National curriculum review puts emphasis on facts

Michael Gove says an academic education will best equip students for the 'knowledge industries of the future', as teachers condemn plans as elitist and outdated

History and geography lessons should emphasise the learning of facts and equip children with essential knowledge, education secretary Michael Gove said today as he launched a review of the national curriculum.

Every child must be given a "profound level" of mathematic and scientific knowledge as well as immersion in the reasoning skills generated by subjects like history and foreign languages, the minister said.

Gove argued that an academic education is the best preparation for the new opportunities that will be created by the knowledge industries of the future – citing the case of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

In a speech at a London school, he said: "When Zuckerberg applied to college he was asked what languages he could speak and write – as well as English – he listed, French, Hebrew, Latin and Ancient Greek. He also studied maths and science at school. He would have done very well in our English baccalaureate. And the breakthroughs his rigorously academic education helped create are now providing new opportunities for billions."

Gove attacked the last government for removing "actual content" in favour of a more thematic approach, and expressed concern that the only historical figures mentioned in the curriculum are the slavery abolitionists William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano.

Ministers are concerned that the geography curriculum does not identify any continents, rivers or mountains or name any countries apart from the UK – although, they note, it does mention the European Union. The music curriculum makes no mention of individual composers or pieces of music, the government says.

Curriculum reforms introduced by the last government in 2007 saw historical figures such as Winston Churchill cut from a list of figures recommended for teaching in an attempt to give teachers more flexibility.

Sean Lang, a former history teacher who now leads the Better History lobby group, said: "No one would say that because only two names are in the official documentation these are the only two that people teach about. There's a much broader issue he's pointing to, of how much detail should go into the curriculum documentation.

"You can go to one extreme, which is to say put no content in at all – the broadest of guidelines – and leave it to schools to decide. The trouble with that is that it leads to a lot of incoherence between schools. Things have gone so far towards a lack of any guidance."

The 2007 changes had encouraged some teachers to emphasise teaching historical skills rather than facts, Lang said. "In reality I think that's an abdication of responsibility – teachers do have a responsibility to impart knowledge."

Gove argued today that his approach would look at how the curriculum can be slimmed down from an "over-prescriptive" approach by the last government that contained too much that was not essential. It would emphasise a core of vital knowledge while leaving teachers free to decide how this should be conveyed.

The new curriculum for English, maths, science and PE – which will place stronger emphasis on competitive sport and possibly set aside time for outdoor games – will be introduced from September 2013. Changes for other subjects will come into force the following year. There are currently 12 subjects in the national curriculum, including music, art, design and technology and citizenship, and the review could lead to some of these being stripped out.

Gove said the government may make it compulsory to study foreign languages up to GCSE. Languages stopped being compulsory up to the age of 16 in 2004 and this triggered a rapid decline in their take-up.

The academic and BBC presenter Simon Schama will contribute to the overhauling of the history curriculum, which is intended to restore a narrative that will focus on "our island story".

The review is to be conducted by the Department for Education, supported by education experts including Tim Oates, of Cambridge university's exam board Cambridge Assessment.

Some teaching unions have attacked the plans as an attempt to restore an elitist and outdated curriculum.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, accused ministers of wanting to return to an irrelevant "public school curriculum" based on what they were taught 25 years ago.

"The subjects and skills taught in schools should not be based on ministers' pet interests.

"Teachers should be allowed to decide the specifics of what is taught, in partnership with employers and the local community, within a broad and balanced centrally agreed framework curriculum."

The coalition government has already revamped school league tables to emphasise traditional subjects.

For the first time, league tables published last week measured schools' performance by the numbers of children who obtained the English baccalaureate – awarded to those who achieved good GCSEs in English, maths, science, a foreign language and history or geography.


Jeevan Vasagar and Jessica Shepherd

The GuardianTramp

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