The DfE's obsession with ED Hirsch

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
SecEd editor, Pete Henshaw
“we see ministers blithely pronouncing on, for example, the balance between knowledge and skills ...

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Have we redesigned our entire national curriculum simply because one man read a book in 2005? SecEd editor Pete Henshaw on the Department for Education’s obsession with Professor ED Hirsch

American writer Professor ED Hirsch recently visited the UK, during which time he delivered three speeches – the first time he has spoken on these shores.

The visit was notable because of his overarching influence on the reformed national curriculum in England. Prof Hirsch, of course, is renowned for his work on the importance of knowledge and cultural capital. His assertion is that a traditional, academic approach to schooling is the most effective way of raising standards.

His influence over the thinking of ministers within the Department for Education (DfE) is clear – including on previous education secretary Michael Gove and certainly on schools minister Nick Gibb.

One of Prof Hirsch’s addresses came at the think-tank Policy Exchange, which published series of essays to accompany the occasion (see http://bit.ly/1PuZEtt). The first of these is supplied by Mr Gibb himself. It reveals the extent to which our schools minister – and therefore our new national curriculum – has been influenced by one person’s view of education.

Mr Gibb describes reading Prof Hirsch’s The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them on the beach while on holiday in 2005 after he was first appointed a shadow minister. He describes how Prof Hirsch became his “tutor” as he learnt the language of education.

In what to me is a stunning statement, Mr Gibb writes: “A familiarity with Hirsch serves me with perhaps the easiest indicator that someone in education ‘gets it’ when it comes to understanding curriculum and pedagogy.”

He then provides an example of this influence: “To the uninformed outsider, ‘independent learning’, ‘learning to learn’, and ‘individualised instruction’ all sound misleadingly like reasonable ideas. However, reading Hirsch provided me with the mental armour to see these ideas for what they were.”

Mr Gibb’s argument for the Hirschian way is eloquent and – at times – persuasive. And of course he has the right to his view. What I don’t think he has a right to do, however, is to allow the writings of one man to so completely influence the national curriculum. Many, including me, would say he has no right to dictate the curriculum at all.

Many years ago, governments would not have even dreamed of interfering, but today, as the ever-engaging Gerald Haigh puts so well in his latest article (see page 11), “we see ministers blithely pronouncing on, for example, the balance between knowledge and skills and the most effective ways to teach reading – issues which have no easy answers and properly belong in the field of sustained, open debate among professionals”.

In the same series of essays, Professor Chris Husbands, director of UCL’s Institute of Education, writes equally eloquently about three historical strands of curriculum debate – the Hirschian way of “a critical mass of enabling knowledge over 13 years of schooling”; the child-centred progressivism promoted by American philosopher John Dewey; and the importance of skills and application within the curriculum, often advocated by the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher.

Prof Husbands writes: “Early 21st century curriculum policy can perhaps best be seen as a titanic struggle between these three fundamentally opposed traditions. It’s not at all clear where the argument will go.

He continues: “One of the obvious features of the argument is that it is largely evidence free: it is a battle of noisy disputation, characterised by authors who swap their own certainties based on individual prejudice, barely evidenced assertion and competing power bases. Curriculum debates are devoid of the sort of hard evidence which is routinely deployed in discussions of attainment, school performance or social mobility, and they are much the poorer for that.”

Of course, regular readers will know that I disagree with both Prof Hirsch and Mr Gibb. My views, I suppose, lie somewhere between Hirsch and Schleicher. However, this is not really about agreement or disagreement. This is not, in fact, about opinions. As a national curriculum shouldn’t be. It should be about evidence.

I have written previously about the DfE’s distinctly poor track record of justifying its policies with evidence, and I am afraid its new curriculum falls into this category.

Reading Mr Gibb’s essay has left me with strong feelings of disquiet. Have we effectively reconstructed our national curriculum and discounted all other arguments and debates about all other possible approaches to education simply because one minister read a book on a beach in 2005?


Comments
“we see ministers blithely pronouncing on, for example, the balance between knowledge and skills and the most effective ways to teach reading – issues which have no easy answers and properly belong in the field of sustained, open debate among professionals”. I agree - but I would say that until recently there was an "orthodoxy" in education and certain ideas were not subjected to proper scrutiny. I have been teaching for 20 years, but only got to hear about Hirsch's work recently. How many schools have ever had an INSET day discussing his ideas, I wonder? I don't agree with a lot that Michael Gove did (performance related pay and tearing up the workforce agreement for example), but I believe there should be a proper debate on the three strands mentioned and at least it is now acceptable to challenge previously held orthodoxies such as "learning styles", 21st century skills" and "discovery learning"
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