Let’s stand up for subjects

Michael Young and David Lambert

Each curriculum subject contains a different way of understanding the world. Access to this ‘powerful knowledge’ for every pupil should form the basis for any curriculum. This is the central argument of our new book, Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice, which we have written in collaboration with secondary headteacher Carolyn Roberts and former head Martin Roberts.

The book engages directly with and moves beyond the increasingly sterile debate between the former Secretary of State, Michael Gove, with his ticklists of facts, and those of his vociferous antagonists in the education community who argue that process is far more important than content.

Although expressed through subjects, the ‘powerful knowledge’ curriculum bears little relationship to the Gradgrind ‘curriculum of the dead’ that critics of a subject-based curriculum tend to envisage.

Our book draws on recent developments in the sociology of education as well as the experience of current heads and classroom teachers to argue that, far from discriminating against disadvantaged pupils, as many educationists claim, a subject-based curriculum for all pupils up to the age of 16, beginning in the primary school (although the book does not address this explicitly) is the only basis for a more socially just education system. In a modern knowledge economy which will never again employ more than a tiny number of young school leavers, there is no moral or educational case for a differentiated curriculum pre-16.

At a time of acute political uncertainty and with a General Election less than a year way, our book lays down challenges to both major political parties and to the educational community as a whole. The Conservative Party endorses both a subject-based curriculum and “equal opportunities for young people, no matter what their background or family circumstances”. In 2014, few would disagree, at least, in principle. However as long as a significant proportion of schools lack qualified graduate teachers in all the core subjects and therefore the capacity to engage with ‘powerful knowledge’, such an endorsement remains little more than empty rhetoric.

For the Labour Party on the other hand, the challenge is to move from their hesitant defence of comprehensive schools and accept the logic of the principle of comprehensive education – that it implies a comprehensive (common) curriculum for all, at least up to the age of 16.

To the school teachers, the book poses the biggest challenges of all. It asks them to reclaim their professionalism and express it in schools and that are knowledge-led. A re-thought Royal College of Teaching, modeled on the medical colleges, might well be the appropriate way forward. Freed from the heavy hand of the former QCDA and, for many, the constraints of the outgoing National Curriculum, the senior staff of schools and subject departments, in association with subject associations, have the opportunity to assert a new professionalism as curriculum leaders.

Our book seeks to capture a modern version of the vision which, in various forms, has long been part of both Left and Centre educational traditions. It can be traced back to such politically diverse figures as Edward Boyle, Antonio Gramsci and Matthew Arnold. However, our vision will go the way of Michael Gove’s unless we win the hearts and minds of those who can make such a vision a reality.

This book therefore is primarily directed to those senior staff in schools, the subject leaders, and of course the student teachers, who will bear the main responsibility for what we hope will be ‘the future school’ and its knowledge-led curriculum. Without their support, such a vision will easily become little more than a footnote in English educational history.

Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice will be published by Bloomsbury on September 25

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
4 comments on “Let’s stand up for subjects
  1. […] access’ to resources with the power to make significant changes in their lives. He has a new book coming out that is intended to elaborate his position for students on ITE courses and I would urge you to read […]

  2. Miss Honey says:

    Whose knowledge is to form the basis of this curriculum? Who will choose what knowledge is to be taught and whose values will that choice embody? Or is it that you believe that there is such a thing as value free knowledge? Somehow, I don’t think people are naive enough to fall for that one again.

  3. John Oversby says:

    I think the idea of subjects being embodied in curriculum subjects is old-fashioned and too restricting. This is why subjects such as climate change are fragmented over so many subjects that it is difficult to see a coherent and progressive picture, unless it fits the early 20th century notion of what is a subject.This needs much more deep and radical thinking than this blog suggests.

    • David Lambert says:

      Thanks for your comment John. You make a category mistake, I think: climate change is not a ‘subject’. There are many other issues and challenges like climate change (many of them linked to climate change): growing and distributing food; bringing peace to the Middle East; devolution and rebalancing the British economy; controlling the Ebola outbreak … the list is long. So, which of these would you teach (in addition to climate change)? On what basis would you select?

      The book the blog refers to is about the right of all young people to a high quality general education. As well as providing access to further study and training this is in my view a necessary platform on which any intelligent conversation about the future can take place. Subjects offer a coherent way to organise this. It really is nothing to do with ‘fashion’. So maybe another category mistake is to think it is the responsibility of schools to resolve the issues and challenges presented by climate change!

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