Battle in Print: For subject-centred education: 1. the case for subjects

David Perks, 22 October 2010

These six essays are written by members of the Institute of Ideas’ Education Forum. They make the case for subject-centred education. Whilst the Lib-Con coalition nominally supports a return to subject-centred teaching, there’s in fact little coherence or sense of direction to their educational strategy. More specifically, we believe subject-centred education should be defended as a method of transmitting knowledge and understanding to new generations. It should be driven by an aspiration to create a society of truly educated citizens, and foster greater intellectual autonomy and freedom for everybody.

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1. The case for subjects

There’s been one consistent theme in educational reform over the past thirteen years: an attack on knowledge in the school curriculum. Despite moans about declining standards, the real effect of these reforms has passed largely unnoticed. Reducing the content to be tested was supposed to make space for more flexible forms of assessment, such as modular examinations and coursework. But like the spread of an educational form of death watch beetle, the decay reaches a point where large sections of the educational framework suddenly fall away.

The attack on liberal education

One extreme example is the recent re-write of the key stage three science national curriculum for 11-13 year olds. Rather than being tested on their knowledge of physics, chemistry and biology, pupils are now assessed on ‘how science works’. This comprises a bizarre collection of ideas, including a critique of the experimental method and appreciation of the limits of scientific knowledge. If this weren’t bad enough, the disease has spread throughout the teaching profession. Railroaded by Ofsted - the schools inspectorate - teachers are remoulded as facilitators. They help pupils learn how to learn, rather than teaching a subject. The deconstruction of pedagogy is so complete that to tell a new teacher the most important thing for children is teaching them something is to indulge a dirty secret. According to inspectors, it’s more important to let pupils play games and assess each other’s work.

We’ve reached the point where teaching pupils anything intellectually demanding means being classed a failing teacher. According to Ofsted, if every pupil doesn’t show progress in a lesson, the lesson is a failure. Being a good teacher thus amounts to asking children to tell you what they already know. Teaching all students academic subjects is a distant memory in schools. The standard achievement for sixteen year olds in English schools is a GCSE in mathematics and English, along with a mixture of pseudo-vocational qualifications rated as equivalent to four or more GCSEs.

Whether it’s the attack on knowledge or a general flight from academic subjects, the idea state schools in particular should offer a grammar school curriculum for all is long gone. So has comprehensive education’s aspiration to open up the best for every child. Instead, the grammar school curriculum is considered an elitist paradigm, suited to the managerial and political classes but not ordinary citizens. Why study mathematics when functional mathematics will do? Why study science if you’re not going to become a scientist but a consumer of science? Abstract thinking is dismissed as useless for the average citizen.

The charge that a traditional liberal education based on the sciences, humanities, languages and the arts is the prerogative of the cultural elite alone is another way of saying young people are bored by an education irrelevant to their lives. This attack on liberal education belies a deeply pessimistic view of ordinary people. Thinking about ideas is not for them. Rather, the cultural elite will think about ordinary people’s needs on their behalf.

Liberal education is a conservative project

But the truth is education doesn’t have the power to emancipate people from oppression. It doesn’t tell them how to change the world. And it certainly can’t substitute for the political class’s lack of a political programme. What it can and must do is provide the foundation for understanding the world we live in.

At root, this means understanding what we already know. The transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next isn’t a foregone conclusion. It’s possible to forget. This has been consciously attempted over the last century by those dictators who’ve systematically tried to eradicate whole areas of learning. But we’ve yet to witness such a calculated withdrawal from educating the mass of people in a Western democracy. What we have isn’t a conspiracy against those deemed unworthy of a good education, but rather a loss of faith in education in general. This undermines our ability to transmit knowledge per se. This is the collateral damage of using education to repair social inequalities rather than educating the next generation.

The recent election in the UK opens up the possibility of taking a deep breath. We can reconsider what education means and what our schools should do. Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, made it clear he wants a debate about the nature of education, and to see a return of the subject-based curriculum. This is encouraging. But the Conservatives’ case for subject-based education sounds a little hollow. Concerns over ‘access’ and ‘social inclusion’ still predominate the ideas put forward by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education. Even the reform of the National Curriculum includes a predictable call to reduce its content and give teachers space to decide how to deliver it. The omens are not good unless we can make a positive case in favour of liberal education for everybody.

Making such a case lies at the heart of a conservative project. We live in a moment when institutions of all kinds are drawn into question as the old political certainties have dissolved away. But worshipping ‘change’ as Barack Obama and Ed Miliband would have us do means blaming everything on the past. In education, as in politics, this is also the case. Justified in the name of social inclusion or anti-elitism, old educational ideas are being swept away. But the foundations of our knowledge of the world remain as true today as they have done for the past hundred years or so of formal state education. The ‘information age’ does not make Ohm’s Law redundant or Shakespeare irrelevant. Google may be able to translate phrases but it can’t replace learning a language and its literature.

Passing on the torch of the Enlightenment

The key to educating pupils is giving them a framework for understanding what we know about the world. Education is the study of our collective knowledge and how we know what we know. This means studying subjects in the context of how our understanding evolved. This has happened through systematising knowledge into disciplines, each with its own coherence and methods. For example, the great advances in modern biology and its emergence as a separate discipline arose through the Prussian invention of the modern research laboratory and the systematic application of the use of the microscope to study living organisms. This work led to the discovery of the cell, the fundamental unit of life. Subjects are at once historical accidents and the product of systematic attempts to pursue knowledge. To dismiss this is to dismiss the huge advances we’ve made in comprehending the world around us.

The basis for a liberal education is to be able to explain how we have come as far as we have. It involves passing on the torch of enlightenment to the next generation, so it isn’t snuffed out by ignorance. The key to achieving this is to take pupils seriously when we engage them with these ideas. That means not just having a passion for your subject but being an evangelist for the ideals of the enlightenment. This is the project we face if we are to salvage education for the next generation.


head of physics, Graveney School; co-founder The Physics Factory; lead author, What is Science Education For?

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