My Joyless Curriculum

In a recent interview with TES, the new Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, made a number of very good points. For example

  • she suggested that schools should focus on teaching “a wider understanding of the world they’re growing up in rather than just teaching skills for future employment”
  • “I want an education system that’s inclusive. I’ve been very, very interested in the campaign of the black curriculum and other students. All children need to feel that their identity is respected and valued in school. And for children with special educational needs and disability, we need to make sure schools are giving them the best opportunity.”
  • “We need to have a very big look at the way our accountability system actually works because it doesn’t deliver schools’ improvement and it isn’t helping us to achieve that broader curriculum.”

All of this I welcome. But alongside these points came tired and somewhat alarming tropes.

  • she argued against “cramming their heads full of facts”
  • she says education “has become a bit joyless” as a result of a “narrow” national curriculum, which is “information-heavy and traditionalist”.
  • “There needs to be less rote-style learning and more help for children to develop their own faculty for critical thinking, asking questions and interrogating data, and working collaboratively with one another.
  • “[Education secretary] Gavin Williamson is quite a fan of children sitting facing the front in rows, whereas I’m quite a fan of children sitting in groups and working in teams and learning to cooperate and work on a basis of helping each other to share their learning experience and support one another to learn and improve.

As a Labour voting, and usually Labour supporting teacher, I find this very worrying. I started teaching in ’03 at the height of the New Labour education reforms. Mt earliest years were spent teaching their first national curriculum and I was a head of department when their ’08 national curriculum came in as well. I really don’t want to see a return to those days where knowledge was sidelined in favour of vague competencies and cross-curricular ambitions. There was little joy to be found in lessons on largely context free “learning how to evaluate”.

My biggest gripe with Kate Green’s argument is that it seems to be based on a caricature of what happens in schools. And it is a caricature I am getting a little tired of. In 17 years of teaching I have seen precious little of what I would regard as ‘rote learning’ (something few critics seem willing to provide a definition for anyway) and very little ‘cramming of heads with facts’. The curriculum doesn’t dictate any particular pedagogy and regardless of whatever or whoever is mismanaging the DfE may have a preference for, we can (pandemics allowing) decide for ourselves whether pupils sit in rows or in groups. Whilst anyone can express a preference, it worries me that someone who aspires to be Education Secretary is suggesting curriculum reforms will dictate pedagogy in the future so as to see her vision become a reality.

There seems to be an assumption that schools have been dragged into a Future One view of knowledge in the curriculum where teachers seek to impart lists of information to pupils. It probably didn’t help that this was the message coming out of the DfE in the run up to the curriculum reforms brought in by the coalition government with their seeming appreciation of E.D Hirsch. They therefore seem to see their job as to drag us kicking and screaming back into a Future Two view of knowledge in the curriculum where knowledge takes a backseat to generic competencies and skills and how you learn is more important that what you learn.

What gets missed is that schools seem to be moving beyond the binary nonsense of education secretaries and instead are moving towards a Future Three view of knowledge, in which knowledge is formed in academic disciplines but is contested, and in which pupils are taught how to contest this knowledge in disciplinary thinking. These are not dry lists of facts but powerful ways of seeing the world and acting on it. This powerful knowledge is joyful!

Perhaps my biggest concern on reading the views of the shadow education secretary is that it suggests Labour still don’t understand the problems facing education. Education won’t be fixed by tinkering with the curriculum, teachers and school leaders are already able to make decisions about how to make the national curriculum into something special for their pupils. What is needed is decent funding and a change in the way schools are help accountable. Until a political party is brave enough to tackle these deeply rooted problems we won’t see any further progress in creating a more joyful curriculum. We can do our best to protect pupils from leaking roofs, failing technology and the pressures schools are under to deliver school outcomes, but sooner or later these external pressures will start to draw the life and energy out of the classroom.

So, a please to Kate Green. Come and spend some time listening to a broad range of views about the curriculum and don’t make assumptions about where joy in schools is found and where the barriers are lurking. My curriculum is packed full of joy, the education system, less so.

If you’d like to read more about how we create a joyful curriculum built around knowledge, check out my forthcoming book, Powerful Geography: Curriculum with Purpose in Practice.

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