Knowledge and skills sit at the same table

25th May 2012 at 01:00

The looming arrival of a new national curriculum has put many school leaders in England in a state of anxiety. Details for different subjects are starting to emerge gradually, and more consultation is still to come. One senior exam board figure said that if the curriculum's development were a pregnancy, the bulge would be huge and the doctors agreeing it was time to induce. This places school leaders in the corridor outside the delivery room, pacing anxiously.

We can predict a few things about the bouncing baby curriculum. Ministers have made it clear they want a greater focus on subject knowledge. So facts and dates are likely to be in vogue. The books of US writer E.D. Hirsch, which set out core knowledge about the world he believes every child should know, are seen as ideal school library material.

Skills, in contrast, seem out. They are regarded as too woolly and non- aspirational, too linked to failed vocational courses. But when the CBI surveys business managers, their prime worries are not that school-leavers have a bad memory for capital cities or cannot recite battle dates. They are concerned about their abilities to solve problems, to lead, to communicate and to work in teams.

That is not to underestimate the importance of core knowledge. Young people may be able to access a practically unlimited range of facts and opinions with a few finger presses, but the overwhelming scale of information available to them makes it even more important to give them a solid set of knowledge they can use for starting points.

Knowledge-versus-skills is a false dichotomy anyway. As Phil Parker writes (pages 4-7), you need both, as they are the warp and weft of the curriculum. His method for combining them is one of many that schools can consider. It's fine if you prefer other models, but his certainly acts as a reminder that a school's curriculum must always be much more than just the national specifications.

The arrival of the newborn national curriculum will be frantic for school leaders at first as they try to meet its needs; it may even cause sleepless nights. However, they should remember that it is not the only member of the family.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

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