Subjected to political whim

14th October 2005 at 01:00
There is always a disaster looming on the horizon at the public utterance of the sentence "Compulsory lessons on ... will be introduced by the Government next September". What could the latest wheeze be? Snooker every Tuesday? Albanian literature? A statutory hopscotch hour each day?

Governments in recent years have forgotten the wise words of RA Butler during the debates on the 1944 Education Act. Pressed by an MP to make practice on a rifle range compulsory for teenagers (not quite as barmy as it sounds, there was a war on), he said that if politicians told schools exactly what to teach, each minister would merely pursue favourite whims.

There is a very good example of that insight at the present time. Back in the 1990s, when the national curriculum was being introduced, it was so prescriptive that every one of the zillion items had to be given a code number.

I still feel like vomiting when I see strings of letters and digits, like En2, Ma3 and Sc1. Curriculum developers, trying to be helpful, festoon these across their units. It lays another layer of reinforced concrete around the bureaucratic view of curriculum as things-to-be-ticked.

Today's wheeze is healthy food, all because Jamie Oliver's television series pointed out that the 37p cost of some school lunches would barely buy a decent packet of crisps. It upstaged the spin doctors and left them fuming, determined to bounce back and reclaim the initiative.

There is nothing wrong with raw carrots provided staff don't actually have to eat them, but the curriculum and examination system is crying out to be reformed. Instead, strained prune juice goes straight to the top of the Government's priority agenda.

It has been announced that cookery lessons are to be compulsory from next September. This important subject should never have been allowed to slide back in the first place. I remember having a conversation with one of the technology gurus when the cookery appeared to have been downgraded in the first version of the national curriculum, in the 1990s. It went something like this.

"I'm sorry that cookery seems to have slipped down the scale. I'm very keen on it myself."

"Ah, but it hasn't. It's now part of our new design and technology curriculum, which includes all kinds of technology, as well as business studies. Ministers are very keen on business studies."

"Will it still be called 'cookery' then, or 'home economics', or 'domestic science'?"

"No no. These are old-fashioned notions. You see, cookery is really a design challenge."

"You what?"

"Look, suppose you want a beefburger. First you design a beefburger, then you select the materials needed. Next you make and subsequently improve the design of your beefburger, and finally, and this is the clever 'business studies' part of the syllabus, you market your beefburger."

"But suppose I don't want to sell bloody beefburgers. What if I just want to feed the family with, say, a nice bit of cod, or even good old Cornish pasties?"

The technologybusiness studies guru looked blank. Eat it? For goodness'


Ministers would ask where's the money in that? You don't put Britain back on its feet by eating the profits. Yesterday's ministers also abolished minimum school meal standards. As a result any old sawdust could be served.

Today, good food and cookery are back in, which is fine by me.

Ruth Kelly goes to the party conference and says "Your Royal Highness and Prime Minister, Saint Anthony; the Supreme Lordness Adonis; peasants. Drop everything. Food is king." New decade, new minister, new whim.

Perhaps it is time we added to the familiar national curriculum shorthand I so dislike. Alongside En, Ma and Sc, we need a few more fun designations of curriculum proposals, giving a clearer idea of their provenance.

I propose the addition of Wh (stupid whim), Ba (barmy academy sponsor's favourite prejudice), Vo (vote winner), Un (designed to wind up the unions), Ex (done solely for political expediency), Ch (cheapest option available), Cr (cretinous proposal), Pu (pure crap), Eh? (beyond belief, and beyond satire).

This offers many creative possibilities for cross-curricular themes.

Combined English and maths can already be labelled En-e-Ma. The languages curriculum could be broadened by offering Polish and religious knowledge, as a cheap option (Po-rk Ch-op).

If some academy sponsor wanted to make gardening compulsory in geography lessons, that too would fit in (Gar-Ba-Ge). Home economics could be offered at key stage 2, and cookery at key stage 3 (Ho-key Co-key).

The setting of interest rates was taken away from politicians and given to the Bank of England, so that political advantage would not determine finance policy. That has worked well enough. It is high time the same sensible logic was applied to the school curriculum.

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