England: The home of rote-learning

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers

England’s national curriculum is no longer fit-for-purpose, argues Dr Mary Bousted

Did you know that England tops the league table of rote-learning in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)? More time is spent in English classrooms preparing for tests and less time is spent on learning.

This is no surprise to me. I only have to think about the test mania which is currently engulfing both primary and secondary schools, and the angst of teachers who do not have the information they need either on the test format, or the pass mark.

(And this is before I consider the government’s incompetence and the small matter of the key stage 1 spelling test proudly displayed on the Standards and Testing Agency’s website months before it was due to be sat by 700,000 seven-year-olds.)

While we are top of the league in test memorisation, it is not the premiere, or even the championship, rather the bottom division where all the top players don’t want to be.

Andreas Schleicher, the international educationalist and director for education and skills and special advisor on education policy to the secretary-general at the OECD, recently wrote a summary of what is needed from a 21st century curriculum.

He argues that the demands on learners, and on education systems, are evolving quickly. “In the past,” he writes, “education was primarily about teaching people something; now, it’s about making sure that students develop a reliable compass and the navigation skills to find their own way through an increasingly uncertain, volatile and ambiguous world.”

And if the demands on high-performing education systems are evolving, so too, argues Mr Schleicher, should our thinking on the core role of teachers. He writes: “A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would equip their students with the skills needed for the rest of their lives. Today, teachers need to prepare students for more rapid economic and social change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve social problems that haven’t arisen before.’’

All the indicators reveal the truth of Mr Schleicher’s words. Today’s generation of young people face a hugely uncertain future. They are almost certainly going to have many more jobs through their careers than their parents, with more uncertain employment prospects, and weaker employment protection.

The rush to mechanise jobs previously done by humans (just think of the automatic checkout machines in shops) means that low-skilled, repetitive work is likely to become a thing of the past, done by machines and robots rather than human beings. These facts are very challenging, and have massive implications for what our young people need to be equipped with throughout their schooling.

As Mr Schleicher writes: “Put simply, the world no longer rewards people just for what they know – Google knows more every day – but for what they can do with what they know.”

Young people need, and deserve, an education system which promotes far more than memorisation and the accumulation of discrete areas of knowledge. The Confederation of British Industry, the major employers’ body, has asked Nicky Morgan to conduct a major and fundamental review of the 14 to 19 curriculum.

John Cridland, its previous director-general, argued strongly that a curriculum dominated by exams, which does not encourage the practical application of knowledge, cross-curricular links, the soft skills of team-work, good communication skills and character qualities such as resilience and independence, is not fit for the 21st century.

Yet Ms Morgan has argued that the new, “rigorous” key stage 3 and 4 curriculum will prepare adolescents for their adult lives. I do not agree with this proposition.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Visit www.atl.org.uk


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