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Where Mr Gove may have got it wrong!

I hesitate before pontificating about educational policy, but that's what the blogosphere is about, isn't it? So here we go...

I want to say something about the Ebacc and Michael Gove's belief that to achieve greater social mobility we need to give all pupils access to a certain body of important knowledge.*

Gove believes all, or nearly all, children should do what he views as the most important subjects which represent an appropriate selection of our shared culture. Only by having access to this culture, which may not be available at home, will all children have an equal chance to succeed. He thinks children should, up to the age of 16, learn mathematics, English, science, a foreign language, study history or geography (I am not sure why it is either/or) and, it now seems, computer science. He observes other "high-performing" education systems and notes that these subjects are usually compulsory and often up to the age of 18.

One consequence of this policy view is that teachers of other subject areas than these will rightly feel that their subjects are somehow second class and that the EBacc accountability measure makes it certain that fewer children will study them.

What are we to make of this?

I have no doubt that Gove is sincere in his belief that many children are being dealt a poor hand in the education system owing to low aspirations and the belief ascribed to so-called progressive educationalists that certain subjects and knowledge only suit certain children. I would argue this, however: I do not think that you can, by wishful thinking, enthuse all children in the subjects the state chooses as important. Children are different, not just owing to their social background by the way, and the education system should be sensitive to these differences, allowing children the opportunity to make the best of their individual talents.

Put simply, the system should adapt to children's needs as much as vice versa. If a child of 14 is hopeless at history and, despite the best teaching in the world, does not get anything from it, they should do something more worthwhile for them. Would we rather have motivated children learning subjects which interest them, or miserable, misbehaved, force-fed children?

The same should go for the other EBacc subjects, with the possible exception of English and, maybe, maths. (I am one of those who believes that maths is hugely overrated in our culture, just as Latin was in the nineteenth century.) Modern languages were made optional by the Labour government in 2004 because too many children disliked their lessons and were getting little from them. The recent National Curriculum framework document has confirmed the Labour approach at KS4, whilst maintaining the EBacc measure which should shore up MFL numbers to a degree. A sensible, pragmatic decision has been taken.

Ultimately this comes down to what society views as essential knowledge and skills for children to learn and there is no consensus on this. Who is to say that a knowledge of the heroes of British history is more important than music appreciation? Like Michael Gove, I am influenced by my traditional (grammar school) education and have been tempted to view subjects like history and geography as somehow more essential than, say, art, music or RE. But I am beginning to feel that this may be a form of cultural elitism which should be resisted.

What's more, if children are force-fed a diet which does not interest them it is possible that the outcome will be the opposite of what Gove wants. Disaffected children will under-achieve, drop out of the system and have less chance of achieving the upward mobility we would all like to see.

 * Gove is strongly influenced by the work of E.D. Hirsch and his notions of cultural literacy and core knowledge.

Here is what seems to be a balanced critique of Hirsch's theory of cultural literacy:


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