How Nick 'n' Dave could cram more on to the syllabus

11th June 2010 at 01:00

More than a year before Nick and Dave joined forces to run the country, there was a meeting between another pair of politicians called Nick and Dave. It gives an insight into the thinking of our new masters on the subject of the primary curriculum.

It took place in a parliamentary adjournment debate in February 2009. David Laws MP, then Liberal Democrat education spokesman (now the fella who owes us taxpayers #163;40,000 of misclaimed expenses), met Nick Gibb MP, then shadow schools minister (now doing the job for real). Back then, these humble party spokespeople on education were responding to the interim report of the Rose review of primary education.

Mr Gibb pushed for children to learn good old facts, like the rivers of Europe and English kings and queens. Mr Laws opposed any moves "to prioritise certain parts of history" but did share Mr Gibb's resistance to a "fact-free" curriculum. In a moment that gave insight into the genesis of unwieldy programmes of study, Mr Gibb's list was heckled by Labour's Ian Gibson. He interjected: "Also the Scottish kings and queens." Without hesitation Mr Gibb confirmed: "And the Scottish kings and queens as well."

To suggest that one verbal blow might have landed King Eochaid and King Ken on my desk may be making a lot out of one exchange, but there is good evidence that this is how they devise the sort of dictat we end up having to teach (some "dic" thinks up some "tat"). Whoever gets the ear of a minister - as long as it's not a teacher - can shove drink, queens and obesity in my face. I'm just the patsy who has to teach it.

Mr Gibb gave no indication as to why children need to learn about King Ken, or any history at all, and I suspect he would struggle with the question, though after a month in which the governance of the country has relied on the facts that stem back as far as the Civil War, the value of history is evident.

I just hope our new masters take time to reflect on what children most need to learn and why. I hope they stand up to obsessive subject associations and hold out for a reduced, diverse, focused body of learning enlightened enough to prioritise something like primary economics over the dross of geography. I hope for learning worth teaching.

Nick and Dave agreed somewhat on what to teach, but parted company even further on how to teach it. Nick felt the Rose review's lack of the Rhine and King Ken made it too prone towards "cross-curriculum teaching ... the old 1950s and 1960s mantras that have failed". Dave still wondered if the curriculum lent itself to a bit of "blending". In those days, Conservatives didn't blend.

Nick, at his most creative, said the best example of cross-curricular teaching was "when a class is asked to write up something about the Middle Ages ... learned from the textbook that they have been given", as "doing so improves their literacy skills". His duff example misses the fact that the 1960s were decades ago. If our masters constrain school improvement out of fear of ancient bogeys they sacrifice the chance to revisit the best of the past - ironic, from a Conservative party attempting to rediscover compassion. The current rediscovery of project teaching goes hand in hand with an intelligent appreciation of curricular content, rising above false opposition of teaching through themes or subjects.

The issue that most united Nick and Dave was curriculum time. Nick was concerned that Rose would cause "a contraction in the amount of time spent on teaching literacy", an issue on which Dave felt the report gave mixed messages. Both missed the creative possibilities of time spent doing pretty much anything in the primary school, whether maths or lunch, to improve pupils' communication skills. Rose's curriculum is about maximising opportunities across all learning to develop communication, coupled with specific enhancement of skills. When we have genuine, high-quality primary teaching, timetabling should cease to be an issue.

Probably the greatest harmony between Nick and Dave broke out over the issue of "mumbo jumbo". Both of them were really put out by the language of paragraph 1.51 of the interim Rose report, particularly dismissive of jargon such as "scaffolding".

It's worth reading paragraph 1.51, which calls for a "curriculum ... intellectually challenging and rewarding from the standpoint of children starting out on a lifelong 'learning journey'", arguing that "good primary teaching ... deepens and widens children's understanding by firing their imagination and interest".

Nick and Dave may call that "jargon" or "mumbo jumbo". But if their parties could take the time to follow such leads deeper into the real issues that beset the curriculum, then maybe we could see a renewal of primary education that - like the Baker and Blunkett reforms of the 1980s and 1990s - catches the moment and brings much needed transformation. We could even move beyond old, false, partisan dichotomies into new, better ways of working. That would be a more fitting aspiration for the other Nick and Dave's coalition.

Huw Thomas, Headteacher of Emmaus Primary, Sheffield.

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