Today's subject-based structure is for the 'horse-drawn age', with no consideration of what it means to be an educated human being
Ministers and their advisers spend huge amounts of time discussing the way education is delivered and assessed, but no time at all debating what it should achieve, according to a leading academic.
Alison Wolf, education author and professor of public sector management at King's College London, claims that policy-makers have not questioned the purpose and content of the curriculum since the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988.
"Since then, we have given remarkably and terrifying little thought to what education should actually be about," Professor Wolf said, in a recent speech to the Institute of Education in London.
"We spend huge amounts of time discussing and worrying away at delivery, management and assessment. But if you compare our discussions with those of the early 20th century, or the 19th, or indeed the Renaissance, what is missing is any consideration of what it means to be an educated human being."
Professor Wolf described the British curriculum as "monolithic, interconnected and inflexible", leading to the atrophy of innovation and creativity. Despite politicians insisting that educational aspirations should be constantly assessed, she said the main ambition where the curriculum is concerned was to have "minimal debate and minimal change".
David Reynolds, professor of education at the University of Plymouth and former chairman of the Government's numeracy taskforce, agreed that there should be more philosophical discussion about the goals of education.
"In the past 10 years, changes in society mean it's vital to have children who are much more resilient and psychologically strong than before," he said. "They need new learning-to-learn skills.
"But we only measure academic outcomes. We don't measure the things that matter. Every other society is talking about these things. Why aren't we?"
Professor Wolf suggested there is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo: teachers become familiar with the content of a qualification, and textbooks are written to fit its demands.
"I think it's going to be very difficult to disentangle ourselves from this mess," she said. "The deep unease about education and the curriculum, which so many of us feel, is well-founded."
Instead of rethinking the curriculum, she said, qualifications are tinkered with at a superficial level.
Professor Wolf cited the 2004 Tomlinson report on the 14-19 curriculum as a prime example. Attacking the impenetrability of its language, she pointed out that it could have insisted on a restructured sixth form, with compulsory English and maths.
But Mike Tomlinson, who wrote the report, insisted that such far-reaching change is not realistic.
"We were led by the curriculum: what skills, knowledge and understanding were needed," he said. "That's why we wanted to see maths, English and ICT at the core of the curriculum. The practical question is whether we have enough maths teachers to teach it right through to 18. That's the difference between theory and practice, aspiration and reality. I'm on the side of reality."
John White, emeritus professor at the Institute of Education in London and adviser to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, suggested this merely reflects the narrowness of contemporary educational thought.
"The problem is that the subjects are still sacrosanct," he said. "We shouldn't be hidebound by them. Why do we need algebra or geometry? The answers aren't blindingly obvious. At government level, we need a curriculum based on skills, rather than on knowledge."
He added that the subject-based structure of the school day is almost identical to 1904, when secondary education became compulsory.
"We're talking about a curriculum for a horse-drawn age," said Professor White. "There are questions about whether it's still suitable for the 21st century."
WHAT TEACHERS SAY
Martin Burt, Art and design teacher, South Dartmoor College, Devon
"Pupils need a flexible mindset. If they just leave school with a collection of facts, they won't be equipped to deal with the problems our society presents them with. But schools perform in the way in which they're measured. Maybe we should measure desirable learning habits: being able to work in a team; being able to listen; being more resilient so they don't give up so easily."
Philip May, Head, Costessey High, Norfolk
"There's a lot of talk about what our young people should be: what sort of citizens, what sort of thinkers we should be developing. But this hasn't been brought together in a coherent way. We've had influences from parents' groups and social services, and economic drivers such as needing more skilled labour. But that's been aggregated almost subconsciously into a vision of what we want from young people, without there being any proper debate about it."
Simon Duffy, Head, Chipping Norton School, Oxfordshire
"For far too long, we've focused our attention on testing outcomes, rather than an honest assessment of what an effective learner looks or behaves like. But we're getting better at talking to pupils about what matters to them. By focusing less on the test and more on the learning process, we produce better learners. But heads are judged by the proportion of pupils who get the required levels in exams. It encourages a process where pupils learn what they need to do to jump through hoops. Significant numbers coming through from primary school are already test-tired."
Eddie Izzard, Head, Winklebury Junior School, Hampshire
"There's always been debate over whether education should be about the acquisition of knowledge or its application, which we call wisdom. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad. Unless we have the power to be creative, we're forever being narrowed down. Where are our artists, our musicians, or our sports personalities going to come from? They're labelled early on as non-academic, and therefore under-achieving. We did away with the 11-plus, which labelled children at age 11, and brought in Sats, which labelled them at seven. What are politicians doing? I don't think they have a clue."