on fulfilling lives

The curriculum overhaul is flawed: aims should be at its core, say Michael Reiss and John White

The curriculum overhaul is flawed: aims should be at its core, say Michael Reiss and John White

His U-turn over English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) apart, Michael Gove is still calling for a fact-stuffed, subject-based curriculum. Bits of his policy seem sensible, bits barking. The basic problem with it is that it is one person seeking to impose his own educational views on a country with a population of 50 million-plus. If he were omniscient, it might make sense to follow him. But my suspicion is that he is not. He may even be as frail and partial in his judgement as the rest of us.

The blatancy of Gove's imposition of his 1850s-style vision of schooling underlines the need to take the curriculum out of the hands of interfering ministers. But where should it go instead?

Most of it should be in the hands of schools and teachers. If properly equipped through experience and continuing professional development, it is they, and not political ideologues, who know what is manageable in their particular circumstances - what methods to follow in teaching reading, for instance, or when to teach separate subjects and when to rely on projects or whole-school processes.

But teachers have no more right than dentists or any other citizen to say what schools should be for. Issues such as this that affect our collective future must be resolved at a political level. This does not mean giving carte blanche to the politicians. It points to a national commission at arm's length from ministerial meddlers. Consulting widely, this would lay down the main aims of school education, perhaps on a non-statutory basis, as in Scotland.

Gove does not like aims. He is against "the fatuous enunciation of high-sounding but empty goals" and prefers to concentrate on "core knowledge". But aims need not be empty. They are the lifeblood of school education, the source from which all else should follow.

In the decade after 2000 there was the beginnings of a policy shift towards an aims-based curriculum (or ABC), but this was axed in 2010. In its full-blown version, adopting an ABC would mean starting with very general, and generally acceptable, aims: for example, to do with pupils leading a fulfilling personal life and becoming good citizens and workers.

From these, you can derive more specific aims. For instance, if you want pupils to become responsible citizens, they must know a good deal about the society they live in - its main geographical features, its class, religious and ethnic make-up and how its economy works. And you can take this process one stage further. To understand our economic life, pupils need to know something of its scientific, mathematical and technological indebtedness.

We use this example to show how an ABC can cover much of the same ground as a conventional curriculum that begins and ends with separate subjects. But, as we show in our book An Aims-based Curriculum, published this month, it can do so much more. To live full personal and civic lives, pupils need all kinds of knowledge not found in traditional disciplines - knowledge about sex and relationships, for instance, downgraded in Gove's academia.

Yet knowledge is not enough. A young person can have mastered the encyclopaedia and still be cripplingly diffident or indifferent to others' welfare. Schools, working with parents, have a role in developing in pupils the personal qualities that they need to lead good lives. They can help young people to throw themselves wholeheartedly into activities that will enrich these lives - cooperative as well as solitary, optional as well as compulsory, artistic as well as knowledge-seeking.

Labour's moves towards an ABC faced a huge obstacle - the practice since 1988 of earmarking whole years of timetabled work for mainly traditional subjects - 11 in maths, 9 in history and so on - thus forcing everything else to the margins. Neither was the proposal helped by the understandably defensive attitude adopted by the subject associations.

An ABC would not take the protected space now given to subjects for granted. How much, and what sort of, maths, MFL or geography a pupil received would depend on more rational considerations based on what wider aims suggested. In some subjects - more advanced maths, perhaps - there may be a case for taster courses for all followed by options for some.

Consensus is now growing that Gove's reforms, if not all barking, are at least barking up the wrong tree. The year 2013 will be moving away soon enough from a curricular pattern devised for an age of steam power, empire and the rule of the few. An ABC is the sensible way forward. Not, given the obstacles in its way, that it could be implemented overnight. The search should now be for politically realistic ways of putting it back on the agenda.

Michael Reiss is pro-director, research and development, and professor of science education at the Institute of Education, University of London. John White is emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the IOE. Their book An Aims-based Curriculum: the significance of human flourishing for schools is published today by IOE Press.

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