As we get to the end of the party conference season, it is clear that the Conservative’s message of increasing schools freedoms and championing of the Swedish system is beginning to resonate with teachers.
There is a second half to their message which gets less coverage, but is of just as much importance. I sat on a panel with Nick Gibb, Shadow Minister for Schools at a Conservative Party fringe event held by the New Statesman, and supported by Edge. Nick argued passionately that we needed to ensure an academic curriculum for all, and to counter the progressive ideology he perceived as driving knowledge out of the curriculum in favour of, amongst other things, teaching ‘soft skills’.
I was there advocating the approach of the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum which is now used by over 200 schools to explicitly teach a range of competences around such things as learning, and relating to people. The RSA remain committed to the idea that schooling must change if it is to be relevant to the lives of students and the challenges we face – for a quick overview, check out the first paragraphs of the RSA Charter for Education in the 21st Century (and please do sign up!)
I must admit, I wasn’t the most popular guy in the room, which is a shame as I was trying to sound a conciliatory note.
Nick has a point. Progressives must find a better response to the problem of knowledge. Up to now, many have argued that in a connected world where knowledge is generated and spread so quickly, it is useless to emphasise traditional subject knowledge and disciplines. By the time students leave school the world will have moved on, so what good would it do them to have learned this stuff? Better instead to teach the skills so they can run to keep up.
Well, sort of. This kind of thinking must be tempered by the observation that the main theoretical frameworks, the core ideas and skills within a subject discipline don’t change quite as fast as progressive rhetoric has asserted.
That doesn’t mean that progressives have been wrong to emphasise the importance of a more learner centred approach, taking account of student voice about what and how they wish to learn, and of engaging students by immersing them in practical and experiential learning. Quite the opposite. The OECD reported just a few weeks ago that, going by international comparison, our top-end students do very well academically. Where the UK falls down is with its middle and low performing students who go through the motions of testing but don’t appear to learn a lot, and drop out early.
This indicates schools, who have had to push a content-heavy, test-focussed curriculum taught in a traditional didactic fashion, have struggled to respond to the needs of many students.
We need to move this debate on.
– Ian McGimpsey