Hole at the heart of our culture

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Is the national curriculum 1995 to be revised after the expiry of the five-year moratorium? This is "yet to be decided" according to Dr Nick Tate, chief executive elect of the Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority. Dr Tate was speaking at a seminar organised by the Federal Trust at the European Parliament Office in London on January 31. The hedging of bets is not surprising given the imminence of the General Election. It does mean that the most prominent casualty of the 1994 re-write, the European dimension, remains in limbo. Its absence from the present national curriculum can't be remedied because of the moratorium: its reintroduction at some future date can't be prepared for because there is no plan for it to happen. Why does it matter?

We would be startled if we heard that school syllabuses in Chile or Peru did not refer to the existence of South America: conceptually and practically Europe has been downplayed in ours. If no one does anything, we risk entering the 21st century more intellectually isolated from the rest of Europe than we have ever been and our young people easy prey to tabloid xenophobia.

What is to be done? It is up to the subject associations to clarify their thinking and put collective pressure for the reintegration of the European dimension into the existing curriculum or into a revised version of it. The Association for Language Learning, whose annual conference takes place in early April, should take the lead.

Some argue that concern over the national curriculum is misplaced. Links and exchanges between schools constitute the critical elements of the European dimension in this country. It is true that, thanks to the efforts of the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, around 675 schools are involved in multilateral Comenius Action One projects; more schools and colleges are involved in joint educational projects under the auspices of Lingua Action E. Schools also form their own bilateral links and many pupils visit Europe with their parents. Finally, conscientious teachers introduce a European dimension to their teaching.

Much then is already being done as a result of central and local initiative and family arrangements. This should be acknowledged and applauded but not overestimated. It remains the case that many schools still have no linkage, the percentage varying by local authority area. Even if family holidays are included, many pupils will not have visited the rest of the European Union. If the needs of every pupil are to be met then links and exchanges must be seen as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, a European dimension to the na-tional curriculum.

Nor is individual professional intervention enough to bridge the gap between the agreement reached on reached on May 24, 1988, between the European Community ministers of education - including the UK's - and the text of the current national curriculum. The European dimension begins with a commitment to "strengthen in young people a sense of European identity". Undertakings follow about improving the knowledge of young people about the Community, and preparing young people to take part in its economic and social development. It is hard to square those objectives with a national curriculum which excludes the European dimension altogether in six out of 11 subjects. The history syllabus excludes from the study of the 20th-century world the establishment of the European Community. The maps issued for use with the geography syllabus do not identify the European Union. The European dimension to the English syllabus is restricted to a reference to Greek myths.

Certainly, modern foreign language syllabuses involve some study of the culture of the country whose language is being learned - but as Peter Downes, former president of the Secondary Heads Association and professional linguist, points out, even here the context is national rather than European and linguistic rather than cultural.

Three flaws need remedying in the national curriculum so far as the European dimension is concerned. First - as Dr Tate himself in part accepts - the national curriculum when viewed as an educational text rather than a political one has serious intellectual shortcomings deriving from the absence of a coherent conceptual and strategic view of Europe and its successive civilisations.

Second, it has practical drawbacks. English is the nearest we have to an international language. English schools have to make a far greater effort to motivate and provide opportunities for English students to master another European language than do schools elsewhere in Europe. The national curriculum, according to Dr Tate, is designed to prioritise a sense of national identity. This approach does not provide such encouragement. Rather it points our students towards reliance on the unofficial Anglo-American national curriculum conveyed in English through television, video and the cinema.

Third, it has cultural disadvantages, if we believe with the old National Curriculum Council that schools should "enable pupils to live and work with a degree of competence in other European countries . . . [and] give an informed understanding of the predicaments and aspirations of other Europeans in order to reflect critically on or challenge existing perceptions". A national curriculum which lacks a European dimension can scarcely prepare students to live and work elsewhere in the EU or to live here on the basis of an understanding of fellow Europeans.

Frances Morrell is author of Continent Isolated, a study of the European dimension in the national curriculum, available from the Federal Trust for Education and Research, tel: 0171 799 2818. She will be talking on this subject at the Association for Language Learning's conference (see left)

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