The Progressive Curriculum. Curriculum Series Number Four.


All curricula involve the teaching of knowledge which is why some people baulk at the idea of a ‘knowledge-based curriculum’. ‘We all teach knowledge’ they point out, as if there is no difference between anyone teaching a progressive curriculum and those teaching a more traditional academic one.

As soon as one gets into the argument it is easy to find that there are important, ideological differences. “Whose knowledge?” might be the refrain or comments about the teacher as an authoritarian figure, these arguments get to the nub as to the differences offered by a more progressive curriculum.

In answer to the question ‘whose knowledge?’ a progressive curriculum might answer, the knowledge a pupil most wants to learn; a progressive curriculum will tend to be more child-centred than knowledge centred. I will explore this distinction in more detail in later posts, neither is ‘bad’, and though they are very different ideologically and practically both involve some overlap with the other. But a progressive curriculum is concerned with the child’s development, and the motivation of the child to learn, their needs and, importantly, their interests. If a child is not interested in learning something that is felt to be good for them then it must be made accessible to them in order to encourage them to learn it.

Like a knowledge based ‘liberal arts’ curriculum, progressive minded educators may wish to ‘free the person’ and this is often through the idea of something akin to self-actualisation. Maslow argued that:

[this] refers to the person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially.

The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions’ (Maslow, 1943, p. 382–383)

It is the variance in what we will become that entails a more individualistic approach to how we begin. Interestingly a more ‘knowledge centred’ curriculum theorist ED Hirsch believes that self-actualisation is an important goal for schooling though this would be the job of secondary rather than primary education, where, he argues, a significant absorption of culturally relevant and important knowledge is essential for social justice.

An enthusiast for progressive education once described it to me as letting a child free in a sweet shop. The curriculum is enticing the child in various directions encouraging them to try things out, to develop their taste in certain directions, and to be motivated to do so by the exciting discoveries on offer. The analogy soon fell apart when we explored the health benefits for later life. Maybe Howard Gardner’s description of his ideal curriculum being like a good interactive museum of life in which a child can make their own way is better, appealing to aspects of their intelligences and in which one that a teacher can encourage children towards intelligences that they might struggle with and use their skills to motivate them to do better in those areas. To have a growth mindset, if they find the going too tough.

There is not ‘one’ type of progressive curriculum offer, just as there is not one type of ‘knowledge-based’ approach either. So it is difficult to suggest an over-arching tick-list for a progressive offer, but there are some aspects that a progressive education leans towards.

The teacher is less of an authority figure and is seen not as an expert ‘sage on the stage’ but more of a ‘guide on the side’. The teacher listens to children encouraging them to take up the mantle of teacher, whilst the teacher becomes the pupil, eager to learn what the child wishes to share. The teacher creates the learning experiences and environment and, maybe like a child-friendly museum, children can explore and develop outlets for their curiosity. In the book ‘Nudge’ (not an education book) Thaler wrote that: “A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.” This echoes what Dewey wrote years before: ” The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.” The teacher is a ‘choice-architect’ encouraging children to make the right choices, not through coercion, but through soft persuasion ‘assisting’ the child in making the right choices.

This then is our narrative. Instead of a teacher teaching knowledge they might first cultivate an interest in a topic and then encourage exploration of that topic through means such as projects or motivating tasks based around performances, products, posters and presentations. Cross-curricular approaches are encouraged, the demarcation between subject areas can be quite fluid. Children are also encouraged to work in groups and, the argument is often made, that this is most like the real world and it is beneficial for children to collaborate creatively. Children are encouraged to discover new areas of learning for themselves and to construct their own models of understanding. They continually progress and it is their skills that are to the fore.

Children have fun in this environment, they are motivated to learn, and they learn skills and knowledge. They are free to learn what they want to, and though the teacher will be guiding their learning in certain directions, this is not done in an authoritarian manner. The knowledge content is secondary to the skills that a pupil is learning. By being encouraged to be lifelong learners, children taught a progressive curriculum will be used to being able to learn what they want to learn and when they want to learn it. They will be adept at using Google and other methods of research to find out what they need to know. They will be used to a more egalitarian classroom, be less respectful of authority and be likely to criticise those who try to take more authoritarian positions in the future. That is the hope.

Although some progressive classrooms veer more to the creating a better society narrative and some towards a more individualised or ‘personalised’ approach the progressive curriculum is very different to the more traditional one. It is also an approach that is being made more accessible through the advent of the internet and the proliferation of information at your fingertips.

The progressive curriculum is less likely to value a linear narrative in terms of knowledge, it is more unstructured, and can be unpredictable. The teacher needs to be highly responsive and foster deep, professional relationships with their pupils, being hyper aware of their needs and helping them to realise their potential. As Ken Robinson says:

The key… is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.

Ken Robinson: “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”

Some schools mix the traditional and progressive approaches together. This might be due to various examination demands that tend to recognise domain based knowledge as essential. A primary school that does ‘project work and topic’ in the afternoon and more maths and english in the morning might be one; a secondary that has a freer ‘creative’ key stage three with cross curricular approaches and then a more rigid, subject based key stage four, might be another.



What is a Curriculum? Curriculum Series Number Three.


What is meant by the word curriculum?

The online OED definition is quite narrow:

The subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college.

Decide your course, list the subjects that are to be covered and off you go.

The word comes from the Latin ‘curriculum’ which meant a running, course, career, from ‘currere’ meaning ‘to run’. It is first associated with a school ‘curriculum’ in about 1909.

In the jargon heavy, agreement light world of education there is no absolute agreement as to what is meant by the word curriculum, definitions range from the narrow to the broad.

Geneva Gay thinks of the curriculum embracing the ‘entire culture of the school – not just the subject matter content’ (1990) this is a view I have much sympathy for but if everything is the curriculum then it ceases to have much currency as a term. From the narrow list of subjects to the all-embracing ‘entire-culture’ view whatever is meant by the word curriculum in your institution will obviously have very different ramifications when it comes to curriculum design.

Tim Oates talks of four different types of curriculum they are: the planned, the enacted, the assessed, and the learned. It is what is left in the pupil’s ‘reservoir of knowledge, understanding and experience – in the long term’ that forms, for Oates, the ‘learned curriculum’ and it is this that we ought to care about. What is planned, written down in curriculum documents is as nothing to what is actually taught, narrowly assessed and then remembered.

It is for this reason that I am drawn to a wider view of what the curriculum is rather than the narrow ‘subjects comprising a course of study’. For me curriculum is a narrative, it is the story a school tells of itself and what it thinks is valuable. This narrative, though comprised of lots of different stories, has to have an overarching principle that pulls the whole together. A school that leaves each department to do its own thing curriculum wise will lack this overall view, and though it’s a perfectly reasonable position to take, the unifying narrative of a school’s curriculum, and the rituals involved will shape what is remembered by pupils long after they have left the school.

It is the overarching idea of curriculum that has lead people to give names to different types of ‘curricula’, in order to differentiate them in a way that they hope will lead to making a lasting impression on their pupils. Diane Ravitch wrote about the knowledge-centred or academic curriculum thus:

…the term ‘academic curriculum’ does not refer to the formalistic methods, role recitations, and student passivity about which all reasonable educators and parents have justly complained. Nor does it refer only to teaching skills. It refers instead to the systematic study of language and literature, science and mathematics, history, the arts, and foreign languages; these studies, commonly described today as a ‘liberal education,’ convey important knowledge and skills, cultivate aesthetic imagination, and teach students to think critically and reflectively about the world in which they live.

Others talk of a skills based or competency based curriculum, for example, the RSA talk of their:

…Opening Minds curriculum [which] features five categories of competences: learning, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information. Focusing on competences means that Opening Minds teaching emphasises the ability to understand and to do, rather than just the transmission of knowledge.

These competences are broad areas of capability, developed in classrooms through a mixture of instruction and practical experience: children plan their work, organise their own time and explore their own ways of learning.

Both these approaches have a very different over-arching narrative. A unity of purpose is fostered by each narrative meaning that the curriculum in school will have certain ideas underpinning the entire approach that the school takes. A knowledge based approach is very different to a skill based approach. Whichever is more akin to your approach, you will notice the claims made by the other approach does not entirely debunk the approach you might wish to take. The RSA talk of ‘transmission of knowledge’ though suggest that they do not ‘just’ do that (implying that some do). Whereas Ravitch suggests the academic curriculum teaches skills, cultivates aesthetic imagination, and teaches students to think critically and reflectively. This could make one think that the differences between the two approaches are not very wide at all but if we go back to what Oates suggests is ‘remembered’ I expect the differences might be starker.

The curriculum is what is taught. Formally and informally but, importantly, explicitly. It is what we intentionally teach for pupils to learn something beyond the management of the institution. It comprises academic and other forms of learning. I hate the term ‘extra-curricular’, preferring the idea of co-curricular or ‘non-examined curriculum’, if one has to make any distinction at all. It is not the ‘entire-culture’ of a school but is certainly a large and important part of that culture. Whether one believes in a knowledge based or a child centred curriculum, or another approach altogether, the unity of purpose an institution gives to its curriculum ought to shape what is remembered by pupils for years to come.


Curriculum Series Number Two: Curriculum Aims, ‘The Why’…


The why of curriculum design is a hugely contested area, it is tied in to the ‘why’ of school itself and is driven by politics, values, ideology and what one feels is ‘right’. This is where there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about the design of curriculum one chooses, however there are right and wrong ways of designing the curriculum once you have decided on what the values are behind it. For those looking for a ‘science’ of curriculum design you might be disappointed but I see it as more of an art. I suppose if everyone decided on a list of measurable outcomes, saw these things as a sufficient measure for all the approaches and tried various curricula out over years and in different contexts and saw how the measurable outcomes varied it might be possible to decide which one is best…

It’s just that I don’t think we ever will be able to do this and nor do I think that it would be right to try. This does not mean that any way is okay because that way ignorance and chaos lie. There needs to be a unity of purpose and delivery in your overall curriculum even if you believe that each subject area can design the curriculum that best delivers their subject area, because that implies a unity of purpose in itself. However, if your values mean chaos and that no values are a good thing then it is unlikely you would be involved in formal education at all except as some sort of fifth columnist. Throwing a spanner in the works of systems has a long and noble tradition of its own and, in itself, this anarchy might be an aim in itself.

Let us look at the sort of thing that might guide your curriculum:

  • Ensuring excellent academic achievement
  • Making children ready to enter the job market
  • Creating good citizens
  • Creating ‘happy’ people
  • Creating a better society for all
  • Ensuring a successful meritocracy
  • Creating an equal society
  • Ensuring people believe in a nation’s ideals and values
  • Making people more creative
  • Making people more critical, especially of those in authority
  • Ensuring people know the knowledge that is deemed important for them to know
  • Learning a range of important subject disciplines
  • Ensuring people are equipped to be life-long learners
  • Ensuring people know how to behave well
  • Helping people make the right choices for their own well-being and the well-being of others

I’m sure there are many more so, it might be helpful, if you wish, to add some others in the comments section below.

What order would you put the above in? What would you emphasise, what would you leave out? Do some aims contradict other aims? Are all these aims curriculum focused?I will return to these questions in the next post: ‘What do we mean by ‘Curriculum’?’

For me it is only once you have decided what your curriculum is for and the order of importance of the aims you have that you can then start to take a suitable approach to curriculum design. This is where science might help you in some of your choices but so will intuition and reason – learning and thinking about the arguments around curriculum design and what is/are the right choice/s for your school?



Curriculum Series Number One: Curriculum Chaos

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A striking conclusion that we have drawn from the findings is that, despite the fact that the curriculum is what is taught, there is little debate or reflection about it… there is a lack of clarity around the language of the curriculum.

It is certainly possible that this ambiguity and lack of shared understanding expose competing notions of what curriculum means across the sector. However, the most likely explanation is that this arises from a weak theoretical understanding of curriculum. This was confirmed by school leaders, who said that there was a time (long ago) when teachers were taught the theory that underpins curriculum planning. Over time, this competence across the sector ebbed away.

Amanda Spielman HMCI’s Commentary 11 Oct 2017

If what Spielman suggests is true then English children are likely to be experiencing something approaching a chaotic curriculum. In this short series of posts I hope to go some way to help achieve a shared understanding as to what different approaches to curriculum might mean, the theoretical underpinning of these approaches, an understanding of the language involved and recommend certain approaches to curriculum planning that might add to the material that is helping curriculum design to once again become centre stage in education debates.

I believe that one of the signs of chaos around approaches to curriculum design is the idea that anything can work, that each teacher can take any approach that they believe matters and that as they know their learners better than anyone else that will suffice.

Curriculum design cannot countenance such a chaotic approach because in the first instance curriculum design and delivery is a ‘team game’. The design and delivery is inextricably linked and the teachers teaching must know why, what, how, when, where and to whom they are delivering the curriculum.

And I use the term ‘delivery’ advisedly because it is a word that might be contested by some who feel that a curriculum should not be delivered to a child but must, instead, be centred on what a child wishes to find out. Hence the possibility of chaos if we leave it up to individual teachers to do what they feel is best, because the experience the learner has is likely to be so inconsistent that the curriculum they experience seems to be undoing the work that they have previously experienced and not working towards what they might experience next.

The first concept I wish to agree on is therefore the ‘Joined-Up Curriculum‘ – this is self explanatory but it is a curriculum model in which every teacher knows the who, what, when, where, why and how of what they are teaching and that it is in harmony with the who, what, when, where, why and how of all the teachers teaching their subject/s in their school. They receive the baton and, later, they pass it on. They know what happens before, what happens next, how they fit in to this ‘relay’ – the common pursuit and purpose of the ‘way we do things here’.

Therefore these short pieces will accept the importance of the curriculum being ‘joined up’ and see the ‘chaotic curriculum’ as a common enemy to good curriculum design. However, I am conscious of the fact that people have a wide range of different approaches and values which can inform a range of different approaches to curriculum design and in order to help add to the ‘clarity around the language of the curriculum’ I will try to do justice to a number of these different ideas and methods.

This will involve me looking at the current debate at what might constitute a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum, what might be a ‘competency-based’ one, as well as a look at whether ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ are helpful when describing different values behind curriculum design.

Much fun to be had then!


If Teachers Want Confident Pupils They Should Teach Them to Communicate Well

The Sutton Trust report ‘Life Lessons, Improving essential life skills for young people’ (Oct 2017) makes interesting reading. There is much to discuss within its pages. One of the things that stood out for me is the need to teach written and spoken communication ‘skills’* including debate, argument, speech and the art of conversation.

When asked to rank motivation, communication, confidence, self control, ability to cope with stress into a rank order employers put motivation first, closely followed by communication ‘skills’ whereas teachers put a great deal of emphasis on confidence with communication ‘skills’ way behind in third place.

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In the Oxford English Dictionary confidence is described as:

A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.

This implies that confidence arises from something rather than being a prerequisite for something. It is a quality gained from experience. It is not the same as self-esteem or arrogance, confidence can only come from a place in which one has experienced something and knows one can cope. Confidence comes from knowing one can do. Confidence that one can take a further step is due to having the prerequisite ability and knowledge  so that a risk is worth taking – that everything is in place for them so to do.

Why did the teachers surveyed rate confidence so highly and the employers much less so? Maybe the term is meaningless as it can have a wide interpretation as to what it means in practice. But if we put this doubt to one side I feel there might be something worrying about the disparity between the two. Maybe the employers feel that someone who can communicate well can move into a new area (i.e. a job) learn about it and be able to communicate with their colleagues and customers effectively growing in confidence as they learn more. Whereas the teachers feel it is confident children who are more able to learn new stuff.

Yet we have already seen confidence comes from learning rather than the other way round.

And some of the areas of knowledge teachers can teach children successfully is how to communicate eloquently and beautifully. I would be much happier if the graph showed the majority of teachers rating communication above confidence. Way above confidence. Because teachers can teach rhetoric, the whys and wherefores of debate and the knowledge necessary for a pupil to know what they are talking about. Teachers can teach knowledge and get their pupils to really grapple with that knowledge through argument and conversation. And through this children’s appreciation in their abilities will grow. In other words they will become more confident because of good teaching.

The urgency comes in with the realisation that there is a social justice angle to this.

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70% of the least disadvantaged get access to debating, whereas this falls to just over 30% for the most disadvantaged. Importantly, this is about the provision, it doesn’t reflect the take up. The Sutton Trust estimate that:

Young people in the most disadvantaged schools are 13 percentage points more likely to not be involved in any extra-curricular activities than the least disadvantaged schools (45% compared to 32%).

And that take up in schools for extra curricular activities is difficult to judge accurately in the first place. They also suggest that pupils in ‘disadvantaged schools’ are less likely to debate in class and learn how to make speeches and, indeed, write those speeches. And yet it is by learning these essential academic skills that pupils can grow in confidence. Confidence – the life ‘skill’ that, apparently, teachers most value.

Wouldn’t it be great if pupils in ‘disadvantaged’ schools had access to the full range of academic opportunities that come from learning how to communicate their learning effectively?

The spoken word is one of the ways teachers can assess the quality of learning easily and efficiently. It would be a shame if another gap between rich and poor is one of eloquence and whether a pupil is able or unable to join in with the great conversations of our time with confidence.


*I use the word ‘skills’ advisedly in the context of the report calling them ‘skills’. One could argue that the art of communication is about knowing what and how. For e.g. one can learn the art of rhetoric – it is a body of knowledge.

Ofsted and the Curriculum


I have been involved in curriculum designing for over twenty five years, teaching a subject that remains outside the national curriculum has meant I have had a free hand at putting together the intricacies of a curriculum throughout this time. Working as a curriculum consultant over the past five years I have sometimes been out on a limb when it comes to my message that a joined -up curriculum is essential in order to teach children effectively. Some (not most) school leaders, instead, preferred various ways of gaming the system; only today I read of 500 pupils being entered for two different boards’ maths exams for GCSE, this can’t be a good idea for any pupil and can probably add to a pupil’s anxiety at an already stressful time.

I am convinced that a coherent curriculum is one of the central features of any great school and I am equally convinced that, for a variety of reasons, in some schools it has not been given as much a priority as it should.

Some of the reasons why it has not been central are accountability measures, a focus on exams and tests and a belief that the national curriculum is, maybe, sufficient. And, as the HMCI Amanda Spielman points out:

Over time, this competence (the theory that underpins curriculum planning) across the sector ebbed away…

A curriculum is not all timetables and exams, instead it should be the narrative around which a school revolves. That “…for most children, the end of key stage three is the last time they will take art, music, drama or design and technology.” shows the importance of key stages two and three but also, maybe, the need for a broader offer at key stage four and five, where the English Baccalaureate is a poor substitute for the breadth required over these four years.

In her excellent commentary published today Spielman makes the following salient points:

  1. …at the very heart of education sits the vast accumulated wealth of human knowledge and what we choose to impart to the next generation: the curriculum.
  2. …exams should exist in the service of the curriculum rather than the other way round.
  3. …choices need to be made about what to do when, how much depth to pursue, which ideas to link together, what resources to draw on, which way to teach, and how to make sure all pupils are able to benefit as each new concept, construct or fact is taught.
  4. …teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed out and flimsy understanding.
  5. …despite the fact that the curriculum is what is taught, there is little debate or reflection about it.
  6. …there is a lack of clarity around the language of the curriculum.
  7. …the most likely explanation is that this arises from a weak theoretical understanding of curriculum.
  8. Where key stage 3 is curtailed, this means ending study at age 13 rather than 14. Furthermore, access to these subjects is sometimes restricted by how schools set options choices.
  9. …there is scope for intelligent ‘backward planning’ to achieve a coherent curriculum sequence from age 11 to age 16, especially in subjects that are taken by all to age 16. But this should not come at the expense of key stage 3 curriculum breadth and depth: 11/12-year-olds should not be taught to GCSE assessment objectives.
  10. It should also not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils. If a pupil gains valuable knowledge, for instance in history, but does not get a grade 4, they will still be better educated for having studied it.

It is well worth reading her whole commentary. She pays off with the line that she has no doubt that the curriculum research programme: “will shape how we inspect in future.” Maybe this is the stick to come…

In the meantime let’s go with the carrot…

The (apparent) lost art of curriculum design can be revived and a school driven by it at it’s core can be a successful and ethical institution.

Instead of gimmicks and tricks or just chasing short term gains, put your energies into coherent, joined-up curriculum design.



If you are on Facebook you can get involved in my page: Curriculum Conversations

If you are in the north of England you might like to come along to mine and Tom Sherrington’s ‘Powerful Curriculum Design Course’ on Nov. 1st

If you’d like to discuss any aspect of curriculum design with me and find out more about the work I’m doing with schools and MATs please get in touch here

Voice Protection and Projection for Teachers (and for Theresa)…


I felt sorry for Theresa May. Coughing, spluttering, losing your voice whilst trying to retain a semblance of dignity during a speech must have been quite a trial. It is a trial many teachers have been through and will go through. A teacher’s voice is the most important tool in his or her armoury, lose it and it is difficult to teach.

Some of the reactions to Theresa’s performance are typical of any group of children when faced with a teacher who has struggled to retain authority over the class finding herself with a bad cold and a voice that is slowly but determinedly giving up the ghost. For any teacher it would be a trial, for a struggling teacher it is far worse. Yet there are things a teacher can do to stop the situation from getting to that point, a ten point plan for keeping your voice (except in the most extreme circumstances).

I have been giving voice projection and protection classes for teachers for over twenty five years now, a popular day course that can really help teachers be heard and be understood in the biggest classrooms with even the most ‘enthusiastically rowdy’ of classes; these, in no particular order, are my tips for teachers and Theresa for keeping that voice in a better shape.

  1. Speak from the gut, the ‘diaphragm’, breathe deeply, use a lot of air so that the throat doesn’t take the strain. Ensure you take a deep breath before you speak, don’t be afraid of the pause. This should be your normal mode of delivery.
  2. If you have a ‘frog in your throat’ try not to clear your throat, instead put your head back and gulp some air. If May had done this she might have not gone into the spiral of difficulty she went into. Saying that, people would’ve wondered what on earth she was doing…
  3. Open the mouth wide enough to allow yourself to be heard, shaping each word deliberately enjoying both the consonants and the vowels.
  4. If your voice is feeling strained try not to speak too much, maybe set tasks that involve the class in more silent work than usual.
  5. Don’t drink too many caffeine drinks or much alcohol… and don’t smoke…
  6. Do drink water.
  7. Take up singing, especially on the way to work (Hi Ho!) or in the shower. Warms up the voice.
  8. Speak to the person furthest away from you or to an object that is far away at the other side of the room.
  9. Don’t try lots of cough sweets and medicines, some, if used a lot, can make your throat drier.
  10. Stand or sit positively, not slouched and use gestures and facial expressions to emphasise what you’re saying.

oh and make sure any display work is firmly attached to the walls.

Good luck!

Knowledge Belongs to the Many, Not the Few


Angela Rayner’s speech to the Labour Party conference contained many interesting ideas. The National Education Service, of course, echoes the UK’s beloved NHS:

The next Labour Government will create a National Education Service, a cradle-to-grave system supporting everyone throughout their lives. It would start in the early years, where we know it has the most impact in changing people’s lives – just like my life was changed by a Labour Government.

And Rayner’s backstory is an important one, secondary modern, left school at sixteen, is as much a part of our school experience as left school at 18 with three A levels to go to Russell Group Uni.

The idea of education starting through Sure Start centres – maybe helping children to read and write and do number early on is a pertinent one.

To never give up on children, on people, is also important, again Rayner refers to her own experiences:

Workplace education meant we had the chance to learn more and earn more. Other people need that chance. So, our National Education Service will be lifelong, providing for people at every stage of their life.

This idea of lifelong learning is a vital one. I think every business and industry should either provide training or give employees the time and the wherewithal to study. Rayner wishes to start the conversation about what a National Education Service would be like:

I look forward to that conversation, to visiting schools, colleges, and universities, to talking to pupils, parents, teachers, and businesses, so we can truly build a National Education Service for the many, and not just the few.

This brought her to the strongest part of her speech:

The Labour Party was founded to ensure that the workers earned the full fruit of their labour.  Well, the sum of human knowledge is the fruit of thousands of years of human labour. The discoveries of maths and science; the great works of literature and art; the arc of human and natural history itself; and so much more that there is to learn. All of it should be our common inheritance. Because knowledge belongs to the many, not the few.

This is our historic purpose as a movement. Not just to be a voice for the voiceless.

But to give them a voice of their own. That is the challenge we face. And it is what we will do, together.

This is exactly what education is for. I heard no-one shout Rayner down with calls of: ‘Whose knowledge? Whose inheritance?’ In these concluding remarks she embodied all that is best in the great liberal arts tradition, the great works, knowledge for the many and giving them a voice of their own.

And yet later that same day in Tom Watson’s speech we heard a call for a very different kind of education:

In an age when every child has access to all the knowledge that has ever existed on a device that fits in the palm of their hand, just teaching them to memorise thousands of facts is missing the point. Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms were a useless return to the past – obsessed by what children can remember, instead of how they use the knowledge they have.

The confusion here seems to be about memory and ‘having’ knowledge. Having a device in one’s pocket doesn’t mean ‘having’ that knowledge, just as sleeping with a dictionary under your pillow doesn’t mean you’ll become highly articulate overnight. A child, indeed an adult, does have to learn something and this means committing learning to memory – Gove notwithstanding.

We don’t yet know what the jobs of the future will be, so we’ve got to teach children not just what to learn but how to learn. And how to be. Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning. Transferable skills they can adapt as the new world swirls around them.

In this part of his speech Watson reminds us of the problematic 2007 National Curriculum, where skills and the unlikely nature of their easy transferability is to be suddenly absorbed by children who will, no doubt, ‘have’ these skills in a downloadable form from their phones.

Watson wants our kids to be educated for the unknown:

economy of the future.

Where… Angela Rayner… will lead an education system that prepares our young people for a world we can’t yet see.

A utopian hope built through utilitarian means.

The next Labour Government will educate and train a nation of workers that are the most creative and adaptive on the planet. We’ll give working people the tools to use technology to enhance their lives, rather than restricting them to a digital elite.

The digital economy succeeds only when it gives each of us the means to realise our true potential. Which doesn’t stop in our schools. It must be threaded throughout our economy, throughout our lives.

This is not education, it is training. It is an apprenticeship in becoming working fodder for the needs of business. But business should be providing this. Training for jobs that do or don’t exist should be provided by companies throughout a person’s life, training and retraining them. Yes Government can help with this – it might be a National Training Service – but it’s not a national education service.

Education is about the quality of a human life, it examines what it is to be human in this world. It teaches knowledge that should belong to the many and not the few, this is truly a great hope but if Labour are to return to Government I worry that instead of teaching the great books and thoughts they will, instead, insist on a second rate diet of scientism in which:

Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning

take the place of

the sum of human knowledge [from] the fruit of thousands of years of human labour

Please don’t let this be so.


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An innocent tweet? Apparently, for some, it was all too much. Comments about rows instead of groups, chairs facing one way and not the other followed… and ‘seating plans’ it became a proxy battleground for traditional and progressive minded teachers to make their points. Our tweeter even got called an abuser and a probable victim of abuse… I kid you not…

anyway, my view:

The first classroom I taught in was, actually, a school hall. Through the windows was a view of a tower block. I was told to teach the class away from the windows because the ‘bullet’ holes in the windows were caused by a disgruntled ex-pupil who lived in the flats and was taking pot shots at the school with whatever calibre of BB gun he possessed.

The last classroom I taught in was a ‘black box’ where the entire room was painted black and heavy black curtains covered the windows which, in any case were over six foot off the ground. So ‘views’ were not really my thing, most of the time.

As for chairs and tables…

I didn’t have them. A seating plan was an odd thing in my mind. Chairs and tables were scary enough, when I had to teach a cover lesson in a classroom I was struck by how little freedom the teacher had to move around and how easy it was for pupils to ‘hide’ what they were doing.

Teachers who explain the seating plan is so they can get to know the names of the children might have a point, it was always a struggle to get to know everyone’s name, especially as, in the drama room, the little actors were always changing their names – to fit with the character they were playing. Nightmare. But getting to know the name isn’t about them sitting in the same place and reading it off a plan pinned to a teacher’s desk – it is about remembering who they are… making an effort. Difficult, much easier to call every kid ‘darling’ but that was a step too ‘dramary’ for me… so i’d just point and shout: “You…!” Although I would alternate between choosing groups and pairs and allowing friendship groups and pairs mostly it was done by chance – who was near who after another activity. Final groups for a long term group project were always done in negotiation between the pupils and me.

Later I purchased some ‘seminar chairs’ for moments of writing and a white board on wheels; I positioned both the chairs and white board in different areas of the room depending on whim. In the end, habit meant this became a usual place. And in our sixth form ‘seminar’ room, the seats faced a board with the students backs to the windows. Made sense in so many ways.

It is interesting how our views are shaped and exposed in such unguarded moments as planning a classroom layout and/or writing a seating plan. The teacher who tweeted the ‘view’ from her classroom is most probably an excellent teacher, with a fixed whiteboard, with an excellent point of view, and her classroom layout might express her darker purpose… teaching and learning are important acts that need focus and concentration… on the subject being taught.


The Need for a Progressive Attitude


In her thoughtful essay ‘The Crisis in Education’, Hannah Arendt addresses the difficulty of teaching in the modern world. If you go into teaching with the sole purpose of making a real difference, changing the world one child at a time, you might end up doing nothing of the sort.

A revolutionary or radical attitude is needed in the adult realm because we always need to remake our world. The world is always on the verge of ruin and a traditionalist conservative view where one stands and merely ‘admires the ruins’ will do nothing to make the world a great inheritance for our children.

We should try to make the world a better place than it is. Always. This doesn’t mean an unalloyed progressive mindset is a good thing. It does mean that our arguments are continual, our disagreements fundamental and our need to work together essential. Education has an important role in this, we need to prepare children to take part in the conversations, the arguments and help them develop the wherewithal to do, to contribute and to make change.

In order to do this one can imagine the unthinking classroom being full of novelty, in which the ruins are not examined and the future is always in sight. A classroom that shapes the new utopia and children practice the skills with which they will actively make their contribution. A room where their will is the authority and in which the teacher has the role of guiding them, responding to their playful desires and wishes. This world, shaped by the teacher’s idealism, and the burgeoning youthful enthusiasm will not be tainted by the old.

Here then is the paradox, this world that comes into being will not be radical, as it will have no root. Shaped by a tyranny of the present, it won’t understand the ruins it knocks down to build its gleaming new pathways and concrete blocks – or even the blocks it is cladding. Arendt sees the role of the teacher as a difficult one for an idealist, for the teacher’s job is to bring the past into the realm of the young:

To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity… But this holds good only for the realm of education, or rather for the relations between grown-ups and children, and not for the realm of politics, where we act among and with adults and equals. In politics this conservative attitude–which accepts the world as it is, striving only to preserve the status quo–can only lead to destruction, because the world, in gross and in detail, is irrevocably delivered up to the ruin of time unless human beings are determined to intervene, to alter, to create what is new…

Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation… Because the world is made by mortals it wears out… The problem is simply to educate in such a way that a setting–right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured. Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look. Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world, which, however revolutionary its actions may be, is always, from the standpoint of the next generation, superannuated and close to destruction…

the modern crisis is especially hard for the educator to bear, because it is his task to mediate between the old and the new, so that his very profession requires of him an extraordinary respect for the past. 

If, however the teacher is determined to make the child make the future in a certain way by dictating the terms of the newness of the world that they make we defeat our darker purpose. The child cannot be told how to draw the new world, they can however be painted pictures of the old one, and these pictures must be painted with warts and all. Cromwell is a great example, hugely important figure, hugely flawed and the English Civil War and its ramifications painted in as many shades of grey one can muster.

As the past isn’t one story but a continuation of one damn argument after another, children should be made aware of these arguments, that we admire ruins but the reason that they are ruins might be this… or this… we conserve in order to learn. We treat the pupil as a stranger to these facts and fictions we teach and by presenting arguments, dialectic, we give them the old world to ensure they will be able to intervene, alter and create the new.

The balance between presenting the old and the arguments within is a careful act. This includes, for example, what should be read and how it should be read. These questions are vital when considering the design of a curriculum and if we listen to the words of Arendt we are helped in our choices.

The trivium curriculum gives shape to these choices – the grammar – ‘the structures, the ‘ruins’ of the past, are examined in context, and, later, examined when the arguments of the past and the present are brought to bear, and, finally, the pupil, with this knowledge, is given the wherewithal, the ‘voice’ with which to express herself. She expresses herself freely within the constraints offered, by accepting or rejecting these chains (or degrees thereof) and offers herself up to the criticism of her teacher and, eventually, her peers. This is a truly progressive approach, rooted in the past.