What good is Google if you can't read?

December 15, 2008 5:27 PM

"A week is a long time in politics". It's a trite observation, but these days it seems to be particularly true. One barely has time to digest one world rescue plan before another supersedes it; what one poll says on Tuesday is promptly contradicted by another on Thursday.

In education this poses particular dangers though. When Mondays 'radical' reforms are Friday's 'out dated' processes, pupils are denied the discipline which comes from a stable pattern of learning. The job of teachers is made harder too, with what and how they teach consistently challenged.  

Teaching certainly needs to move with the times though. Primary schools play a front line role in providing modern children with the tools necessary to perform well in the future. Moreover, with only 72 per cent of Key Stage 2 (7-11 years olds) achieving Level 4 (average) in both English and Maths, something does need to be done.

But the Government's latest plans look set to entrench problems with primary schools, rather than mitigating them. Its 'root and branch' review into the Primary School Curriculum (headed up by Sir Jim Rose, a former School's inspector and the Government's preferred chair for such inquires) is a missed opportunity, and if implemented, a potential disaster.

Continuing along the Government's well established path towards a 'fact-free', substance light school system, in which everyone can (and will) get an A*, the review suggests bringing an end to the 'subject' orientated teaching of the past, and the introduction of a 'thematic' approach, based around core groups of subjects. This will help pupils - so the argument goes - see the related themes between issues, and remove the tired and restricting 'bunker' approach associated with strictly defined subject boundaries.

So - if the recommendations of the report are followed - primary school history and geography will be merged into "human, social and environmental understanding", making way for discussions on climate change and individual responsibility; reading, writing and foreign languages will become "understanding English, communication and languages"; physical education and some elements of science will change into "understanding physical well-being, or in other words, how to be happy and not fat; maths (which is ring fenced off from too much curriculum fiddling) becomes "mathematical understanding"; IT is elevated to the level of science in the new "scientific and technological understanding"; with finally art becoming "understanding the arts and design".

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?

The retort is that pupils will learn where Bangladesh is through the prism of their new global awareness, rather than just by sitting looking at a map. Perhaps, but the dangers here are massive. It opens up primary education (even more than it is currently) to the pernicious effects of political interference. How are we going assess pupils on  "human, social and environmental understanding"? What if a child understands that we are a country of several nations, but can't name which?

This is probably the point though; when you have failed to fix the current system, tear it down and build a new one. No one can accuse you of letting standards slip if you decide how things are assessed, what constitutes a good mark, and if there is no previous group to compare them with.

All of which is dangerously short sighted. With Universities now openly stating that many of the new age A-Levels (media studies, Law studies, etc) are not equivalent to 'real' A-Levels (history, geography, science) this is not the time to start undermining those 'real' subjects. In fact, it is is probably the time to start emphasising them.

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.

"A week is a long time in politics". It's a trite observation, but these days it seems to be particularly true. One barely has time to digest one world rescue plan before another supersedes it; what one poll says on Tuesday is promptly contradicted by another on Thursday.

In education this poses particular dangers though. When Mondays 'radical' reforms are Friday's 'out dated' processes, pupils are denied the discipline which comes from a stable pattern of learning. The job of teachers is made harder too, with what and how they teach consistently challenged.  

Teaching certainly needs to move with the times though. Primary schools play a front line role in providing modern children with the tools necessary to perform well in the future. Moreover, with only 72 per cent of Key Stage 2 (7-11 years olds) achieving Level 4 (average) in both English and Maths, something does need to be done.

But the Government's latest plans look set to entrench problems with primary schools, rather than mitigating them. Its 'root and branch' review into the Primary School Curriculum (headed up by Sir Jim Rose, a former School's inspector and the Government's preferred chair for such inquires) is a missed opportunity, and if implemented, a potential disaster.

Continuing along the Government's well established path towards a 'fact-free', substance light school system, in which everyone can (and will) get an A*, the review suggests bringing an end to the 'subject' orientated teaching of the past, and the introduction of a 'thematic' approach, based around core groups of subjects. This will help pupils - so the argument goes - see the related themes between issues, and remove the tired and restricting 'bunker' approach associated with strictly defined subject boundaries.

So - if the recommendations of the report are followed - primary school history and geography will be merged into "human, social and environmental understanding", making way for discussions on climate change and individual responsibility; reading, writing and foreign languages will become "understanding English, communication and languages"; physical education and some elements of science will change into "understanding physical well-being, or in other words, how to be happy and not fat; maths (which is ring fenced off from too much curriculum fiddling) becomes "mathematical understanding"; IT is elevated to the level of science in the new "scientific and technological understanding"; with finally art becoming "understanding the arts and design".

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?

The retort is that pupils will learn where Bangladesh is through the prism of their new global awareness, rather than just by sitting looking at a map. Perhaps, but the dangers here are massive. It opens up primary education (even more than it is currently) to the pernicious effects of political interference. How are we going assess pupils on  "human, social and environmental understanding"? What if a child understands that we are a country of several nations, but can't name which?

This is probably the point though; when you have failed to fix the current system, tear it down and build a new one. No one can accuse you of letting standards slip if you decide how things are assessed, what constitutes a good mark, and if there is no previous group to compare them with.

All of which is dangerously short sighted. With Universities now openly stating that many of the new age A-Levels (media studies, Law studies, etc) are not equivalent to 'real' A-Levels (history, geography, science) this is not the time to start undermining those 'real' subjects. In fact, it is is probably the time to start emphasising them.

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.

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