Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A*'s for Everyone Except the Taxpayers Alliance

We must all do our bit to fight the distortion and propaganda as well as the plain stupidity of the Taxpayers Alliance. Tonight, I'm doing my bit by taking a look at Ben Farrugia's criticisms of the Interim Review of the Primary Curriculum.

Notwithstanding the fact he doesn't acknowledge that this is an interim report and is still open to consultation (will the TPA submit anything?), Ben appears to believe that the changes to the curriculum will entrench the problems in schools rather than solve them. In particular he talks about the recommended thematic approach which ends the subject oriented approach (Maths, Geography, History etc) and replaces it with six broader themes.

  • Understanding English, communication and languages
  • Mathematical understanding
  • Scientific and technological understanding
  • Human, social and environmental understanding
  • Understanding physical health and well-being
  • Understanding the arts and design

From what I can tell the intention is that curriculum will be redesigned for Key Stages 1 & 2 for (ages 5-7 and 7-11 respectively. Ben delivers the following criticism:

If these six themes (or areas of "understanding") were proposed as a new
framework for a GCSE level curriculum - in a country with excellent standards of
educational attainment in reading, writing and maths - they might seem
progressive, maybe even sensible.

As it is, for 8 year olds in a country beset by poor levels of basic
educational attainment, the suggestions are terrifying. The report (like
Government policy on education in general) simply misses the point. What good is
Google if you can't read? How can Gordon Brown hope to build the sense of
Britishness he talks of when history is to be marginalised? When discussing
"one's personal impact on the environment" doesn't it help to know where
Bangladesh actually is?

Which might be a valid point if he actually understood what the review was about. The report mentions on several occasions that too many previous reviews have been bogged down by excessive debate over the contents of specific subjects. It also acknowledges a need to reduce the amount of content in the curriculum.

1.13. One reason for this is that previous curriculum reviews have tended to
focusalmost exclusively on what might be added to, or removed from, each
subject’sprogramme of study; thus debate over subject content is often a contest
of strongviews about what children should learn, particularly in subjects such
as history, andthe share of curriculum time that should be given to each

1.14. Most respondents to the Review accept that in order to have a
statutory National Curriculum there must be some degree of prescription over what the common entitlement should contain. However, three clear expectations of this Review have been voiced by respondents. First, that it will reduce prescription. Secondly, it will halt the trend of adding new content to the curriculum, no matter how worthy thecase may be, unless it can be shown what should make way for it. Thirdly, that it willmake curriculum planning more straightforward and manageable.

Indeed, how about these two:

1.15. Meeting those expectations will require more than tinkering around
withthe burgeoning amount of teaching content. The demands of society on
primaryschools have risen and continue to rise but If we are to establish a
‘world-class’, highquality curriculum we must resist a ‘never mind the quality
feel the width’ mentality,and face the reality of prescribing less, so that
teachers can better teach and, aboveall, so that children can better learn.

1.18. Regardless of the freedom teachers actually have to exercise
professional judgment about how they teach, many believe that the Government, the QCA, Ofsted, and the National Strategies, or a combination of all four,
effectively restrictthat freedom. In other words, it is the total demand on the
school that is at issue rather than the National Curriculum alone.

What this indicates to me is that this review actually realises that there is a need to focus on quality not quantity and not bog the curriculum down with pointless additional content. The TPA appear to have read the new subject headings and just made assumptions based on their own politcal viewpoint. The have then proceeded to engage their propoganda machine and blasted forth that ill informed viewpoint.

The idea that a change in headings in headings will send the curriculum up some politically correct primrose path is absurd. Recommendation 5 indicates the actual intention here:

Recommendation 5: The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) should work with relevant leading authorities, such as, subject organisations, the
Royal Society, heads and teachers to validate essential knowledge, skills,
understanding and attitudes in each of the proposed six areas of learning, and
organise them intomanageable programmes of learning.

So, the actual content will be decided by the QCA working in conjunction with expert groups, heads and teachers. This seems like quite a sensible approach, which begs the question: Why are they kicking up a fuss? I believe this little (remarkably contradictory) snippet explains it.

But this is politics, not educational reform. As long as politicians of all
stripes have a hand in education they are going to play politics with it.
Misguided proposals such as those put forward by Sir Rose will become law.
Children's education will be jeoporidised.

The Taxpayers Alliance is in fact absolutely committed to playing politics with education in that it want's to stop our taxes paying for it and it's criticisms are simply the application of it's vulgar libertarian views. Education matters to everyone and it's thefore crucial that it's fate is decided by the politicians we have elected and not a bunch of anti tax loonies.


Ben Farrugia said...

Andreas -

Thank you for reading my piece on the Primary Curriculum review. I'd prefer not to be called stupid, but I'm more than happy to engage in a debate on the role of the state in education.

Firstly I would like to deal with your assertion that the TaxPayers' Alliance wants to end taxpayer funded education. In fact our position is to support a voucher scheme, which would continue to see taxes pay for the education of every child, but in which the state would have significantly less role in what, how and when things are taught. This is would reduce the possibility of political interference (the "playing politics " with education). In other words, I would like to see a dramatic change in the structure of taxpayer funded education, not the principle. Education certainly does matter (perhaps more than anything else), which is precisely why I want to see it taken out of the hands of politicians and put back in the hands of the people; teachers, parents, governors, pupils. The current system is not working well, so we should consider a new way of organising taxpayer funded education. Please see Reform's excellent report into school reform for a fuller elucidation of this thinking.

As to the curriculum review itself, I did read it closely, but clearly rather differently to you. I appreciate that it talks of facing 'the reality of prescribing less' and avoids the unedifying debate over what should be added / deleted from the curriculum, but I am sceptical that this will actually be the case when it comes to its application. What the review allows is a side-stepping of those debates by re-writing the curriculum around themes. We will still see topics privileged / jettisoned, but in the merger, rather than one at the expense of the other in the timetable.

Moreover, when the Government's attention should be on improving the basic skills of children, the review seemed overly complacent to me. I read it in the context of yet more depressing results from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which show that most of our (very modest) educational targets are unlikely to be met. The results from last years PISA make worrying reading, as do many other international studies in education, and the Government should be considering how education is delivered, rather than just what is being taught.

However, to tie the threads of this comment together, I do not - in principle - object to the idea of thematic teaching. As I said in the original piece, in the right circumstances it might be a positive step. But parents should be able to chose if this is what they want their child to learn. If they want them to get a more traditional subject orientated education then that should be fine too. But that is only possible if all schools are free to chose what and how they teach, and parents free to chose between those schools. I object to Sir Jim's interim proposals because they perpetuate the notion that the state knows best. I for one think that this wrong. But then I am an anti-tax loony. Or as I would put it, someone who wants a smaller, better state, that costs less.

Andreas Paterson said...

Hi Ben, many thanks for yor reply. I'm afraid my weekend has been taken up with the last of my Christmas shopping, hence the delay.

On the subject of vouchers, I've heard the idea a number of times before, I've heard good things about the system in Sweden although I'm not sold on the idea myself. I've got a number of worries although they really fall outside of the scope of this reply.

With regard to curriculum I think it looks like a lot depends on our interpretation of the documents, although I think we are agreed on the idea of reducing the size of the prescribed curriculum. Regardless of how schools are funded I am in favour of a standardised national curriculum. This does mean a lot of tedious deliberation by various quangos. As nice as the idea of "putting the power back in the hands of the teachers" sounds I think it's important to have national standard that teachers adhere to.

I personally believe that education will be a highly politically charged subject, I have a personal dislike of the taking the politics out of areas in general since I believe strongly in democratic accountability.Although it is often cumbersome I believe that elected politicians should have access to the levers of power that enable them to bring about change.

As far as the size of government goes, I would like it's services to be efficient and effective. I personally don't believe that small necessarily equals efficient.

Anonymous said...

Clearly Ben Farrugia, in complaining about poor education, speaks from personal experience - he even refers to Sir Jim Rose as "Sir Rose".

Andreas Paterson said...

Anonymous, Ben was kind enough to come here and deliver what I thought was a reasoned and polite response. No need for petty criticisms.