Joined-up, bolt-on patchwork called curriculum

11th December 1998 at 00:00
CAN WE please stop planning for the needs of the new millennium rather than for the needs of the next year or two? It's become a really annoying phrase - how can we make a plan for the next thousand years? Can you imagine the Saxons in 998, making their plans without even knowing that England would be Norman before the next century was out?

The other irritating word of the moment (and hopefully not for the next millennium) is "joined-up". It is used mostly by those who have failed to join up whatever the topic is so far, but think it is a good thing to declare commitment to the concept. Nowhere is it more annoying than in the phrase "the joined-up curriculum".

If joined-up means both coherent and grown-up, as I suppose it does, the curriculum post-16 is one of the worst cases of incoherence one could think of, with a great deal of unadult thinking attached to it. Too many initiatives have been adopted or piloted as bolt-on solutions to parts of the problem; the whole is like a patchwork quilt with pieces of different ages and robustness in it. No one is planning the production of an entirely new quilt, one with which to start a new century, if not to last the millennium.

Here we have a scrap from an academic gown. It may be the oldest piece in the quilt and is dearly-loved by those who are transported by it to a youth of sunny days and examination halls, of an intellectually challenging viva voce; with, of course, success at the end of it all. Here is a piece of parachute silk which represents that most vital vocational qualification, the war-time pilot's licence. Next to a scrap of nurse's uniform is part of an air hostess's gaily-coloured scarf, these two representing GNVQ. And backing the patches are bits of paper to delight the historian - CSE certificates, O-level results slips, and parts of FEFC schedule 2 lists.

No one will sacrifice the scraps they especially value; no one cares that the scraps do not go together and that the different ages of the pieces leads them to pull against each other so that the whole threatens to fall apart. Fragile as the curriculum is in covering young people from five to 16, it won't even begin to serve older learners. It covers those who are sentimental about their own offerings to the quilt, of course, but I'm talking about those who aren't, and who have had no comfort from learning or from any curriculum for a long time, if ever. Memories of success for some are memories of failure for others.

If we are to have lifelong learning - another phrase about to become a cliche, but which is more mellifluous and more meaningful than some - we cannot cling to those parts of the past to which we are attached, but which have failed to deliver lifelong learning to most people. Those who design and sanction the curriculum are, unfortunately, those for whom it has delivered and who we know will be lifelong learners. But they aren't the people we are worried about.

Historically, learning was what set leaders apart from the led; it was what fomented discontent and rebellion if offered to the wrong people. Now of course, we have universal education and a national curriculum. But traces of the old attitude remain. Just as there used to be a view that if medicine tasted too pleasant it would do you no good, so there is a tendency to suppose that if too many candidates pass an examination it can't have been worth taking anyway. But lifelong learning we know, can only be built on the basis of previous success. If you don't think you'll be able to do it, you don't even try.

Parents usually get it right for their babies. Whatever baby achieves, however small the step, we praise him enthusiastically so that he will progress to the next stage For the insecure, a small step at a time is enough, even the sternest father doesn't say to the toddler, "OK, so you walked across the room. When are you going out for a ten-mile run?" This gradual accumulation of achievements is known as unitisation. It allows you to credit everything you learn rather than taking two years' study and coming out with nothing, however much you have learned and changed. It works for babies, it works for older people too, if they are given the chance. But when you enter the present system is more like a trip on a boat. The successful are allowed to stay on the boat until they draw into port. The less successful fall overboard at intervals, or are thrown overboard. Then they are blamed for not swimming to the distant port, but drowning instead. If only they could retain their place on the boat by succeeding in bite-sized chunks, they too would be able to learn throughout their lives.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon.

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