It was an unremittingly old fashioned series of inputs from seven speakers, including:
The Great: Michael Young, emeritus professor of education at the London Institute of Education, and as eminent a “grey” as you could wish to find, who reflected on the government's preference for a return to subjects
The Good: Mervyn Wilson, principal of the Co-operate College, who portrayed the Co-operative's schools as a "quiet revolution"
and Tim Oates, chair of the national curriculum review expert panel, and allowed out again after his close encounter with The Guardian, who examined differences between the school curriculum and national curriculum
The purpose of the event was to "address issues relating to effective teaching and learning, with particular reference to the curriculum". If this seems vague, it was, but this served to allow the varied inputs selected. Not everyone managed to speak to their brief, however.
The best talk by far was from Michael Young, whose input was based on a published paper. His was a scholarly reflection on the idea of the school subject, and its importance from the point of view of equality. Young argued that, although in a society such as ours, any curriculum is likely to be inequitable because of the nature of society, a curriculum based on concepts (ie, subjects), can be seen as a carrier of equality as such a curriculum can treat everyone equally, unlike, say, a labour market. In Young’s view subjects are the only basis we have as a curriculum for all.
Young said that the forthcoming Gove curriculum is likely to be too dismissive of skills because it is, in part, a reaction to the last curriculum review (new labour: 2008) which was dismissive of subjects and the formal conceptual knowledge they embody, and based too strongly on learner experience and knowledge which was seen as important as any other. This was, said Young, more an instrument of politics, than of education. Young stressed that a curriculum has to be about concepts that allow students to abstract from their own experience and personal knowledge and understandings, and argued that a curriculum that only emphasises experience and relevance lets down those who lack access to other knowledge at home; after all, he said, no one goes to schools to learn what they already know. Young said that, whilst all knowledge is socially constructed, its truth is not dependent on its origins, and his view is that knowledge is best experienced through disciplines with boundary crossings (good teachers know how to do this). Whilst the curriculum is not a given, and is open to change, an effective curriculum protects schools from passing and powerful social forces. He reminded us that the subject-based curriculum was an enlightenment project. Currently, shortage of properly qualified subject teachers is a problem, particularly as they are distributed very unequally across schools.
Tim Oates did not begin (or end) well. His pre-circulated conference blurb seemed to go out of its way to alienate. This included:
"There is a tendency in England to try to use the National Curriculum as the vehicle for all pressing educational issues. Issues as diverse as farm visits, knifecrime (sic) and healthy eating have seen lobbies arguing for their inclusion, on the basis that '... this issue is important, education is the answer, and including it in the National Curriculum will ensure that schools address it ...'".
Whilst Oates has a point, it is one that applies to all national curricula, and not just "in England", and to link healthy eating, farm visits and knifecrime seems egregious, and rather focused (have we upset him?). No doubt, he'd have liked to put climate change in this list, but this may well have been outlawed by DfE, mindful of the dangers of his being out again on his own. And, anyway, no one argues for farm visits, per se, but as means to educational and social ends.
I thought Oates' talk disrespectful of his audience. He spoke second, and began by taking a full 15 minutes to comment (in a disorganised way, but which showed how well read he is) on issues that Young had raised in his talk, and at the end of his own presentation he abruptly said he has to leave, and walked off giving the audience no chance for the promised questions. I have never seen anything like it.
He cut a rather Gradgrind figure, as Dicken’s portrays him in Hard Times:
Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of fact and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir -- peremptorily Thomas -- Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case simple arithmetic. …
In such terms Mr. Gradgrind always mentally introduced himself, whether to his private circle of acquaintance, or to the public in general. In such terms, no doubt, substituting the words 'boys and girls', for 'sir', Thomas Gradgrind now presented Thomas Gradgrind to the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts. Indeed, as he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.
Oates’ main points were familiar from his Guardian interview, in particular that it is knowledge that is timeless that ought to be in the national curriculum (Boyle's Law was mentioned though gravity wasn't this time). He argued that the national curriculum should be based on principles, concepts, operations and key knowledge, but that social and economic issues should be left to school interpretation through the school curriculum, on the grounds that such issues were inherently pedagogical in nature.
I found all this really odd, as though teaching the national curriculum didn’t involve pedagogical decisions. Unlike Young, Oates was not reflexive in his approach to argument and ideas. His seems a rather Govean view of curriculum where key knowledge is given and pretty static, subjects have boundaries, knowledge is important for its own sake, and where school is an intellectual challenge. Skills and their acquisition are under-emphasised. All this probably explains why he has his current role in the national curriculum review.
I take him to be a flower that blooms for only one short season and is now making the best of his brief time in the sun. The question is, will his seed set and be viable …?