Insult to intelligence

Maggie Jones

Maggie Jones on the root problems in Gove’s approach to the school curriculum

You can tell when someone has lost the intellectual argument – they have to revert to infantile insults. This is undoubtedly the case with Michael Gove, whose proposals for a revised school curriculum will be debated in Grand Committee in the Lords today. As with most of his proposals they have already created massive controversy, representing the extension of his belief in the rigours of a 19th century education.

However, in a letter to The Daily Telegraph last week, one hundred of the most respected education academics condemned Gove’s proposals, commenting: “the proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.” And they went on to predict: “inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation”.

The Education Secretary’s predictable reaction was to rubbish the signatories as representing “bad academia” – even though a number of them were advisors who had contributed to earlier drafts of his proposals. Then in a speech last weekend he lumped together anyone disagreeing with his ideas as ‘Marxists’. He clearly cannot handle debate and scrutiny, which is a shame because we share the government’s determination that every child should attain their full potential. It’s just that we reject a hothousing philosophy that learning is about cramming children full of facts to be regurgitated in a series of three hour exams. No doubt some will flourish in such an environment but for others learning becomes a miserable and frustrating treadmill that puts them off the whole educational experience.

We also have concerns about the detailed curriculum proposals in a number of subjects. For example, the concentration of British island history at the expense of a global perspective; the removal of any reference to climate change from the geography curriculum; the downgrading of speaking and listening skills in English – even though employers say they are essential; and the failure to address key health and social concerns in the PSHE proposals. We will continue to make representations on these issues.

Labour believes the flawed thinking at the heart of the government’s proposals is that every child should aspire to an academic career. We take a different view – one that understands the breadth and individuality of children’s aspirations and learning styles. We also see the rise of the learning age to 18 as a great opportunity. So we are preparing a gold standard curriculum offering academic, practical, creative and technical learning programmes – including a requirement to study English and Maths to 18.

Unlike Mr Gove, we will also ensure that we learn from high performing countries without playing political games with the facts. So our proposed independent Office of Educational Improvement will ensure that research is verified and impartial conclusions passed on to practitioners in education.

Also, unlike Mr Gove, we are taking time to consult widely, including with employers, so that we can be sure we a give young people the best start in life. If the government followed our example, by pronouncing less and listening more, they might have a better chance of producing a new curriculum that really was fit for the 21st century.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a member of Labour’s Shadow Education team in the Lords

Published 26th March 2013


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