OPINION: As consultation on the national curriculum begins, two outspoken commentators launch our new series by considering whether the Government's subject focus is misplaced
It was right for Michael Gove to order a review of the national curriculum. And it is also right to slim down the curriculum so that it focuses on outcomes rather than on the process of how subjects are taught.
But the education secretary is wrong to focus the review solely on subject content - on what pupils should know or be able to do by a particular age. The suspicion will be that by setting a narrow brief he is seeking to predetermine the outcome.
Learning is of course about knowledge, but it is also about acquiring the skills that are necessary to enable and equip young people to be effective employees, citizens and lifelong learners. Subject content and learning skills should go hand in glove - it is not a question of "either or" but "both and".
But the call for evidence for the national curriculum review mentions only the former and not the latter. Gove argues that in focusing on getting the subject content right he is emulating the example of those countries that have the most successful education systems. That in itself is a debatable point - see The TES' s report on Hong Kong's curriculum (28 January) - but his argument fails to get to the root of what is wrong with the English educational model.
There is too much testing and there are too many resits. We are producing students who, as many universities will attest, are adept at passing exams and acquiring qualifications, but are not equipped to study in depth.
Too many students are being drilled to pass exams at the expense of being supported to be independent, creative, resilient learners. As a result, we have higher education institutions running courses in study skills, research and referencing, writing and presentation, in order to help their students study at degree level.
The English Baccalaureate could make this worse, as schools desperate to improve their position in performance tables scramble to push their students through the full set of qualifying subjects.
This could mean a joyless and dull education for those capable of making the academic grade. But there is also a problem with those students who choose a more vocationally orientated education route. An increasing number of students (still not enough) are leaving school having achieved basic levels of literacy and numeracy. But too often these students lack the skills that are necessary to be effective in the world of commerce - self-management, team working, problem solving, customer care and the application of numeracy and literacy.
The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is part of the swelling chorus of voices calling for the curriculum to move beyond an outdated academicvocational and knowledgeskills divide. Schools that practise Opening Minds, which the RSA has been promoting and supporting over the past decade, do not do so at the expense of subject content. It is an approach to learning that develops and empowers learners while broadening and deepening their subject knowledge.
It is telling that while the RSA spent virtually nothing on promoting Opening Minds (and had no support from government) more than 200 schools claim to be using it in some way. It appears to be solving a real issue of pupil engagement in learning, as well as addressing challenges of secondary transfer, and providing young people with the skills they need for successful progression.
Opening Minds is not the only way to deliver holistic teaching and learning. It is not a panacea or an add-on; to succeed, schools have to put time and effort into thinking afresh about the curriculum. But the training schools are showing it to be a powerful and effective pedagogical model. It is neither anti-knowledge nor anti-subject as its lazy detractors suggest; instead students develop a wide range of competences that sit alongside their academic achievements.
So let's have the national curriculum review. But let's start from the challenges that schools, teachers and pupils face today and tomorrow, not hark back to what might have worked four decades ago for the academic few; a time when just three per cent of young people went into higher education.
Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the RSA, www.rsaopeningminds.org.uk
No one disagrees that the English education system must be fit for the economy of the future. But far from being an outdated concept peddled by ivory tower elites, academic education is vital for every child faced with meeting the challenges of this 21st-century society and economy.
Every citizen will have to be able to digest and analyse large quantities of information - just to take advantage of choice in public services. Even those in "non-academic" professions, like plumbers, will need to interact with customers and government in increasingly sophisticated ways. In a world of no jobs for life, everyone will need the intellectual toolkit to allow them to retrain and upskill during their career.
An academic education provides the foundations for this. Problem solving, critical thinking, data manipulation and analysis, the structuring of an argument - these are the kind of transferable, high-level cognitive skills everyone will need. And they are different from the complementary skills that high-quality practical or vocational education can develop.
Yet over the past 25 years, successive governments have moved in the opposite direction, based on one flawed and dangerous premise: that some children "just can't do" academic subjects. This myth, which ED Hirsch termed "the soft bigotry of low expectations", has left disadvantaged children out in the cold, as policymakers have sought alternatives for this ever-present cohort of "incapable" kids.
The well-meant desire for everyone to achieve has thus driven the creation of one vocational route after another - the NVQ, the GNVQ, VGCSEs, the BTEC and OCR National and, most recently, the Diploma. None has achieved equal standing to GCSEs and A-levels for the simple reason that, contrary to what the Government tells us, they are not equivalents to academic qualifications. Aside from the questionable quality of some of these qualifications, shunting pupils onto a vocational path at 14 closes too many doors in their future. People become "occupationally segregated" into particular jobs irrespective of their actual abilities and so decreasing the flexibility and efficiency of the labour market.
Compare the economy of 1961 with the knowledge-based jobs we have today. Are we really so presumptuous to think we know what skills will be needed 50 years from now? Without the academic foundations to change career, many people will be trapped in jobs that will simply no longer exist.
Worse, as with all problems in the education system, the poorest suffer the most. While independent, grammar and the best comprehensive schools encourage their pupils to take triple science, languages and IGCSEs, disadvantaged pupils are pushed in the direction of qualifications more likely to boost their schools' league table results.
Seventy per cent of teachers on the Teach First scheme said their school encouraged pupils to choose courses that would benefit the school's rankings rather than meeting each pupil's own long-term needs.
Children are diverted into these routes, not knowing how underprepared the absence of academic focus will leave them, whether they plan to go to university or into work. The Russell Group's new list of desirable A-level subjects reveals the truth that we all know - but that disadvantaged kids don't.
The English Baccalaureate is a useful signal of the importance of academic qualifications and, crucially, starts to change the distorted incentives that force schools to do the wrong thing by their pupils. Importantly, it suggests that there is room in the curriculum for genuinely useful vocational, practical or technical education to fit around this academic "core". Lord Baker's university technical colleges, at which he insists every pupil will have to take a clutch of academic GCSEs, are a real-life example of this.
Myths about the supposed evils of academic education continue to dominate the political debate. Earlier this month the Commons education select committee's report on school discipline suggested that an academic curriculum is a major cause of poor behaviour and concluded that those children liable to misbehave (for which read "the poor") should be able to follow a vocational path instead. In fact, the evidence cited points to a very different conclusion: that poor discipline is often largely due to poor teaching. But the educational establishment seems unable to break free of the popular cliches that have far too much influence in determining education policy.
A rigorous academic core is not about teaching people history for the sake of it or languages they don't need, but developing skills that cross subjects and specialisms, skills that will be useful for all and in all walks of life. If the Government and its successors keep that in mind, they can boost social mobility today and ensure bright prospects for the UK economy tomorrow.
Dale Bassett is research director at the independent think-tank Reform, www.reform.co.uk
A debate on issues surrounding the curriculum will take place at an RSA London conference on 11 March, where it will also launch its new Opening Minds accreditation model. Speakers will include educationalist Sir Ken Robinson and RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor. For details, visit: www.rsaopeningminds.org.ukevents.