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Tyranny of the thought police

Will a controlled, packaged curriculum and controlled, packaged teachers lead to a better society? Pat Smith questions the wisdom of current thinking.

When teachers have found themselves under attack they have traditionally sought protection from their subject expertise. The more incomprehensible to the layman that subject is, the greater its power of protection. ("Lawyer-speak" has traditionally given professional status to that group. ) The State has now given us the national curriculum so that some subjects and some subject content have primacy in education. The pitiful attempts to allow cross-curricular education have now mercifully ceased. Economic and industrial understanding must be deduced from studying trade expansion in the 19th century.

Yet we are on the edge of an information explosion, in which the rapidity of change and the power of global communication may overwhelm us. While machines are capable of tidying up anyone's spelling, exam boards and English syllabuses have become obsessed with "lost basics".

It was within this climate that I was reflecting on the changes that are coming into teacher training selection. The quality rating of a training institution will be seriously affected by accepting too many applicants with 2:2s (which used to be called "a good honours degree") and whose degree content does not mirror the content enshrined in the national curriculum.

Indeed, subject associations are resisting a national curriculum creeping into universities. The rationale is continuity, consistency, accountability and quality. Such a misuse of the word "quality" is staggering. When did uniformity ever ensure quality?

Currently, all applicants for teacher training who have social science degrees compete for about 100 places available nationwide. Anyone unfortunate enough to embark, for example, on a law degree only to find that the course is unfulfilling or that employment opportunities are severely limited, or that they cannot afford the future training, will discover that, whatever their aptitude for teaching, they will be rejected for training because of the "inappropriate" content of their degree.

I began my teaching career when a degree was recognised as an indication of an intelligent, flexible mind; of people who could study and absorb content quickly because they had been trained to think. Why would someone with a degree in communications or media studies who wishes to teach English to children of 11 to 16 be so suspect? Equally, why after undergoing an appropriate period of training, should a degree in psychology mean that you cannot teach Romeo and Juliet? Perhaps because somewhere an Office for Standards in Education inspector would be critical that an English graduate was not teaching a school's GCSE classes.

One of my excellent students, who was employed to teach some English, was quizzed by an inspector because she should not have had such a high teaching rating when she had no other qualification than a sociology degree, an intelligent, enquiring mind, a capacity for hard work and a desire to benefit children and teach them well.

The rigidity of content in schooling puts stress on the teacher's ingenuity and capacity to make national curriculum topics interesting and any concomitant criticism will fall on the teacher if pupils find that the content fails to engage their interest when it has little relevance to their lives.

It is up to the teacher to stand on his or her head, entertain, cajole or force interest from pupils. Education Secretary Gillian Shephard is annoyed that teachers "shop around" exam boards for easier options for their pupils. She finds it surprising that they should change boards to find one more compatible in order to raise their pupils' grades. Why is this so wrong? She implies that this is somehow underhand.

Yet when I interview potential teachers I am keen to establish that their pupils' success is of paramount importance. Soon, in the interests of comparable standards, the choice of examination syllabuses will be further restricted. Although I favour examination rigour, further restriction on available content will be an inevitable outcome.

Yet the social science content is more relevant to young people's lives, more concerned with how the world is changing, more able to explain and offer debate about the future than any other subject.

Writing in the Guardian, Edward de Bono attacked the way "eventually the whole of our intellectual effort will be devoted to studying yesterdays" and the way "less than 10 per cent of what is taught in school is of the slightest use to society in general and to the students involved".

I do not claim that the social sciences escape from the emphasis on criticism which Dr de Bono also castigates in that article because it is enshrined in all assessment criteria, but sociology, psychology, politics and economics do allow for multiple realities to co-exist and are not averse to the possibilities which could emerge from creative flux. If we accept that what is taught in schools has a value, it will be diminished if it becomes static and fossilised. "Without new ideas, civilisation stagnates. Civilisation becomes worthy and weary," writes Dr de Bono.

In times of rapid change, a fundamentalist backlash is inevitable but not helpful. If young people cannot embrace the creative possibilities of the new millennium we are in danger from the entrenched positions which inevitably confront other equally "sure" assertions. The social sciences are living, changing, developing subjects and the current interest in postmodernism can be seen to encompass the humorous interaction of the "now" with the past that celebrates everyone's shared cultural experiences.

So why are so many intelligent young people to be denied access to teaching because they chose to study the issues that society is facing now and in the future?

Societies or groups that restrict knowledge are fearful and short-sighted. Humankind must embrace the future creatively if it is to survive. Because of financial constraints, university education looks likely to shrink again because graduates may not be able to find jobs commensurate with having undergone higher education. The strict correspondence between education and the projected job market seems restrictive and short-sighted. Lord Macaulay, reporting on selection for the Indian Civil Service in 1854, praised "studies which had no immediate connection with the business of any profession . . . (whose) effect is merely to open, to invigorate and to enrich the mind".

It may be a matter of debate whether degree courses do the latter or not, but with a greater proscribed content, "invigoration" may be even further away. If, also, our children do not come into contact with anything but a controlled, packaged curriculum and controlled, packaged teachers, will society be better served? How many of those "special" teachers whom The TES regularly celebrates would have obtained a place on a teacher training course today? It is dangerous when bookkeepers, in one guise or another, have so much control over our books that they can determine what is acceptable knowledge. When it comes to thinking, there is no tyranny like the tyranny of tidiness.

Pat Smith is vice-president of the Association for the Teaching of Social Science and initial teacher training social science tutor at Keele University.

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