Book of the Week

21st July 2000 at 01:00
NATIONAL CURRICULUM: National Disaster. By Rhys Griffith. RoutledgeFalmer pound;17.99.

We all know how the conversation goes. "What did you do at school today?" the parent asks. "Nothing," is the near-invariable reply. If you press hard, you may achieve elaboration. "Oh, you know," the answer comes. "The same old things."

For most of us, that's a reminder of our schooldays. For Rhys Griffith, it's a lesson about education in general and the national curriculum in particular. It's no wonder, he says, that children reply in such negative and dismissive terms - they're simply telling it as it is. Learning ought to be enjoyable, yet for generations children have been force-fed with artificial and academic knowledge that is not only unrelated to, but deliberately separated from, the real world and the world they know. The national curriculum, he maintains, is profoundly conservative in content and pedagogy and is demonstrably incapable of meeting its objectives. Does it really "prepare pupils for the opportunities and the experiences of adult life?" Then why, he asks, do we need a separate curriculum labelled "citizenship"?

It's a fair question, and it deserves an answer. Rhys Griffith believes schools must develop "educational citizenship", and that by its nature educational citizenship and the personal maturity and responsibility that it confers can come only from independent learning.

He describes 12 factors of independent learning (ranging from collaboration and co-operation to research, initiative and negotiation, and including pupil-designed assessment as well as, interestingly, "a sense of audience"). It is these that would make up the ideal curriculum - but whether partly or entirely Griffith doesn't make clear. But against this standard, the whole edifice of the national curriculum as we know it - syllabuses, assessment, educational pedagogy - is, he argues, "a precarious house of cards".

His argument is based on classroom observation and research: first, a four-week tracking record, sometime in the mid-1990s, of Emily and Josie, "typical" pupils in key stage 3 and key stage 4; second, a case study of a single-class independent learning project in 1988; third, a group of loosely structured "educational citizenship projects" offered in various schools through the medium of a local authority advsory service.

All three sections make fascinating and often persuasive reading. The first, at best, is an account of death by worksheet; at worst, it's a record of time wasted and time-wasting. True, this is not always the teacher's fault. As Griffith says, single-period PE lessons should really be described as lessons in dressing and undressing.

The account in the second section of an unstructured and unsupervised project aimed at "breaking down some of the barriers that exist between people", is actually quite alarming. Few will be surprised to learn that gender conflict and frustration produced classroom conflict. On one occasion, real blood was spilt.

But there was, Griffith tells us, real learning too - and that is the basis of the third section, which describes pupil-directed and carefully supervised projects based on the 12 factors of independent learning. This section, with its thoughtful analysis of the pupils' own responses to their learning, does raise important questions.

It would be easy to pick holes in some of Griffith's argument. In the pupil-tracking section, for example, there is no analysis of actual learning to compare with that in the final section. There is no discussion of the extent to which improved (or at least inspected) teaching and class management is moderating the more blatant absurdities and incompetencies that Emily and Josie uncomplainingly suffer. There is no possible basis, either, for the author's passionate plea that, after all that schools have suffered, politics should be taken out of education.

But there is a genuine undercurrent of concern, which politicians would be foolish to ignore or mock. It would be foolish, too, in spite of Ofsted's ministrations (nowhere mentioned, incidentally, in this book), to down-play the Emily Josie factor; and foolish once more to forget that among boys, especially, things are far from well in far too many classrooms. Foolish, finally, not to recognise that there are few teachers - and even fewer heads - who would give to classes today that privilege that underpins real learning: that of making mistakes. Risk-taking is right out of fashion. It is the price we pay for "accountability".

Meanwhile, the question rests. What, if it's not for developing citizenship in its fullest sense, is the curriculum for?

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