I recently participated in a symposium on education where the following question was asked. “What impact, if any, does schooling have on life in the real world?” There was no shortage of answers, particularly from the many secondary school pupils present. However, two words dominated their responses: “boring” and “irrelevant”.
I was somewhat taken aback by this. What a scathing condemnation of a system costing hundreds of millions of pounds each year and which is supposedly the bedrock on which our society operates.
I began to ask myself whether the national curriculum, the “holy cow” of our educational system, is really fit for purpose today. Is it really meeting the needs of pupils in our schools?
Time and again the finger of blame for the ills in the education system is pointed at teachers, which is unfair. Teachers can only work with the resources, students and physical conditions they are given. It would be like a supermarket blaming its sales staff for a downturn in profits. The onus for providing the right materials, including the curriculum, is surely on the government and its agencies.
While successive education secretaries have tampered with the curriculum, pupil behaviour has deteriorated and professional disillusionment among teachers has never been higher. Surely the real challenge is to offer a curriculum that is of interest to the youngsters of today, a programme that will spark their curiosity, grab their attention and be an attractive alternative to the street.
What is required is a programme which resonates with the challenges pupils will encounter as adults in modern society. Here is my blueprint for a different kind of national curriculum.
1 LITERACY AND NUMERACY
Literacy and numeracy must be at the heart of any curriculum. Without these skills, a child will be handicapped and become an increasing liability to society. However, the English curriculum should focus exclusively on literacy skills. Our youngsters do not see the relevance of studying the literary masters such as Shakespeare. Similarly in maths, the emphasis should be on acquiring basic computation skills, leaving more complex areas as a choice for those who wish to further their knowledge in it.
The technological age in which we live would make it appear essential for every child to become computer literate. As the PC is today’s major channel of communication throughout the world, school leavers are expected to be able to access it and master its intricacies. The Department of Education has already recognised this and a result ICT has become a key study area in most British schools.
3 ROAD SAFETY
Road deaths are now the number one killer of young people in the world between the ages of 10 and 24. In spite of this annual carnage, it is surprising schools do not include in their curriculum a compulsory study of road safety, driving skills and vehicle maintenance. I would like to see senior secondary pupils study all of these as a mandatory subject, including learning to drive in specially designed driving centres.
4 FIRST AID
I would guess almost everyone is faced at some point in life with a situation involving an accident or injury, be it of a minor nature or something more serious. It would therefore seem to me eminently sensible if pupils in secondary schools were trained to become first-aiders as part and parcel of their school curriculum.
5 LIFE SKILLS
Like everyone else I had to learn about practical life skills through trial and error. Whether it was understanding the process for buying or renting a home including legal issues, purchaser and vendor rights, insurance etc, or dealing with house maintenance such as electricity and gas supply or insulation, I was never given any guidance or education in these areas. If schools purport to be the training ground for adult society, then surely a mandatory course in “Living as an Adult” should be included in the curriculum.
For the majority of pupils who are not stimulated by the academic focus of the national curriculum, there appears little for them to take from the classroom into adult life. A course designed to teach the mechanics of “making money” would hold a strong appeal to the 75 per cent or so who do not achieve GCSE success and who make up many of the “absentees” on the school register.
As statistics have shown that more than three-quarters of all juvenile crime is money-related, why not offer secondary-school pupils an opportunity to engage in business activities — such as establishing a school-based business, or working in harness with a current trader or being seconded to a financial enterprise.
7 HEALTH EDUCATION
Obesity has serious implications for the future wellbeing of our children.
Although PE currently features on the list of mandatory subjects in the national curriculum, in most schools it is no more than a token gesture on offer once a week. If we are to reverse this unhealthy trend then PE and sport, to include physical science, must be given more time.
8 COMMUNITY SERVICE
One of the saddest sights in modern times is to witness the transformation from a selfless to a selfish society. The improved living standards that so many enjoy today have carried in their wake a rejection of the “sharing and caring” attitude that was prevalent in the difficult post-war years.
The “me first, you nowhere” attitude and the stampede for material acquisition at the expense of others is now king. When youngsters see in virtually every walk of life money rules, it is no wonder an appreciation of academia and the arts cannot compete.
A number of schools I have visited (Jewish and non-Jewish) proudly refer to the voluntary work their pupils do in raising money for good causes. I would like to see this taken much further. Every child, at least at secondary school, should select a community project and their work on it be formally assessed and graded.
My curriculum is based on current practical needs rather than on a traditional and increasingly abused ideal. Foundation subjects such as history, geography or art should continue to be available as choices for those with a real desire to study them. For those not so inclined, why not offer them an alternative — a programme to tickle their entrepreneurial impulses, allow them a good dose of physical activity, and give them the feeling that what they are doing, whether as a paramedic or welfare worker, has real value and benefit for them and for others?
Michael Cohen is an education consultant who specialises in the strictly Orthodox Jewish sector