Education: What Should We Teach Children? Is There a Place in the National Curriculum for Moral, Social and Political Values Alongside the Three Rs?
Judd, Judith, The Independent (London, England)
What should schools teach children about morality, the environment, drugs and parenting, and should lessons in citizenship be compulsory? David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, must decide shortly. The latest battle for the curriculum is about to be determined.
At the heart of the debate is a disagreement about the whole nature of education. On the one hand are those who argue that schools should concentrate on the three Rs because children cannot learn anything unless they can read. On the other are the supporters of a broad curriculum who say that we should tell primary children not only about history but also about right and wrong, politics and culture.
The argument goes back more than a century, to when the Revised Code of 1862, a sort of three Rs national curriculum, had inspectors visiting schools to test standards of reading and writing. Schools were paid according to test results. Matthew Arnold, the poet and an inspector, complained that the result was a "mechanical and lifeless" curriculum. More recently, Kenneth Baker, a former Secretary of State for Education, has described how he clashed with Margaret Thatcher when they were devising the national curriculum in the late Eighties. Mrs Thatcher, who, according to Mr Baker, got her views on education from her hairdresser and her cleaner, wanted only English, maths and science to be compulsory. Mr Baker, by contrast, wanted a 10- subject curriculum to ensure that pupils received a broad education. He took the view that, unless subjects were made compulsory, they would not be taught. In the short term, he won, but the curriculum was later slimmed down after teachers held a test boycott in protest against the overcrowded timetable. During the last year, similar fights have been fought in Whitehall over the emphasis schools should put on the basics. Last January, Mr Blunkett annnounced that he was relaxing the law on the primary school curriculum to allow schools to spend more time on literacy and numeracy. The Government has set ambitious targets for 11-year-olds in reading and maths for the end of this parliament. There was an outcry from musicians, artists and actors. Sir Simon Rattle, the conductor, attracted a band of high-profile supporters who said that the creativity and culture of the nation's youth was under threat. Mr Blunkett responded by setting up a working group on creativity in schools. He has also set up task forces on citizenship, the environment, morals and spirituality, and personal and social education. All these have come together in the Preparation for Adult Life Group which reported to Mr Blunkett just before Christmas. But the arguments go on. Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, told the group that he was against making citizenship or any of the other issues under discussion compulsory. It would distract schools from their main priority - improving standards in literacy and numeracy. But Professor Bernard Crick, chairman of the Government's advisory group on citizenship, which included figures such as Michael Brunson, ITN's political editor, wanted an immediate statutory requirement for citizenship. Mr Blunkett now has to reconcile the conflicting views. Despite a long standing commitment to the promotion of citizenship in schools, he is concerned about the targets. And the arguments for focusing on the basics for the youngest children are persuasive. As Estelle Morris, the schools minister, has pointed out: "The problem at the moment for too many children is that they don't get a broad curriculum because they cannot read and write. …