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Twelve months of teachers being told what to teach

James Williams, a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex School of Education and Social Work, writes

"Children should be taught about British values."

It’s a simple statement with a very complex agenda – whose values? What exactly are these values? How should they be taught? Luckily (though not without some controversy) the DfE has published guidance. So, that’s OK then. Except, of course, that there will be silly knee-jerk reactions to this new proclamation from some senior leaders in schools. I’ve heard of a ‘requirement’ for every teacher to ‘evidence’ they have taught it by ticking boxes on a weekly planning sheet. Why not just play God Save the Queen at the start and end of every lesson, raise the Union flag each morning to the sound of the music department’s very own trumpet fanfare and have done with it?

But I’m going to leave the teaching of British values to one side. I’d like to concentrate on the very first part of my first sentence: "Children should be taught". I Googled the phrase (that was my first mistake) and I was bombarded by news reports and millions of other hits. So, I refined my search and wondered just what calls had been made over the past 11 months for "children to be taught…" well, anything really. What came back was poignant, sad, funny and downright bizarre. It illustrated for me the madness of the education world we seem to be living in.

Since last January, the result of my rather unscientific, brief search yields calls from organisations, individuals, politicians and pressure groups to teach children no fewer than 26 different ‘things’. I stopped at page three of my search, realising that if I carried on I would have to write a book rather than an article on this subject.

So let me take you through the year to date and some of the highs and lows of my journey into what children should be taught…

In January, there were calls to teach all children employment skills, beginning in primary, with careers lessons starting much earlier. We were also urged to teach about the dangers of bullying online and sexting (by none other than prime minister David Cameron). In mid-February, not to be outdone by Cameron, Tristram Hunt, the Labour spokesperson on education wanted "grit and determination" on the curriculum. This was followed, just two weeks later, by a call from the Brook sexual health charity to teach children all about pornography.

March begins with a request to teach probability and uncertainty in maths followed by a wish to teach our rowdy kids about theatre etiquette. Then comes a plea by the Bishop of Salisbury, Nick Holtam, to teach religion, that is how to worship and pray. By mid-March, David Laws, schools minister, is urging us to teach about meditation, mindfulness and Buddhist techniques to reduce stress. What may be causing some stress in children is body image, so before our children are totally destroyed by the oh-so-perfect images of reality-TV stars, we had a call to make sure that all schools teach about body image. By the end of the month, Prince Andrew wades in asking us to teach children how to fail – I’ll refrain from commenting on why he chose that particular hobby-horse.

April was a quiet month, the only thing people got exercised about is how young people talk, with Peter Hyman, head of School 21 in Newham and a former Tony Blair speechwriter, arguing that children should be taught to speak eloquently.

After a quiet Easter, it all picks up again. In May, like the first cuckoos of spring, we begin to hear from the local wildlife; well, Bear Grylls actually, he wanted "risk and survival skills" taught to all children. This is followed by a clarion call to teach children how to ride a bike. I’m not sure if Bear Grylls had that in mind with his plea, but it would be helpful to link the two if you cycle in a city. By the end of the month, we no longer want our children riding bikes and eating grubs or making shelters out of twigs and leaves in the woods to keep warm, we need them all, from the moment they start school, to learn how to code.

June in my search was a barren month. Well, to be fair, it is the exam season, so teachers have enough to do worrying if they have covered everything that is already on the list of things to teach. In July, things only just pick up with a call for teaching about more awareness of cancer. August is equally a quiet month, but Stonewall’s new chief executive, Ruth Hunt does ask us to teach children how to celebrate being gay.

Come the new school year and off we go with another round.

September starts with a bang, with David Cameron urging us to teach children using imperial measures and not this newfangled decimal stuff. He clearly likes his pound of spuds as much as Nigel Farage likes a pint. Perhaps this is the common ground for UKIP and the Conservatives to form a coalition after the next general election?

By October, things really start heating up. It begins with a bid for lessons on the early warning signs of domestic abuse. Sir Bob Russell, a Lib Dem, makes an unrelated request that we teach all children first aid. This is followed by a specific call, from a bereaved parent, to teach CPR (Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation). By mid-October, when half-term beckons, we have a Parliament briefing for teaching children about the nature of marriage, family life and bringing up children. The month ends with a bid for lessons in primary schools on the dangers of alcohol.

In November, we go from wanting all of our children to be taught how to manage their finances, to a request to teach them how to be rebellious and break the rules. It ends with pleas for primary schools to teach children how to brush their teeth and about the dangers associated with gambling.

So what are we to make of all these requests? Remember, this is just 11 months and a simple search. Many of these requests seem reasonable. Some emanate from people and organisations that genuinely have a strong, sometimes personal, conviction that what they are asking for is common sense and should be part of a good rounded education. The problem is that there are just not enough days in the week and hours in the day. All these requests, it could be argued, may be woven into and become part and parcel of the subject teaching we do. Others may say that some of this is not the responsibility of schools and teachers. If parents are not teaching their children about risk, how to ride a bike or how to properly brush their teeth, why should it fall on the shoulders of schools and teachers? They have enough to do teaching the curriculum as it is.

Follow James on Twitter @edujdw


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