‘If you’ve got English, maths and science that’s fantastic, but does every single plumber, every single car mechanic, every single doctor, solicitor, barrister need to have history, geography or a modern language? I would probably say not.’
These words, from a headteacher in Liverpool, cut to the heart of England’s ongoing battle over education, and lie behind the changes to GCSEs – the first results of which we will see today. Parents and students may be confused by some of the changes, but they should not doubt that they are part of an ongoing project to confront the soft bigotry of low expectations embodied in that headteacher’s quote. The new GCSEs are a vital reform to challenge a failing system.
New Labour’s educational vision was famously core to its being—all three of Tony Blair’s priorities for government were “education”—and the extra money which flowed through the doors of schools resulted in new buildings and more staff. But a glaring omission from the Blairite vision was curriculum. The 2007 version of the National Curriculum stripped from that document—a statutory statement of the rights of all children to a broad and balanced education—most of the specific content. It also encouraged schools to develop more fluid approaches to teaching subjects. Much of this was justified with grand rhetoric about ‘21st-century skills’ and ‘jobs of the future’. Alongside this new curriculum, and justified with much the same arguments, GCSEs were also reformed to permit students to sit that qualification in bite-sized chunks and be given marks for work done under teacher supervision rather than in the exam hall.
Much of this is superficially appealing, but it had massive flaws: the 21st-century skills were vague and closer study suggested that jobs of the future were, by definition, extremely hard to train for in the present. But the most significant change was the recognition that the academic subjects which the 2007 National Curriculum permitted to be chopped up into project work were not optional extras for a good education, but the absolute foundation of one.
A better word than ‘subjects’ might be ‘disciplines’, and the content and processes of the ‘traditional curriculum’ do indeed discipline a young person’s thinking. They help students construct inter-connected rooms in their minds where information can be filed and sorted in an ordered, hierarchical way. Common features of education that were frequently denigrated—learning times tables off-by-heart, understanding key grammatical terms, recalling historical periods in order—turn out to be the bedrock of the mind.
Crucially, it is this solid foundation that best permits all young people, whether they want to be doctors or dockers, plumbers or poets, to deploy their learning to support their aspirations. Contrary to some claims made since the reform programme was announced, there is nothing about this that requires the sidelining of art, drama or music in schools. Indeed, understanding in creative subjects is made stronger by knowledge —try explaining the meaning of Animal Farm without a working knowledge of the history of Communist dictatorships.
It was necessary to reform GCSEs. This meant making the exams more demanding and increasing the amount of content covered. For the first students to go through the system, this will no doubt seem a big change, but it is one that will benefit them, the wider school system and eventually our economy and society.
John Blake is Head of Education and Social Reform at the think-tank Policy Exchange. He was also previously a state-school history teacher for ten years.
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