Experience and Education: towards an alternative National Curriculum
Gwyn Edwards and AV Kelly (eds), 1998
London, Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd
220pp paperback £16.99 ISBN 1-85396-272-4
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 1999
It is now just over two years since I retired from teaching (thirty-one years including eleven as a head) and I am finding it more and more difficult to write about education without becoming profoundly depressed.
The profession I entered in 1966 was an exciting one. The eleven plus was being abolished, freeing primary schools from the straitjacket of exam preparation, the Plowden Report was promoting child-centredness and learning through discovery, open-plan schools were being built, middle schools and mixed-ability teaching experimented with. The heady scent of pioneering innovation was in the air. Of course the profession didn't get it all right - the William Tyndale episode was an example of poor management and what happens when you take things to extremes. But a huge amount of good work was going on. Through the 1970s and into the 80s much research was undertaken into how children learn and on how a curriculum should be constructed.
Then, in 1988, it all ground to a halt. Kenneth Baker published his proposals for the new National Curriculum. All the developments of the past hundred years were thrown in the bin. No notice was taken of the research on children's learning or the effectiveness of different teaching styles. What we got, as Dennis Lawton was quick to point out, was the reincarnation of the 1904 Secondary Regulations. Only this time, primary schools got them, too.
The National Curriculum was a disaster. Reading standards dropped for the first time in forty years, the less able became disaffected, and teachers' professionalism was destroyed as they struggled to 'deliver' a curriculum that wasn't theirs and in which they were allowed no say.
It would have been nice to think that, when the problems began to surface, the politicians might have said, 'Sorry, we shouldn't have interfered - now we'll let the profession sort out the mess.' But no, they decided that it was all the teachers' fault and that the way to sort out the problems was through even greater interference. So, whereas the Tories spent ten years telling teachers what to teach, we now have a Labour government telling them how to teach it. The Literacy Hour is the latest example. I am appalled when I go into schools at how able pupils are being switched off by this mindless pap.
Perhaps even more worrying is that we now have a whole generation of young teachers entering the profession who have been taught nothing but how to deliver this flawed curriculum.
Now David Blunkett is about to publish his revised National Curriculum, to come into force in 2000. It is to include lessons in citizenship. Blunkett doesn't seem to understand that such aspects of the curriculum - the cross-curricular themes, topics or dimensions advocated by the NCC and SCAA - cannot be bolted-on as afterthoughts. As Edwards and Kelly point out, 'there is a mismatch between what these additional forms of provision are designed to do and the principles upon which the National Curriculum itself is founded.'
So, in this depressing context, it was a delight to read a book which reminds us that there really was a time before the 1988 Education Reform Act when teachers actually discussed the aims and purposes of education and how children learned. However, Edwards and Kelly have provided us with a book which is much more than a nostalgic yearning for the past. It is a plea for 'a genuinely open debate which will go beyond the superficial and identify the essential components of a national curriculum for a democratic society' (p.ix). The book offers:
an alternative blueprint for a national curriculum which would offer all pupils ... a genuine entitlement to the kind of curriculum which will enhance not only their employment prospects but also their personal lives, while at the same time ensuring the benefits which must follow for society as a whole if those lives are led in a genuinely participative democratic setting (p.xvi).In the Introduction they outline some of the promising developments of the 70s and 80s. For example, during the 1980s HMI and some local authorities were developing an entitlement curriculum based on 'areas of experience'. They describe how these developments were overtaken by the National Curriculum which 'ignored all thinking of this kind and adopted a content approach, listing core and foundation subjects, and, within those subjects, detailing the content to be taught and learned' (p.xii).
The first chapter encapsulates the central message of the book - that real education only happens through experience. 'Everyone who has contributed significantly to the educational debate during the last two centuries has begun from the concept of education as personal development. And all have acknowledged the corollary of that, that such development can only be promoted by genuine forms of personal experience' (p.1).
They offer a summary of developments in the first half of the twentieth century. 'The general climate of educational thinking was one in which the superior importance of the pupil to the content of the curriculum was beginning to be recognised' (p.4). And they quote AN Whitehead (1932) who
roundly criticized those forms of education whose focus is on education as the transmission of knowledge and its assimilation by largely passive recipients. He described the kind of knowledge purveyed by that form of 'education' as 'inert ideas', and he claimed that 'education with inert ideas is not only useless, it is, above all things, harmful', since 'knowledge does not keep any better than fish' (p.1).They point out that 'it is impossible to offer a definition of democracy in terms of privilege or of a democratic system of education in terms of competition or divisiveness ... those who advocate an approach to education through experience regard the educative process as essentially one of collaboration rather than competition, as democratic rather than elitist' (p.12).
There follow chapters on Questioning school mathematics (Paul Ernest), Scientific experience (Daniel Davies), Design and Technology: creating new futures (John Saxton), The physical: a new millennium, a new beginning? (Dave Boorman), English, fetishism and the demand for change (Alex Moore), The aim is song: towards an alternative national curriculum for the arts (Malcolm Ross), The problems and persistence of the spiritual (Lynne Broadbent), Personal, social and moral education in a democratic society (AV Kelly), and Political, social and economic education for democratic citizenship (Gwyn Edwards). The book concludes with a list of Emergent principles for an alternative National Curriculum.
The book suggests - and I hope it is right - that there is 'a growing sense that in the context of a curriculum centrally geared to attainment targets, especially those which appear to be readily measurable, there is neither scope nor allowance for other important, if more elusive, aspects of the educational process ... we must devise a curriculum which will focus on the pupils who are its recipients as well as on the needs of the society they are being prepared to enter, and, further, on the interaction of these two factors in the curriculum equation' (p.xiii).
This book is an important contribution to the debate which I earnestly hope, though regretfully doubt, will inform the revised National Curriculum. I hope all teachers will read it. It will remind them that there is more to education than 'delivering' someone else's flawed curriculum. As to Blunkett, as far as I'm concerned, he's beyond redemption.
This review was published in Forum 41(3) Autumn 1999 134-5.