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We are no longer amused

Victorian values are still far too evident in our schools. An update is long overdue, writes John White

Now is the time for the school curriculum to shake itself free of the 19th century. Take music, for example. Seeing the huge part it plays in young people's lives, it could be a vibrant subject with exciting elements that reflect varied interests. Yet it is far from that.

Most often music is taught to whole classes - and frequently bored ones at that. Why? Because that is the way it has always been done - ever since it was first introduced into the curriculum in the Victorian era because of the need to improve the quality of choral singing in church.

Science is another good example. Why is teaching centred round laboratory work and practical demonstration? Because that was the pattern into which it had crystallised by 1900 and no one has changed it since. How often do today's scientists use a Bunsen burner? How often, indeed, do they think separately of physics, chemistry, and biology? Yet school science is often based on these categories simply because that was how it was in the late 1800s. The old ways persist.

They do in other subjects too. Religious education was taught in 1850 partly as a vehicle for moral education. It still is in many classrooms - despite overwhelming reasons to think that morality does not require a religious basis. Art and design is the heir of many traditions, but whole classes drawing the same objects is still the dominant teaching method. The "hand-and-eye" training for the future artisans of 1870 has bequeathed us the crushed Coca-Cola can, reflections in stainless steel utensils and that long-running favourite, the sliced pepper.

Margaret Thatcher's attachment to Victorian values cemented the curriculum even more firmly into the past. The national curriculum of 1988 turned out to be a virtual copy of the grammar-school curriculum of 1904. The list of subjects selected for the new Edwardian middle-class elite is almost identical to Kenneth Baker's when he was Thatcher's education minister.

A Gradgrindian obsession with factual recall developed in the early Nineties. Former education minister Kenneth Clarke prided himself that "the content had been put back into geography". He also favoured the Victorian view of history teaching as moral training based on the lives of national heroes. It was in this period, too, that Christianity was reinstated as the dominant religion to be studied in RE.

Everywhere you look you find old bones. The history syllabus, again, makes sure that the spat between King Stephen Blois and Queen Matilda around 1140 is on the national programme, but has precious little on the 20th century apart from the Great Dictators. We still think of the arts under the ancient headings music, art (drawing and painting), and English literature.

Things that don't fit are sidelined, for instance, film, despite its status as the great new art form of the past century. What about architecture or the writings of Russian, Japanese and Czech authors?

The curriculum is rooted in the elite as well as the mass education of the late 1800s. This is evident in its conception of subjects as providing specialised apprenticeship for later learning in the same field.

The overwhelming emphasis in PE on mastering specific physical activities is explained by the demands of elite performance in sport. Science and mathematics are even now frequently taught as if they were mainly preparation for their further study at university.

A central aim in music is still the development of a kind of general musicianship that has its home in the conservatoire. We have also inherited the atomised approach to learning favoured by the Victorians. Inspectors criticise mechanical tasks in history "rehearsing formulaic responses to snippets from sources". Key stage 3 geography and mathematics are fragmented. Even in English, current policies often treat what is learnt as akin to historical dates or the periodic table.

Of course, much of the curriculum has changed since the 1800s. But much of it has not. We can see its inadequacies more sharply now, because since 2000 we have a new way of assessing its relevance. In that year, for the first time in English history, all state schools were equipped with an extensive set of curricular aims.

We can now test how well the subjects match up to the new aims, emphasising as they do the practical business of living well as an individual and as a citizen. In most - but not citizenship or design and technology - there is gross mismatch, as in the above examples, taken from Rethinking the school curriculum, a new collection of essays published today.

We will soon be educating citizens for the 22nd century as well as for the 21st. Outdated curricular practices from two centuries ago are scarcely what we need.

John White is a professor at the University of London Institute of Education. Rethinking the school curriculum: Values, aims and purposes (edited by John White) is published by RoutledgeFalmer. There is an open seminar with the authors at the Institute of Education on November 4 at 3.30pm. Contact Jon Raeside at RoutledgeFalmer on 020 7842 2165

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