Beyond basics

13th June 1997 at 01:00
SCAA's curriculum review must place values at its heart and break with the reductionism of the 1990s, argues Robin Alexander

With the arrival of a government committed to "education, education, education", the official review of the curriculum will either be an event of the profoundest importance or a damp squib, a mere tinkering at the margins which leaves vital questions about the purpose of state education unasked.

Why this pessimism? First, in its necessary pursuit of higher standards of literacy and numeracy the Government seems to be signalling not only that these are pre-eminent but that at the primary stage they are all that matters; for "education, education, education", read "basics, basics, basics". Second, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's framework for revising the curriculum once the five-year moratorium ends in 2000 suggests a certain ambivalence about the scope of the proposed review, offering first a resounding commitment to "fundamental thinking and debate about the nature and structure of the school curriculum" while later diffidently toning this down to "a possible revision of the national curriculum should this be felt to be necessary".

This shift, incidentally, reasserts the reductionism of the period since 1988. The Education Reform Act started with a concept of curriculum in which the national curriculum was the innermost of three circles: beyond it were a "basic" curriculum and, beyond that, a "whole" curriculum. Since then, "national" and "whole" have become synonymous. The cross-curricular themes disappeared without trace in Dearing's 1993 review, while SCAA's thought-provoking 1996 consultation paper, Values in Education and the Community, widely commended as a reinstatement of society and social morality, has been ousted from the agenda by the more dependable "standards" and "basics".

Whether my pessimism is justified depends on SCAA and those who contribute to this review - and of course on the Government. My own position is clear. The review must be radical, and it must be allowed freely to engage in versions of the primary curriculum for the next century which are markedly different from the one imposed in 1988.

The main lesson of history is that we are unable to break free of it. In its scope and balance the national curriculum bears a striking resemblance to all of its predecessors, so much so that Dearing's 1993 assertion that, "The principal task of the teacher at key stage 1 is to ensure that pupils master the basic skills of reading, writing and number", was uncannily close to the 1861 Newcastle Commission's assertion that, "The duty of a state in public education is to ensure the greatest possible quantity of reading, writing and arithmetic for the greatest number".

Given that this is 1997, not 1870 or even 1988, the historical questions are as simple as they are necessary. Should "core" and "basics" be treated as synonymous? Should core and non-core be so sharply differentiated? Should the "basics" be defined in pretty well the same terms as they were when the task of state education was to provide a minimal education for the urban poor with a view to ensuring social conformity and well-run factories?

We are by now familiar with international comparisons in education. Hard on the heels of league table studies of the country's poor educational performance have come the solutions: homework, text books and "interactive" whole-class teaching, as practised in Switzerland, Germany and Taiwan.

International comparison is essential, but it is only instructive- in the sense of offering insight rather than soundbite - if applied comprehensively rather than selectively. The current cause-effect analysis, for example, conveniently ignores those countries with high test scores but problematic economies; and those with poor test scores but booming economies. And it ignores the fact that, being almost a universal feature of primary education, whole-class teaching can be shown to correlate with any level of educational and economic performance which we may care to identify.

In contrast, as a SCAA-sponsored comparison (undertaken by Joanna Le Metais and Ralph Tabberer at the National Foundation for Educational Research) of curriculum and assessment in 16 countries shows, the universal dominance of the 3Rs is only part of the story. We find that at the primary level: * the national language and maths are compulsory in all 16 countries; * science, art, PE and societalcivic education are compulsory in all but two of them; * a modern foreign language, technology, history, geography and music are compulsory in more than half of them; * religious education, environmental studies, moral education, domestic science and life skills are compulsory only in a small minority of them.

Put another way, England goes against the international trend (a) in excluding societalcivic education; (b) in excluding a foreign language; (c) in making religious education compulsory.

Further, if we examine in greater detail the curricula of European countries with circumstances not unlike our own, we find that the critical point of variation is not the basics, but the extent to which children engage with the question of what it means to be a social being, whether as a member of a family or local community, or as a citizen in a democratic society, or as user, inheritor and custodian of finite global resources, or as part of an interdependent community of nations. These are precisely the areas which feature most prominently in the SCAANational Forum for Values in Education framework. On the basis both of international comparison and national consensus, then, we have a pointer for curriculum review which we cannot afford to ignore.

Under the previous government the argument that children's development and learning are essential ingredients of professional understanding and decision-making was rejected or ridiculed as tantamount to raising the (red) flag of 1960s progressivism. This nonsense can now be replaced by a saner and more comprehensive pedagogy which unites subject-matter, development, learning and teaching.

If we endorse this shift, we are bound to address two questions. Is the proper model for the next century one which pushes down into the infants secondary school knowledge structures? Or should the foundations for later learning be laid by mapping out two distinct kinds of knowledge and understanding: those necessary to provide a foundation for later subject learning, and those necessary in the here and now of early childhood?

While I strongly endorse the attention given to economic and workplace-directed purposes in our education system, I believe the review must also recall and debate the other purposes with which these might be balanced: * economic and workplace needs in the context of change, globalisation and uncertainty; * individual development, freedom and fulfilment; * personal and collective morality; * social justice and social cohesion; * culture, both broad and pluralist; * the needs and obligations of the citizen in a democratic society.

The educational purposes distilled from considering these six themes are fundamental rather than peripheral; in curriculum terms they must be intrinsic rather than bolted on.

The scale and unpredictability of change is likely to be at least as great during the next century as it has been in the present one.The curriculum, therefore, must above all be empowering. Literacy and numeracy are crucial. But for the first and arguably most important stage of education these are not enough, and we need to identify what else individuals will need in order to shape their lives rather than merely cope with them.

We almost certainly need a core curriculum of some kind; but it must include a much wider array of knowledge, understanding and skill than the idea of core subjects allows. In case this seems too radical, there is actually a fairly easy way of tackling it. First, examine the existing orders and ask not which of the nine subjects (and RE) should be in the core, but which aspects of each subject are essential to a complete education.

This new core would not need a second tier of lower-priority "foundation" subjects, for it would be in itself considerably broader and more balanced than the current triumvirate. Beyond it, therefore, would be a combination of discretionary elements and options.

Even if the basic structure of the curriculum remains the same after the current review, it is essential to examine the value messages which it delivers about what matters most - and least - in the learning and life of individuals and in the culture and progress of society. But there is little point in proposing a grand statement of educational purposes for the next century if the curriculum as prescribed and transacted does not reflect them.

Yet at least let us debate the structural alternatives. I would hope that we might look particularly at the case for five radical shifts: from values as optional extras to values as intrinsic and all-pervasive; from the old literacynumeracy concept of "basics" to one which reflects a fresh contemporary analysis of what is essential both for individual empowerment and social progress; from three core subjects to a more broadly conceived core curriculum; from a concept of primary education as preparation for secondary to one that also addresses the imperatives and needs of early and middle childhood; and from a view of state education still enslaved by the elementarygrammar legacy of the 19th century to one which is attentive to the very different needs and circumstances of the 20th and 21st.

* Professor Robin Alexander is director of the Centre for Research in Elementary and Primary Education at Warwick University. This is an abridged version of his paper to SCAA's conference, "Developing the Primary Curriculum: the Next Steps", which took place this week

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