The Great, the Good – and Tim Oates

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

An early rise recently to get to Stoke on Trent on time to attend a conference at Keele University's Centre for Successful Schools.  The focus was The Curriculum: lessons to be learned?

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 …?

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  • Should we be teaching our children like communists or free thinkers in a democratic society?

    Proposed Changes of the National Curriculum Key Stag 1 & 2 in History

    As an archaeologist specialising and teaching educational workshops in the subjects of ancient Egypt, golden age of Greece and the Romans, for the last fifteen years, to 30,000 children in Sussex primary schools, at key stage 1 & 2. I feel I am competent to comment on the current and proposed national Curriculum for England and Wales, in the subject of History key stage 1 & 2.
    The current National Curriculum in history educates children with a tool box of skills to enable them to engage with the past. This tool box educates them with a chronology (time line), important figures who made significant contributions and certain important dates or fixed points. This enables children to gather the evidence of the past and decide what they think happened. Currently teachers have a fairly broad range of topics to choose from. Such as the Anglo Saxons, Vikings, Tudors and Victorians. Teachers also have choice of world topics to choose from such as, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, the Romans, Aztecs and Mayans. The curriculum is structured for link subjects from Geography, English, Maths and Science, to link-in, to these history topics and visa a versa. The advantage of this system or structure is to make subjects and learning in school vibrant and exciting, capturing the imagination of the learners. And from my experience of visiting 300 Sussex schools and teaching some 3,000 children each year, I can say that this current system works.

    The proposed new curriculum focuses on the old style of teaching and a British history of facts dates, places and individuals. Who possibly made a significant impact to the development of our country, and world affairs? This could be argued as a form of nationalism. A desire to programme our young learners with the history of our past rather than equipping our young people with the skills of interoperating the past.
    The proposed curriculum includes the teaching of ancient Greece and Roman. Why have these subject areas been included within a curriculum which purpose is to promote nationalism? The answer may well be, that we the people of Britain borrowed our Western culture from the past, ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. During the heyday of the British Empire, the Victorians wanted to adorn our country with the emblems of imperialism and ancient culture.
    The Victorians re-invented the ancient baths of Rome to cleanse the people. They built sewers and lead pipes to sanitise the people, and provide fresh water to eradicate typhoid and cholera from our shores. The Victorians built stadiums for the common man to be entertained in the national sport of football, copying the original idea of the Roman stadiums, which some call arenas or coliseum’s. These examples may be the reasons of inclusion in to the British based proposed national curriculum. However by including Greece and Roman the proposes of the curriculum are recognising the importance of ancient civilisations, which have contributed to our current western cultural values.
    As an example. The first writing system based on phonetics and ideograms came from Egypt. The Phoenicians, who came from modem day Lebanon, borrowed Twenty-Two phonetic characters from the Egyptians and created the alphabet. The Greeks borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians, the Etruscans in Italy borrowed the Alphabet from the Greeks, and when the Romans conquered their Etruscan masters they took the alphabet to write Latin. So our alphabet originates from ancient Egypt.
    The idea of Mathematics was based on the Egyptian pyramids by Pythagoras. Medicine was invented by the Egyptians and borrowed by the Greeks and Romans. Do you really think the architecture on our Western public buildings is from Greece and Roman? No the origin of architecture is from Egypt, borrowed first by the Greeks and then the Romans. So not to include the ancient Egyptians from the new curriculum is denying our young people the origins of our Western ideas and culture.
    So if one is to change the current national curriculum then what changes should be made. I have for several years thought that the explanation of our species is vastly over looked by us in the West. The heritage arm of the United National (UNESCO) conducted a DNA world project, to identify the origin of cultural people.
    The results which were published in 2000 identified a tribe which left Africa some 40,000 years ago, crossed the Red Sea and settled in modern day Yemen. These settlers were our ancestors, who went on to populate 70% of the world’s surface. As our ancestors left the brighter lighter and sunny areas of our planet and migrated in to cloudy areas such as the West. Their bodies required more vitamin D, from the sun and as a result, the humane DNA slowly evolved to make skin colour lighter, so that their bodies would be able to absorb more vitamin D from the sun. Our ancestors were originally black Africans, and surely in a multi-cultural society, which should be teaching this vital information to our children?
    As a grandfather of several grandchildren I have been fascinated at observing my grandchildren and their development, especially how they see their world. What surprises me is the lack of understanding in young people of Key Stage 2, who do not completely understand the environment in which they live. One area which needs to be addressed in the new curriculum is the inclusion of origin, who are you and where do you live?
    As an example some key questions can be answered and investigated by the learners such as; 1) what is the meaning of the hamlet or village that you live in? 2) Is your hamlet or village part of a town? 3) Is you town part of a city? 4) Which industries were started in your hamlet or village i.e. agriculture, forestry, brickworks, lime production, mining, quarrying etc.
    5) Is you village, town or city in England or Wales? 6) What other countries make up the British Isles? 7) Which continent is Britain part of? 8) How many continents are there in our world?
    These key questions provide the leaner on their learning journey, with an identity of themselves in our world. The questions enable and empower the learner to discover the area, district, region in which they live. These are some mighty big questions to ask, but I believe that learners should know, who they are, where they live and what they are part of. A society and environment inherited from their ancestors. Our role as the current custodian is to decide how best to preserve, build and protect our environment in the present and the future.
    This topic issue provides learners to link subjects together, so investigating origin of one’s self, engages history, geography, science and enables the learner to use literacy and mathematics, in a constructive way rather than a dogmatic way.
    Without the past we the current custodians would not be hear. The past is who we are, and is important. The origin of how we developed and borrowed from different civilisations is essential in understanding who we are. So do not mess around with nationalist ideas, we are the borrowers and re-inventors from the past. And try and tell ourselves that as a people. We invested the idea first.

    For further information or comment please contact;
    Robert Scott MA (IOA UCL UCL)
    Telephone: 01903-620127