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Part 1: The regrettable path towards Gove’s commendable aspirations

January 24, 2011

The biggest shake up of the English curriculum for 20 years will mean children will not be deemed smart unless they learn by rote the ‘kings and queens of England’ and read some ‘great works of literature’.

I won’t go into the strangeness of deciding the need for these changes before the review takes place, but I am concerned. I am  troubled by the parallels with an old fashioned education we are very fortunate to have moved on from. I’m anxious about  the irrelevance of the old order of Britain to the modern world. I have a feeling that the ‘great works of literature’ will exclude everything written by somebody from a continent other than Europe or America.

The thing that gives me the most anxiety is that I actually agree with Gove’s goals. He was smart to compare last years GCSE passes to a theoretical baccalaureate; he needed to expose how few of our young people are getting average to excellent passes in subjects you need to have in order to pursue a whole range of professions. Even if you think that the baccalaureate is unfair to students who can’t handle the pressure of a ‘traditional’ GCSE exam, a pass rate of 15.6% in such subjects would imply that capable students are well and truly in the minority.

"You got an 'ology'???

I’m one of those smug adults who did very well in their GCSEs (thank you very much) and this was a direct result of the reality check I was given as a youth. Subjects are more important than grades. You need Maths and English (A-C) to get into an above average university. You need Science and History (A – C) to study related subjects at A Level and beyond. Once you’ve got these core qualifications, you can do whatever you like. Unfortunately, we’re telling our youth they can do whatever they like when they have achieved nothing at all.

I saw Gove’s appearance on Question Time a fortnight ago and I finally understood what he is trying to achieve. He wants aspiration in our classrooms again. He wants schools to demand over-achievement instead of compensating under-achievement. In effect, he wants a state school system that will produce more people like him (he attended a comprehensive school, then privately educated on scholarship).

I feel uneasy when teachers and commentators talk about young people who ‘struggle’ in academic subjects and their resistance to changes like this. They are condemning their young charges to a limited range of study and career prospects by insisting they narrow their choices to vocational subjects so young in an attempt to maintain their self-esteem and confidence. How confident they will be in their 20s when they are competing for jobs against more qualified rivals is anyone’s guess.

I have no qualms with the study of business, drama, politics and so on between the ages of 15 and 16 if the pupil wants to be a business person, actor or politician. But you can still be all those things with traditional subjects.  Furthermore, if you change your mind, traditional subjects are keys that open up pretty much every other  door you may decide to walk through.

The label of ‘tradition’ is not right. These subjects are ‘functional’. Abandoning them in youth for ‘easier’ options is folly.

Students teachers feel unable to manage these functional subjects go to school to become able to manage them. The last time I checked, school is a place of learning, not compromise.

In our private schools, an expectation of high achievement is the norm. A state education that expects less fails the people, without privilege, who need to demonstrate excellence the most.

Related articles: The answers aren’t easy but everyone has their hands up

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