In this article, Professor Robin Alexander, Chair of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, questions whether the new national curriculum is an adequate preparation for the society and world in which our children are growing up.
Numbed by the unrelenting horror of this summer’s news from Gaza, Israel, Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, and the heartrending images of children slaughtered, families shattered and ancient communities uprooted, we ask what on earth we in the West can do.
With our historical awareness heightened by the current centenary of the 1914-18 war and what, in terms of the redrawing of national boundaries, it led to, we also recognise that the fate of countries such as these reaches back in part to political decisions taken, like it or not, in our name and as recently as 2003. So collectively we are implicated if not complicit. If, as H.G. Wells warned soon after the 1918 armistice, history is a race between education and catastrophe, we must surely ask at this time why, for so many, that race has been lost; and whether and how education can do better. If ever we needed a reminder that true education must pursue goals and standards that go well beyond the narrow confines of what is tested, here it is.
We know that England’s new national curriculum mandates what DfE deems ‘essential knowledge’ in the ‘core subjects’ (the quotes remind us that these are political formulations rather than moral absolutes) plus, in the interests of ‘breadth and balance’ (ditto) a few other subjects of which much less is said and demanded. But we’ve also been told that the school curriculum is more than the national curriculum. We should therefore take this opportunity to think no less seriously about what is not required than about what is.
One of my keenest memories of the period 2006-9 when the Cambridge Primary Review was collecting and analysing evidence on the condition and future of English primary education is of visiting an urban Lancashire primary school that exemplified England’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. We were there as part of a journey crisscrossing the country to take ‘community soundings‘ – a few days earlier we had been with Roma and Travellers in Cornwall – and having heard from children, teachers, heads, parents and local officials we found ourselves in a small room discussing faith, education and social cohesion with an imam, a rabbi and a priest.
What was illuminating about this encounter, apart from the manifest respect each religious representative had for the other, was the extent of common ground between them. Predating by several years the current DfE consultation on ‘British values‘, our three faith leaders readily identified a moral core for education to which they and we could all subscribe. Significantly, this did not merely look inwards at Britain and to cosy clichés like fair play but unflinchingly outwards to the fractured and despairing world we see daily on our television screens.
Partly in response to soundings such as this, the twelve educational aims proposed by the Cambridge Primary Review included the promotion of respect and reciprocity, interdependence and sustainability, culture and community and local, national and global citizenship; while the Review’s curriculum framework sought to advance the knowledge and understanding with which values in action must always be tempered through domains such as place and time, citizenship and ethics and faith and belief. The last of these was deemed integral to the curriculum because, as our community soundings confirmed, ‘religion is fundamental to this country’s history, culture and language, as well as to the daily lives of many of its inhabitants.’
Yet where is any of this reflected in the national curriculum that England’s schools are about to implement? The exploration of faith and belief (which is not necessarily the same as compulsory RE) remains anomalously outside the walls, even as religion is invoked to justify unspeakable atrocities. World history receives scant treatment, the ethical dimension of science has been removed, culture – however one defines it – gets short shrift and in the primary phase citizenship has disappeared completely.
For the society and world in which our children are growing up is this an adequate preparation? Some of us think not, and this autumn CPRT hopes to join with other organisations to explore curriculum futures which engage more directly and meaningfully with that world, believing that citizenship education is not only more urgent now than ever but that it must be local and global as well as national.
So when schools consider how they should fill the gap between the new national curriculum and the school curriculum they may care to start by reflecting on another gap: between the curriculum as officially prescribed and the condition and needs of the community, society and world in which our children are growing up.
Of course, we speak here of the task for education as a whole, not primary education alone, and we must be mindful of what is appropriate for children at different phases of their development. The vision of a childhood untroubled by adult fears and responsibilities cannot be lightly dismissed, though such a childhood is beyond the reach of millions of the world’s children. Yet consider this, from CPR’s community soundings report: ‘The soundings were pervaded by a sense of deep pessimism about the future, to which children themselves were not immune … Yet where schools engaged children with global and local realities as aspects of their education they were noticeably more upbeat … Pessimism turned to hope when witnesses felt they had the power to act.’
So in the global race between education and catastrophe what exactly should England’s primary teachers do and what should England’s primary children learn? The question is entirely open: please respond.
A detailed discussion, informed by extensive evidence, of the wider purposes of primary education and what these imply for the curriculum appears in ‘Children, their World, their Education: final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review‘, chapters 12 and 14.
Originally published by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. Canterbury Christ Church University is leading the South East Regional Network of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.