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The Curriculum Challenge

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Stephen Scoffham argues that the new primary curriculum is ignoring the most important issue of our times. If now isn’t the time to get children investigating it then when is?

wind turbinesIt may seem incongruous to start thinking about revisions to the curriculum when the new primary curriculum is less than a year old and the requirements for secondary schools have gone through many years of turmoil.  However, the weeks surrounding and following a general election are a time when the electorate has a unique opportunity to initiate public debate.  Those who are interested in education can and should be asking politicians awkward questions.  The key question is do we have the curriculum that we want – a curriculum which promotes learning, which respects the views and needs of children and which will equip them as best it can for the middle years of the twenty first century?  The answer, in my opinion, has to be a resounding no.  And the reason I take this view is that the current curriculum manifestly fails to address what is arguably the central challenge of current times.

Within my professional lifetime global climate change has gone from being a fringe issue to an international emergency.  The most immediate effects are already becoming apparent.  Around the world floods, droughts, heatwaves and other extreme weather events are becoming increasingly common.  More indirect impacts such as rising sea levels, disputes over oil and water resources and mass migration are starting to emerge as related issues.  It is arguable that current conflicts in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa have, at the very least, been exacerbated by environmental stress.  Global climate change is no longer just a matter for scientific debate – it has become a political, social, economic and ethical problem as well.  Schools have yet to fully appreciate how this is likely to impact on their practice.

Ignoring climate change is not an option. Naomi Klein goes to the heart of the matter in her latest book ‘This Changes Everything’. Fundamentally the argument can be stated surprisingly simply. If we go on living as we are and do nothing to change our lives we know what will happen; and the effects could well be devastating.  But if we act wisely there is still time to make a difference.  In a similar vein, Dave Hicks concludes that it would be an ‘educational crime’ for teachers to turn inwards and pretend that nothing is wrong (2014 p73).  However, Hicks does much more than point out the troubles that lie ahead.  He sets out a vision for an education which is suffused with a sense of hope and which builds the capabilities and capacities of young people in a positive manner.

What then do the two main political parties have to say about the curriculum in the light of the current emergency?  We know what the Conservatives think as they were the main architects of the new primary curriculum.  By the same token the Labour party position was set out in great detail in the Rose Review which was circulated to all schools in 2010.  However, neither the Rose Review nor the new primary curriculum make any attempt to recognise the fact, acknowledged by so many scientists and commentators, that global warming is likely to change our lives in the years ahead and is going to have a fundamental impact on children who are currently at school.  Not only is this bizarre but it also fails to match the Government’s own priorities.  In the UK we are, after all, legally committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% from the 1990 base line by 2050.

If any political party could have been expected to take the educational dimension of global warming seriously during the recent election campaign than it was surely the Green Party. They set out fourteen policies to do with the curriculum and there is significant stress on the local environment, participative learning, emotional literacy and well-being.  Personal entitlements are highlighted and there is a shift away from testing and assessment.  All these features are to be welcomed and they could well form part of a sustainability-literate curriculum.  However, the Green Party proposals would have had more impact if they were better focussed.  They make no direct reference to climate change or indeed any other manifestations of environmental stress such as species loss, water shortages, resource depletion or food security.  At best the policies could be seen as cautious, but they are also bland and lacking in vision.  Where is the sense of urgency?  Where are the ground-breaking ideas?

There are a number of well-developed alternative models.  One which I find particularly valuable appears in the Index for Inclusion.  Here Tony Booth and Mel Ainscow set out proposals for a restructured curriculum based on a framework of values in which sustainability occupies the centre ground.  ‘The most fundamental aim of education’, Booth and Ainscow declare, ‘is to prepare young children for a sustainable way of life within sustainable communities and environments’ (p24).  They offer detailed ideas about how this might be done using thirteen indicators which include topics such as food, water, energy, health, housing, transport and government.  This example challenges traditional thinking and provides a thought-provoking approach which has depth as well as breadth.  Caring for the environment, building relationships and nourishing the human spirit are given pride of place.

We urgently need a more imaginative curriculum.  In a recent report, UNICEF declares that ‘climate change is one of the most significant challenges facing children today’ (2013, p5).  As we search for new solutions we do not need to take all the burden of the world on our shoulders, nor do we need to impose them on young children who are possibly the least capable of carrying them.  The starting point is to find ways meaningful ways of engaging with sustainability issues.   Pupils who have begun to appreciate some of the contradictions and complexities which surround the sustainability agenda whilst they are at school will be better equipped to make informed choices in their adult lives.

Whatever your political persuasion, there is an overwhelming case for seeing that schools and children get a curriculum which is fit for purpose – a curriculum which equips them as best it can for the challenges which undoubtedly lie ahead.  Professional networks and organisations are one way of giving voice to these concerns. We need to take every opportunity for pressing home this case.  After all, if teachers are not willing to stand up for a sustainability literate curriculum, who is?

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