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A lesson in how not to learn anything specific

Published Date: 09 December 2008

SIR Jim Rose’s plans for the primary school curriculum have been billed as the most fundamental change since the national curriculum was introduced 20 years ago. That much is true.
His most radical shift is away from subjects and towards a curriculum based on “areas of learning”. But three items of recent evidence suggest that the approach being adopted by Sir Jim – the Government’s top adviser on primary schools – is fundamentally wrong.

First, last year’s national test results for 11 year-olds showed that almost 50,000 bright children failed to reach an acceptable standard in English and 30,000 failed to demonstrate a solid grasp of maths.

Second, this year’s annual examiners’ report from exam board Excel pointed out that one in five teenagers believe that the Sun orbits the Earth. One in 10 did not know that a rechargeable battery could be used more than once.

This came only a few days after the third shock: Psychology professor Michael Shayer, of King’s College, London, found that the high-level thinking skills of today’s 14-year-olds are now on a par with those of 12-year-olds in 1976.

Prof Shayer blamed too much time spent on computers for this decline. Others have noted that today’s youngsters cannot distinguish properly between the real world and the virtual world of cyberspace.

Sir Jim’s solution is increased use of computers in primary schools and less emphasis on a structured curriculum.
But how can children make the best use of computers if they haven’t already grasped the basic foundations of English, including its grammar and literature, and maths and science?

Sir Jim argues that the current curriculum is overcrowded.
His solution is to integrate English and French into “communication and language” and to encourage a raft of other “themes” such as “human
social and environmental understanding” and “physical health and wellbeing”.

The theory is that children will learn essential knowledge – physical geography, for example, which gives us a sense of place, and chronological, fact-based history which gives us a sense of time – within six “areas of learning”.

And pigs might fly.

As a former school inspector, Sir Jim should know that once subjects become integrated, they lose much of their content, knowledge and structure, from which young people make sense of them – and learn to think logically.

To be fair, these proposals only reinforce what is already happening in many schools, primary and secondary. The danger is that “progressive” ideology, which wants teachers of subjects to become social workers and pedlars of politically-correct values, will now be formalised and spread down through the system.

Here is one example. Richmond upon Thames is not a local authority where anyone would normally look for “progressive” ideology. But Christ’s Church of England School, in Richmond, has almost abolished subjects for at least one year group.

Superficially, the school seems to be a moderately successful
11-16 comprehensive. Last year, 70 per cent of 16-year-olds achieved five or more grade A*-C GCSEs, though that drops to 53 per cent when English and maths are included. This is above the national average, but is certainly not impressive.

Where the school does stand out is that it has introduced an integrated, theme-driven curriculum that emphasises skills, not subjects. Instead, the school teaches a Personalised Alternative Curriculum Experience (PACE).

Pupils’ weekly timetables include 11 periods of Performing Arts (apparently a misprint as even the staff didn’t know what PACE stood for) and only three of maths and two of science. No identifiable geography, history or religious education at all.

PACE, apparently, is based on the “Opening Minds” curriculum produced by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). This is now being tested in more than 200 schools around the country.

Meanwhile, the RSA, which is headed by Matthew Taylor, the former boss of Tony Blair’s No 10 Policy Unit, has opened a new academy in Tipton, West Midlands. The RSA Academy will not only follow the Opening Minds curriculum, it will also train teachers from other schools to do the same.

As yet, no-one seems to have published any objective evidence to prove that PACE or Open Minds raise standards. It is claimed that pupils enjoy the lessons and they have the approval of Ofsted – but didn’t Haringey social services get a clean bill of health from Ofsted, too, before the Baby P tragedy came to light?

Commenting about such changes to the national curriculum, Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, wrote recently: “Academic standards? What a quaint, anachronistic ideal.

“This is a curriculum alive with real world topicality. ‘Cross-curricular dimensions’ such as cultural diversity and sustainable development, are deemed to be more important than traditional subjects, such as history or science.

“Indeed, in this curriculum, subjects have become vehicles for politically correct values… The idea seems to be that learning how to learn is more important than learning anything specific.

“Our children are going to leave school knowing less, even, than they do now.”

Despite his protestations otherwise, this is the reality of
Sir Jim’s proposals. Parents, surely, should be very afraid.