Breadth of life

31st March 1995 at 01:00
David Blunkett, if he becomes education secretary, must revive a holistic curriculum, says Chris Price. The Labour party, in the last two general elections, has switched the emphasis of its education policy from systems and structure to quality - and in particular the quality of young people's experience at school.

The chosen method of doing this has been through a new "quality" quango; today this would probably mean a reformed Office for Standards in Education and School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. That will still be necessary. But first the objectives of the curriculum should be clarified. So Labour's priority should be to reform the defects of the 1988 Act, a task that can be carried through quickly and simply by ministerial Order without the need for primary legislation.

The 1988 Act sets overall objectives for the curriculum. In section 1 (2) it says that a curriculum is legal if it is balanced and broadly based (terms it fails to define) and if it "promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, and physical development of pupils at the school and of society". There is, however, no national statutory framework to assess whether it actually promotes any of these desirable developments.

In section 3 the Act prescribes, as the only approved method of promoting the development of young people, a diet of maths, English, science, history, geography, music, art and physical education, with a little religious education thrown in. There is, of course, little evidence that teaching these subjects does any more than help some pupils pass examinations. An education in English, history, science or music may promote moral and cultural development. But there is no guarantee that it will; and every Conservative ministerial intervention in the detail of the curriculum has been calculated to ensure that what is taught remains so utilitarian and narrowly assessed that it becomes irrelevant to morality, culture and, for that matter, any healthy mental maturing.

Worse still, Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, in his recent report, fails to understand the structure of the Act, getting carts and horses all muddled up. The "mission statement" of the 1988 Act is to help young people develop in a number of ways. The national curriculum and the subjects it comprises represent the means by which development is to take place; it is subsidiary to the mission. Mr Woodhead's report begins by discussing at great length the standards of achievement in subjects; and then devotes a few cursory paragraphs to moral, cultural and other kinds of development, as if these are a few extra foundation subjects rather than the fundamental objective of the whole education enterprise.

The words "spiritual, moral, mental and physical development" were taken from the 1944 Education Act. In that Act, such words referred not simply to the subjects pupils learnt but rather to the whole organisation of the school: to both the "classroom" and the "hidden" curriculum. The principle was that if the atmosphere of the school was right, children would develop healthy minds in healthy bodies and thereby learn effectively. It was because the best of Britain's independent schools knew that this principle was worth fighting for that they refused to have anything to do with Kenneth Baker's national curriculum.

Mr Woodhead's decision to put the subject cart before the curricular horse is understandable. Though it is not what the Act says, it is what ministers want him to do.

The national curriculum, with its penumbra of tests and assessment, was calculated to destroy the holistic approach of the 1944 Act and, with it, to destroy teachers' professionalism by removing that discretion in achieving objectives which all professions should have. In effect, it said, you will make children moral by teaching, testing and assessing them in subjects and in subject matter which we prescribe. As a Great Education Reform Act it has already manifestly failed. Only the patient political skills of Sir Ron Dearing, brought in as company doctor to save a collapsing national business, have prevented legislative failure from turning into educational debacle.

The Dearing Review, therefore, has already begun Labour's reforming task, by slimming down the whole framework, downgrading mechanistic, box-ticked attainment targets and allowing teachers to work out programmes of study with far more breadth and balance, and therefore potentially more morality and culture, built in. A Labour education secretary can now build on Sir Ron's achievement.

Thanks to section 4 of the 1988 Act Labour will need no curricular legislation. The section gives David Blunkett, on his first day as Education Secretary, carte blanche to make national curricular Orders in any form he wishes. He should use these Orders to reinstate a holistic curriculum. He should link the "knowledge, skills and understanding" which they require to be taught in the programmes of study, with the moral and cultural development specified in section 1 (2); he should insist, as many religious voluntary schools have always done, that a moral and cultural dimension is relevant to every subject, whether it be maths, science, English or history.

The Orders should bind him, local authorities, governors and heads to have regard to overriding general principles in drawing up each programme of study. A possible list: respect for the environment, including plants and animals; an understanding of the causes of human poverty, ignorance and disease; human rights and responsibilities both to fellow human beings and to society at large. Such Orders would give direction to that new freedom which Sir Ron has already offered teachers in putting together programmes of study.

They need not specify detail. Since their purpose would be to re-empower teachers, that would be the responsibility of the governors and the head. They would link means to objectives and help endow the curriculum with that breadth and balance which it is legally meant to have; they would avoid the temptation to introduce any new subjects such as citizenship or Third World studies, by integrating new objectives into existing subjects; and they would entrench once again, as part of the Act, the concept of education as a total process rather than an atomised collection of separate subjects.

I have always seen the national curriculum as an irremediable bureaucratic mistake which would have to be scrapped one day; Sir Ron, however, has given the concept a new life; I now suspect, with some skilful surgical secondary legislation by an imaginative Labour education secretary, it could be enhanced into a worthwhile framework in which genuine education could flourish.

Chris Price is a former chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on education.

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