Curriculum century

22nd April 2011 at 01:00
The current redesign of the national curriculum is only the latest in a long line of attempts to reach consensus on what children should be taught. And, as Michael Shaw reflects, last century as now, leaving teachers to get on with it has never been an option

What is education coming to? The curriculum is overcrowded - crammed with too much content that has ended up creating a shallow level of learning. Young people leave school without the skills they need to take on our international competitors - especially because of their weakness in foreign languages and science. Pupils lack a proper sense of the narrative of history.

This gloomy assessment contains some of the main concerns of teachers and politicians today. We are all familiar with the mantra. But as we await a new, rewritten national curriculum it may come as a surprise to discover that these were also the concerns of teachers and politicians 100 years ago.

Hold on, some teachers may say, we've only had a national curriculum since 1988. Of course, that's true. But there has always been debate about what schools should teach, and exam board specifications have long been more prescriptive than national edicts. Politicians who believe that cross- curricular teaching, citizenship, and primary-school sex education are modern fads may be in for a bit of a shock too.

Those drafting the latest improvements to the national curriculum have to tackle problems that have been worrying policy-makers and teachers for more than a century. The question is whether they can nail them down this time.

Admittedly, today's teachers face unprecedented levels of scrutiny and curriculum guidance. But do not imagine that school staff 100 years ago would have been totally free of such restrictions.

In the very first issue of The TES in September 1910, an article examining England's village schools noted that their "curriculum is impractical". It read: "What of the actual instruction that they give? In the highly organised system under which they work there is but little - too little - scope for a teacher's individuality. Minutely drawn timetables must be adhered to; the requirements of `Codes' issued by the Education Department of Whitehall must be scrupulously observed; originality, or any divergence from the beaten track, is discouraged, if not actually repressed by the Board's inspectors; endless forms and returns must be filled up. An atmosphere of official red tape and mechanical routine seems to envelop the school and cramp the teacher."

Complaints about the curriculum are, the paper points out, "often heard from amateur critics of our educational system". Children in these schools learnt a "smattering of history" and "undigested scraps of science and literature", and were taught about other countries before they learnt "the extent of the British empire".

The correspondent cites an anecdote, which he notes may be apocryphal but which he believes illustrates teachers' willingness to stick to their impractical lesson plans. "A visitor to an infant school, on whose walls figured a cardboard model of a clock-face, found that none of the children understood how to reckon on time; on expressing surprise he was answered reproachfully by the teacher, `If we taught them that, they would have no time to make the model elephants!'"

And the dissatisfaction goes on. Elsewhere in that same issue, the The TES reflects on concern about the emphasis given to subjects in the then far smaller number of secondary schools. Local administrators used to dealing with elementary schools may "dump (sic) down" secondaries with a similarly narrow curriculum. But improvements had been made, notably in geography and history, since the Royal Commission on Secondary Education in 1895 which found "unsatisfactory teaching of English and English literature - a defect, it may be observed, common to all schools from Eton and Harrow downwards".

Not everything then was the same as today, of course. A key difference was the priority given to Latin and Greek, which dominated exams for the civil service and Oxford and Cambridge, and the relative lack of science teaching.

Scientists had been frustrated for decades at the way their subject appeared to be marginalised or entirely ignored by schools in Britain - especially those supposedly educating the country's future leaders - while teachers in other countries, notably Germany, took it more seriously.

The First World War drew attention to this failing. Shortly before the war MPs had approved the shipment of lard to Germany, ignorant of the fact it could be used for creating glycerine and explosives. This mistake was noted in a memo titled "The neglect of Science", written and signed by a range of professors and published in The TES in 1916. It made a powerful case for the sciences, which it listed as: chemistry, physics, biology, mechanics, geology and geography (today normally classed as a humanity). The "grave defect" in the country's science education had, they wrote, "been constantly pressed upon public attention during the last 50 years as a cause of danger and weakness".

The debate about the comparative place of science and the classics turned fierce and the newspaper was filled for months with letters from headteachers, MPs and university vice-chancellors. Only one correspondent suggested that it was odd to be having such discussions in the middle of a war ("We have to win this war or perish. To discuss new schemes of education and whether a boy is to be nurtured in Greek or chemistry is, just now, sheer folly .").

Most agreed that science deserved a key place in the curriculum, a stance strongly supported by The TES, which wrote that "the value of science as a road to success has never been more obvious than today". Nowell Smith, headmaster of the Dorset public school Sherborne, supported this, arguing for a "broad and deep foundation of a liberal education, of which some practical experience of natural laws and some cultivation of scientific temper is an indispensable part". But he feared that would never happen "while the Civil Service Commissioners (for the Army) and every university and professional body, from the General Medical Council to the Institute of Chartered Accountants or the Surveyors Institute to the Law Society, all insist upon the types of mathematical questions set in their preliminary examinations, or the precise periods of history to be offered, or the exact ingredients of that hyphenated history-and-geography which defies the ordinary resources of the language."

Then, as now, exam specifications could trump all. But back then secondary teachers might face the added difficulty of planning a curriculum for one class that crammed in material for multiple, significantly different exams (see panel). Their challenges changed with the introduction of the school certificate a year later, and the launch of A-levels and O-levels in 1951, but teachers would continue to complain of feeling hemmed in by prescription.

Throughout the century some subjects would never be as popular as teachers hoped, particularly German, the topic of despairing articles in 1910 and every decade since.

The more hands-on subjects appear to have changed the most over the century, and suffered the greatest drop in emphasis, although elements of "housewifery" ended up in domestic science, and "handicraft" was an ancestor to woodwork, then CDT, and design and technology.

In contrast, some apparently modern subjects are of older origin, at least in certain schools. The TES reported on the advent of media studies in primary schools in 1975, on calls for citizenship to be part of the curriculum in 1944 (and on ways it was being taught in some schools in 1930), and was debating the need to teach sex education to elementary school pupils in 1915.

Sex education then would have looked different. The paper's correspondent did not believe it should be treated as a lesson, suggesting it was better taught privately by the headteacher and should focus on "sexual dangers" - potentially life-saving at a time when syphilis was a major cause of death. "The methods proposed are not free from danger of exciting morbid and precocious interest in unpleasant questions," he wrote. "But there is far greater danger in the convention whereby they are almost completely ignored in school life, secondary as well as elementary." An article two years later suggested teaching it to 15-year-olds was too late, as "at seven and eight, boys begin to ask questions", and that it is important to ensure that sex was not seen by children as "something shameful, something which is taboo".

The constant problem for schools has been how to cram everything from sex education to long division into the timetable. One parent wrote to The TES in 1917: "We are told that the school curriculum is overcrowded. Is that because masters are now specialists and trying to teach too much? `More science,' cry some, and these are not only teachers of science. `But not at the expense of the humanities!' reply others, and these are not only classical scholars. How in practice can we have more science, more mathematics, more classics, more anything?"

The TES had been attempting to answer the question the same year with a 12-part series on the curriculum, based on what one of its correspondents, a teacher, had found was a "working model" that had "stood the test of practice".

The series recommended looking at subjects as falling under five headings, which modern reviews of the primary curriculum might term areas of understanding. These were: language (which would include literature, grammar, and foreign languages); religious knowledge (apparently with aspects of citizenship, as it was to be "connected with the secular work of the school through the considerations of ethics and of social service"); science (which would include maths); history ("based primarily on world history"); and artistic and manual work.

"This broad classification does not imply that special times will not be given to the study of French or Latin, or mathematics, or geography," it said. What it provided was a framework for cross-curricular teaching, which was crucial. "No divisions of subject matter, however broad and fundamental we can succeed in making them, are watertight in fact; and we cannot make them watertight in the practice of teaching without doing violence to reality."

So a maths teacher was recommended to look through the syllabus of other subjects for the term ahead. "He can then proceed to follow up during the term every vein that he has discovered, collaborating as much as possible with colleagues."

Similarly, history teachers were instructed to work with their fellow staff members. They were recommended to teach their subject in a way that gave pupils a sense of history's narrative, rather than the common way where "only an accumulating `jumble' of periods is left in the learner's mind". The writer recommended this should primarily be British history, but that two out of six lessons a week should be on world history.

"Relevance" - another supposedly modern education buzzword - was also a key tenet of the 1917 curriculum series. Science must be taught "in relation with the learner's experience", it explained, otherwise there will be no "relevance" to the pupil in his "systematizing the laws of chemistry". Similarly, maths problem work should be taught "in connexion with local interests and events".

This approach may look ahead of its time, and may not have been widely practised then, but it was well-worn in several schools in 1917. The "modern" calls for teaching that helped pupils "learn to learn" would not have surprised these schools either (it was a fad author Mary Shelley had mocked in the 19th century).

The series concluded that a school's approach to the curriculum should effectively be child-centred, an attitude some traditionalists might imagine was invented in the 1960s. "Almost the whole of the method can be evolved by the simple process of starting a subject, letting children ask what they want to know about it, and helping them to systematize their own questions and work out the answers. We come home to a truism: the right curriculum, like everything else that is right in education, comes from the union of our minds with the minds of childhood."

As teachers await the latest curriculum changes, it is to be hoped its authors will keep this in mind.


Subjects taught at Meldreth School in Cambridgeshire in 1910 (the year The TES began publication) and 2011.


The main subjects:




Classes in other subjects included: Gardening






When the school's vegetable garden could not be used because of poor weather, pupils had lessons in spelling, dictation and general knowledge instead. The school's log book noted in October 1910 that "physical exercises will be taken every morning from 9.35 to 9.45am in the place of singing or drill".

An inspector wrote (in 1912): "The instruction is carefully planned and there is every reason to think that it is having a good success."


The core subjects:




and Information Technology.

Children also have classes in: History, Geography, Damp;T, Music, Art, PE, PSHE, RE, Modern foreign languages (primarily French) and Citizenship.

Pupils continue to make use of the school's garden as members of a popular gardening club which sells produce. The school has revised its curriculum to make it more inquiry-based, and regularly holds cross-curricular theme days and weeks.

The inspector wrote (in 2010): "The school gives pupils a good all-round education."


Extract from "Exemption by Tests - the need for co-ordination", TES, November 17, 1917

The strain on the master when boys are working for different examinations. We may take two subjects: History and English. A group of boys averaging age 15 to 17 may contain individuals preparing for the School Certificate, the London Matriculation, the Northern Universities Matriculation, and the Army. There is no reason why all these boys should not be submitted to the same tests. But here is the actual state of the case.

HISTORY - School Certificate - 1066 to 1688 or 1603 to 1885. London. - 1485 to the death of Queen Victoria. Northern Universities - To 1603 or since 1603. Army - 1558 to the death of Queen Victoria.

ENGLISH - School Certificate - Essay, precis, re-production, Hamlet or As You Like It, with one of - (1) Milton's Comus and Lycidas; (2) Scott's Old Mortality; (3) Macauley's essays on `William Pitt' and `The Earl of Chatham'. Northern Universities - Essay, with, for general reading - poems of to-day; Dickens' Barnaby Rudge. For special reading - three selections from one each of (a), (b), (c): (a) Shakespeare's Richard III or Merchant of Venice; (b) Milton's L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus and Lycidas or Tennyson's Teiresias and other poems, Kinglake's Eothen or Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield; London - A conglomerate paper, of which the best that can be said is that by means of various text books it has now been reduced to a matter of a cram; Army - At first sight it might seem that the Army English might work in with at least the first and third of these, but the general paper is of quite a peculiar type and the precis so different from that set for the School Certificate that Army boys have to be taught separately.

Original headline: Subject to change

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