Like man, no subject is an island

1st August 2008 at 01:00

I am pleased that we - the Cambridge Primary Review, the House of Commons' select committee, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, Sir Jim Rose and The TES - seem to be entering into a genuine discussion about the national curriculum. About time, too.

Sadly, I still detect the confusion of thought that has been present ever since Kenneth Baker, a former education secretary, set up the subject groups in the 1980s. Throughout that time, subjects have been confused with schools' timetable for teaching them.

The fact is it is impossible to teach a single subject at a time. How can geography be taught without an appreciation of maps (pictorial representation) and the mathematical notions of distance and co-ordinates? Indeed, all lessons require a development of language in terms of vocabulary and powers of communication, and most require ways of seeking information through written material, whether in books or via the internet. Similarly, lessons call for different behaviour at different times - for example, co-operation, individual initiative and a recognition of reliance on others: social development.

This is not an argument against lessons that focus overtly on a subject or issue. It may be appropriate to have 10 minutes' social education, helping children to resolve a playground row, or a series of lessons on some local feature such as the seasonal changes in a local wood. But fundamental learning includes understanding that context affects what is or can be done, and that actions now influence what is done later - so learning not to walk across the story carpet in muddy shoes is a nice early experience of geography and history.

These lessons and topics provide for the development of language and for the necessary application of mathematics. It is vital that the work proceeds from where the children are, that it enables them to move forward and engages their attention for itself, not simply to please the teacher (or minister).

Norman Thomas, Former inspector.

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