Learn to think about the here and now

10th September 2004 at 01:00
It's been a confusing summer for anyone interested in the future direction of education. We have had the Confederation of British Industry's seasonal complaint that 16-year-olds are leaving school without the literacy and numeracy skills they need or "Thicko kids can't spell", as the Sun put it.

The bosses undermined their case by a press release which spelt the phrase "here and now" "hear and now", but their survey received wide coverage.

Then BBC Radio 4's Today programme asked listeners to tell them which subjects should be added to the school curriculum. Philosophy came top of a list which included poetry and world affairs. Sadly, nobody asked the CBI to comment. Most recently, Civitas, a right-wing think-tank, opened its own private school because "education is fundamentally a process which transmits from one generation to the next the values and knowledge on which the survival of culture depends".

Who will quarrel with the CBI view that schools should teach children to read and add up? The notion that they shouldn't disappeared with those middle-class Sixties parents. Businessmen are right to suggest that we must try harder to persuade teenagers to communicate and calculate, and Mike Tomlinson's review of secondary qualifications is looking at ways of motivating the disenchanted young by emphasising that work and education are connected.

But are 16-year-olds who have mastered the basic skills which firms want educated? Margaret Thatcher would say yes. She wanted the national curriculum to consist of just English, maths and science. The rest, she thought, could be left to chance. Tony Blair's government owes much of its political success in education to its insistence that the 3Rs are what count. Six years ago, it told primary schools to forget about art and music and concentrate on literacy and numeracy.

Now ministers are nervously edging towards a different view. Primary schools are to be encouraged to teach creative subjects. David Miliband announces a music manifesto. Charles Clarke enthuses about spelling, grammar and algebra but praises classical civilisation and languages.

Bring in Civitas with its mission to save us from "cultural meltdown" by teaching primary children about "traditional culture": French, Magna Carta and our great economic and political institutions. All this is better than the narrow diet favoured by Mrs Thatcher and in the early years of the Blair government. But much of it is about looking backwards.

Even the broad curriculum offered by many state schools has its limits. The real challenge for the class of 2004 is to cope with a fast-changing future. Today programme listeners and Barry Hymer, who wrote in defence of philosophy on this page last week, understand this. Schools should make teaching people how to think a priority. That is why European countries include philosophy as a compulsory element in their equivalent of A-level.

A curriculum which put thinking and learning at the heart of every lesson would be even better. I would make the assessment for learning programme from King's College, London, which helps pupils to become better learners rather than teaching them to pass tests, compulsory for all. Feedback on the programme is through comment rather than marks, and teachers develop sophisticated questioning techniques.

The beauty of this is that it works for any subject. Some teachers have been doing it for generations in art, PE, motor mechanics and English literature. Some, Civitas notwithstanding, are almost certainly doing it through media studies. Their pupils leave school having learnt how to learn, a much more important skill than knowing how to spell "here".

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