The curriculum debate: Focusing on the wrong things?


Everyone is talking about the curriculum and what schools should be teaching – but Marion Gibbs says we have a habit of focusing on the wrong things.

It seems to be “open season” on the secondary curriculum again. On the one hand, we have the current consultation on the key stage 4 curriculum, and on the other, a host of other, apparently essential, topics are being suggested as vital to ensuring that young people are properly educated and prepared for life after school.

Recently, we have had the announcement that cookery should become compulsory for all from primary school to age 14. It is not that long ago that cookery rooms throughout the land were removed and their space reallocated to design technology. We no longer have a sufficient supply of trained cookery teachers and its successor, food technology, is not the same subject. 

The reason that cookery is being promoted is because, in spite of the seemingly endless and highly popular cookery programmes on TV and the high profile celebrity chefs, Britain has apparently become a country where almost no one knows how to prepare a meal from fresh ingredients, and obesity is rampant. 

Not to mention that “ready meals” have now become even more suspect. Not so long ago we were being told that pies, sausages and other processed meats contained the material which was pressure-hosed off carcasses, so horse steak might be a genuine improvement in terms of nutrition. 

It is true, however, that the percentage of obese and very overweight youngsters is increasing. Schools seem to be being seen as the solution, when in fact pupils are at school for only a few hours each day, Monday to Friday and term-time only. Should not families be involved, too?

Once again, responsibility for solving the nation’s ills is being given to schools. We are also told that schools should ban packed lunches (as parents cannot be trusted to provide healthy packed lunches) and should not allow pupils to go off the premises, but provide compulsory healthy school lunches for all. Our school does provide very healthy and enjoyable school lunches, which almost all the staff and the vast majority of pupils choose to eat, but we do not ban packed lunches. We retain the spirit of independence.

Another recent announcement indicates that school PE needs reforming because pupils are not exerting themselves enough. Ironic, perhaps, at a time when the budget for school sport partnerships has been slashed and many schools are struggling to find the physical space to teach any PE.

The campaign to include compulsory financial education for all secondary age pupils is also continuing. Recently, too, there have been suggestions that all pupils should be trained in first aid. 

I have no problem with supporting the idea that our young people should grow up fit, healthy, financially literate and understanding how to help others, but why is it only schools that should have to take responsibility for such things? 

Moreover, all this is happening at a time when many well established school subjects, such as art, drama, music and business studies, are fighting for a place in the curriculum. Can we really be expected to fit a quart into a pint pot and to do it well?

In the near future, all 17-year-olds will have to stay on in education and soon afterwards the compulsory school leaving age will increase to 18. Yet I have seen very little evidence of any proposals or debate as to what sort of curriculum or activities we should be providing for those who previously would have left school at 16. 

That is a pressing issue, but one which is being overlooked. It would make an ideal topic for a genuine consultation with schools, colleges, teachers and young people themselves, but I suppose that there is too little time left now for such a process. We seem to have a special talent in this country for focusing on the wrong issues!

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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