New curriculum not a threat but rather an opportunity
When I first saw that the humanities curriculum would feature a return to a hero and heroine approach to history, and a ‘capes and bays’ knowledge of geography my heart sank. Here was a return to Victorian values espoused by a Secretary of State anxious to enhance his credibility with the Tory right wing. However, his espousal of modern technology allows me to consider how the two might be put together to good effect. Take a lesson on the movers and shakers of British history. Half a century ago a teacher would have stood at the front of their classroom and lectured the class about whoever they thought was important, probably at the primary stage Alfred the Great, Nelson, Florence Nightingale and a few others where the tale to tell was inspiring enough to capture the attention of the class. As the school wouldn’t have a library, and the children’s section of pupil libraries were few and far apart, there was little alternative. Perhaps, some children would read comics or come from homes where books like Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia could be found that would have widened their knowledge, as would the daily newspaper that many households still read.
The first decade of this century provides a very different picture. If anything, it is one of information overload. As Mr Gove also wants debating and public speaking to be a part of schooling to improve self-confidence I can see a Key Stage 2 humanities programme following a programme something like this. Teacher: our topics this week is heroes and heroines. Firstly, how do we define what is meant by such a person. Then pick both a period on the timeline and a card from the pack containing terms like military, arts, invention, politics, religion, business, education, law and so on and go away and find someone who meets the criteria you have selected. Come back prepared to get the class to vote for your candidate, and to cross-examine everyone else on why you should vote for their candidate.
If some key candidates aren’t covered, the next lesson can be about testing those well known individuals against the ones selected in order to see who has stood the test of time, and more importantly why?
The same approach can work with geography. You can play a game of ‘fill in the blanks’ for rivers, mountains, volcanoes, countries, towns or whatever. I am sure that most schools used the Olympics to increase their pupils’ knowledge of the world, and how to find out about the other lands they see every day on their televisions. And that is the other great change from Mr Gove’s view of the world. School is not longer the only, and probably not the main, supplier of knowledge about history and geography to the modern generation.
However, we can all agree that access to knowledge remains the key to power, so the vital necessity of success in the early years is still paramount. Rather than worrying just about how England fares in PISA tables, and it should do better next time because of the better staffing of all schools with qualified teachers than when the tests were last collated, the aim should be to focus on under-performance against expectations, and to be ruthless in eradicating its causes.
All political parties pay lip service to the link between deprivation and under-achievement or even failure at schools. The real test is whether the coalition government can do something to break this cycle. The Pupil Premium is a good start, but success cannot be bought by money alone. Perhaps the text for this year’s Education Sunday might be the Parable of the Talents. Those heads and governing bodies who are just banking the money certainly need to be called to account.