Andy Burnham yesterday announced at the Labour Conference plans for a ‘Modern baccalaureate’ that offers a different model of achievement to Michael Gove’s English Bacc. The qualification, which would allow a much broader scope of subjects than Gove’s, and would also place emphasis on developing life skills and capabilities, is a ray of hope for educationalists who feel Coalition policies are sending us not ‘back to basics’, but simply backwards.
Leading academics have been working for decades to reform education so that it is in line with the needs of individuals in the modern world. Some of this has crystallised into the 21st Century Learning Initiative. It has been pointed out again and again that a traditional content-based curriculum supports a notion of school as a place where children learn to sit still and do as they are told – preparation for work in a factory, not in the twenty-first century world where basic tasks can be done by machines and creativity and innovation are prized skills.
It has been forty years since academics at Harvard’s Graduate school of Education began trying to devise methods of teaching that would enhance actual understanding of content – what are sometimes called ‘thinking skills’. One of the leaders of this movement, David Perkins, has recently retired from teaching, and when reflecting on the impediments that prevent school from taking up these methods, first and foremost came government policy. The USA is still under the grips of ‘No Child Left Behind’, where teachers are under immense pressure to improve basic test scores, and feel they cannot give time to open-ended teaching practices. Here in the U.K. we have a similar problem: as long as we keep ranking schools according to the test, there will be teachers who do no more than teach to it.
Some countries have made more effort to try and update their education policies, not least Scotland, where Perkins’ ideas are a core part of the Curriculum for Excellence. Skills such as problem-solving and creative thinking are given a nod amongst the platitudes of England’s national curriculum ‘aims’, but this is not currently reflected in our methods of assessment. The EBacc has done nothing to improve that situation: it is still perfectly possible to achieve this ‘gold standard’ with traditional spoon-feeding. This is not to say no teachers in Britain ‘teach thinking’ – many no doubt try to – but they are given no specific encouragement by their system. The exclusion of R.S. from the EBacc was a particular blow to the prospect of developing reflective, open-minded students.
Burnham’s ‘ModBacc’ offers hope because it places engagement at the centre. The crucial role of schools in the 21st century is to turn pupils into life-long learners. This means giving them the scope to discover and pursue their own interests. Gove introduced the Ebacc in the name of common standards and common knowledge, and these things are important to some, but they can never be achieved if the pupils aren’t on board. Burnham’s is a proposal better suited to our time and nation.
• Gove is the roadblock to Burnham’s calls of aspiration, aspiration, aspiration – Alex Hern, September 29th 2011
• Fees, cuts… Is this what Cameron means by “giving young people back their future”? – Shamik Das, September 14th 2011
• Yet again the detractors seek to undermine GCSE results – Kevin Courtney, August 25th 2011
• League tables show Gove’s lack of ambition on underperforming schools – Rick Muir, January 13th 2011