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Marking and Curriculum

Below I have outlined some of the changes we have made that some have shown an interest in over the course of the year. Whilst relatively brief (I will try to develop full length posts on each as further reflections/evaluations points occur), I hope it might prove of interest in outlining key changes we have made to marking and curriculum. There is another blog to be written on changes to behaviour and rewards policy (though do check on the recent post on the St. Cuthbert Award), though I have left it out here, mostly for reasons of time. Anyway, all feedback/questions/comments welcome!

Feedback Policy

We have taken the view that marking too often became a way that a teacher was expected to demonstrate their own work, rather than help a pupil improve theirs. Quite apart from the huge and unnecessary burden this places on staff, it is also ultimately inefficient if the desire is not to check up on teachers, but to check on learning.

As with many of our changes, the overriding goal has been to grow a culture in which our pupils develop a sense of self-discipline and responsibility, the better to form in them healthy habits that will, we hope, help children successfully navigate life in general, not just school in particular. In addition to our behaviour and rewards policies, we came to the view that this can be further reinforced through marking policy – that is, by expecting pupils to take pride in, and responsibility for, the improvement and correction of their own work, rather than placing that responsibility primarily on the teacher. There is plenty of evidence to suggest revision, evaluation and correction also improves retention and understanding – so it felt like a straightforward decision.

And so, we have moved away from a marking policy and toward a feedback policy.

In this, written feedback from the teacher is optional, but not required or expected. What is expected is that each session will start with feedback time, during which the teacher will give verbal feedback to the class on three broad categories – punctuation and grammar, spelling, and content. These sessions should last no more than 10 minutes, but sometimes they might throw up issues or opportunities that a teacher chooses to make a focus of a follow-up lesson. The sessions can be used to reinforce spelling and/or grammar rules, to develop depth and add detail to initial work, or set challenge tasks. During this time the teacher circulates to make sure a pupil is acting on feedback, and will enact any interventions that might be necessary (an issue with presentation, for example, or a particular problem with repeated misunderstanding or inaccuracy).

We are still monitoring impact at this point, though the initial results have been pleasing – instead of a child correcting three missed capital letters and three spellings, all of which the teacher had found for them, the pupil might now make 5, 10, 15 or more improvements, with SPAG rules consolidated along the way, an intervention that would have taken an inordinate amount of time for the teacher to identify and highlight for each pupil under the old, more traditional marking policy. The policy has also been put through its paces in the context of an LA review, and came out well, which was pleasing.

This is not to say that there are no questions thrown up by our new approach, or that we have squared the circle; we are still grappling with how to make this work most effectively in KS1, though we are seeking to embed the principle of self-review, evaluation and improvement there, too. Similarly, we take a slightly different approach in Maths (more on that in another blog), whilst there are further conversations to be had regarding specific interventions for more significant barriers, particularly spelling. Nonetheless, to date the change of approach to marking and feedback has been an important step in raising standards. We will continue to reflect on and refine our policy, to achieve the overriding goal of learner responsibility and improved standards.

Minimum teacher requirement is a tick – no comments are required or expected. However, there should always be evidence of feedback and active review.

R.E. is a core subject for us, and brings together (as a minimum) history, art, music, geography, theology, scripture, reading and writing. It lends itself well to content development and cross-curricular linking.

Not all errors in a piece of work can always be identified, in any marking system, though we have significantly raised the amount that the child identifies and improves upon, and increased the opportunities for reinforcing general rules. The next stage is how to enhance this where more bespoke instruction is needed (for example spelling).

In Maths, we are developing an evaluative approach, in both instruction and arithmetic. This works on a check-as-you-go basis, with pupils evaluating their work (or more importantly their mistakes) as they proceed, stopping as misconceptions arise.

 

No More Marking

Following on from the Feedback Policy, we have moved toward No More Marking to help us with writing assessment. This was partly entered into as another aspect of our attempt to address workload and put greater emphasis on planning over marking when it comes to managing time and resources, but it was also about finding ways to improve the assessment process. Whilst we have brought in various assessment changes across the curriculum, assessment for writing is more difficult, since it is more vulnerable to the risks of subjectivity, as well as shifting (and sometimes baffling) moderation frameworks. As such, No More Marking, with its layers of built-in moderation, seemed to offer the opportunity to improve both assessment of work, but also greater opportunity for reflection and discussion on our own moderation judgements as individuals.

To date, we have completed an internal moderation session, across the Federation, to introduce the staff to the process, and we are now aligning with the national moderation windows. This will become a part of our internal moderation schedule, but also give useful data against larger cohorts.  Writing moderation has had its fair share of critics recently, though the move toward best-fit criteria makes No More Marking appealing as a valuable source of both formative and summative assessment. At this point, our goal is simply to monitor impact and see if it enables us to achieve our development points with regards to writing. This will include our own implementation and use of the opportunities it affords, in particular ways in which it might be used to impact more directly upon teaching (and thus CPD), rather than just assessment.

Core Knowledge

If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll have probably guessed that curriculum has been a particular interest over the past year or so (see here, here and here). The blog was the thinking aloud of changes we were already making to our curriculum, considering them in light of own desire for a knowledge focused curriculum that was not only faithful to, but articulated and illustrated, the contours of the Catholic vision to which we are committed. We have developed our curriculum accordingly, with an eye on developing ‘cultural literacy’ (though I have problems with that term – see here). However, it was also with the belief that it is the job of educators to furnish the mind of pupils with (to use a phrase common to Catholic educational philosophy) the good, the true, and the beautiful, the more so in contexts where, as in our case, exposure to such things might otherwise be minimal.

Nonetheless, we are not a large institution, meaning that resources, and time, is very much limited. As such, we have decided to phase our changes, and have focused on developing the foundation curriculum first. This is to better ensure the delivery of a broad curriculum that, if successful, also naturally supports and enhances the core subjects of Maths, English, Science and R.E. Without time to reinvent the wheel, we were guided by the Core Knowledge scheme, using these as templates for developing our own curricula.

To help signpost core content, we have initially taken an approach of content statements (see snapshots below). These are not used for assessment beyond a glance at what has been covered and how the pupil performed within the context of that lesson (as judged through written work and formative assessment). Instead, they are intended to outline what we expect the children to know as part of their learning over the course of any particular module. Further skills statements – particularly in Geography and History – run alongside the content markers. In places, these statements have the potential to be developed still further, and the move into module planning is a short one, though that would be a heavy investment of resources. As such, focus at the moment is on sharing of planning across institutions, building up planning and resources over the course of implementation.

We are aware that, to develop this approach, we will need to develop a more systematic assessment to accompany the curriculum, although having reached out to several schools it is notable how assessment within the foundation subjects is markedly undeveloped. I suspect this will change with the shift in broader inspection priorities. This is something we will be looking to develop over the course of the forthcoming year, as well as further considering the question of how such a curriculum might begin to inform pedagogical choices.

For English and Maths we are less embedded at this point, though the English curriculum in particular lends itself to a more codified knowledge-based approach, something we are actively developing over the course of this academic year. Of course, English contains many significant strands of study, and the nature of assessment frameworks means a focus on skills cannot be sidelined entirely – as such, the vision is for a signposted curriculum in which certain skills can be taught through certain identified texts, ensuring both breadth of content and attention to the detail of assessment criteria.

Year 1 Music – the focus is on linking enhanced knowledge of different musical pieces (from a range of traditions) and developing musical skill. There is also a general song list, with common songs/nursery rhymes etc.

Year 2 Art – linking skill through knowledge; this feeds into practical through instruction on practising what has been studied/observed

Year 3 Geography – a module on local area and mapping skills. A module focused on mapping features in each year group, and in earlier years incorporates knowledge of local area, expanding to global perspectives/knowledge by the UKS2

Year 5 History – development of historical investigation/inquiry skills currently runs alongside content markers. These will be intertwined with content statements over time.

Year 6 Geography – Geography includes both physical and human geography, and is equally distributed between developing knowledge of the British Isles, and the wider world. Both History and Geography get one hour per week minimum.

Science curriculum

We have been itching to improve our science curriculum since we came into the school. Science can be a tricky one to get right – it can be very easy for development of practical skills and experimentation to find itself sidelined due to lack of resources, or lack of expertise, or indeed lack of teacher confidence, or lack of teacher time. At the same time there can exist an opposite risk, so that Science can be reduced down to general ‘whizz-bang’ without accompanying academic content. When we were looking at ways to improve Science, we noticed that so many courses seemed to offer a quick-fix piece of training for an individual teacher, or a standalone resource kit which would have little overall impact on delivery of Science across the school.

In the end, we came across Developing Experts, a new-ish initiative working in conjunction with various luminaries of the core knowledge approach, most notably E D Hirsch. The scheme is exhaustive, places emphasis on developing inquiry and experimentation skills alongside academic content, and provides all curriculum-linked planning (and even data analysis). It also has briefing sheets for teachers, video content to help explain and explore scientific theory and application, links for each area of discovery to testimonies of those who have developed careers in this area of expertise, and also how-to videos for the experiments outlined in planning.

To date, we have been delighted with the impact on Science in our schools, most notably transforming the frequency and quality of science practicals, but also, the development of scientific inquiry in our pupils, and the quality and depth of work being recorded in Science books.

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Obviously, there is still a long way to go on our improvement journey, and but I hope this might be of interest to those who have, at various points, asked for details about some of the changes we have been making. If anybody has any further questions, or would like to know anything more, do please get in touch – or better still, pay us a visit!

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The St. Cuthbert Award

One thing we’ve been interested to develop at our school is a reward scheme that reinforces school priorities, and encourages children to proceed through the stages of motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic. In so doing, we aim to shift pupil perspective from individual focus to recognition of what it means to be a part of a school community. This has lead to a reinvention of historic behaviour policy, the reintroduction of a House system and House Points scheme, and investment in a reward scheme and celebration schedule which includes everything from small gifts, to trips, to pin badges for excellence.

However, we are also aware that there are some things which might historically have been taught discretely at school, and which most adults would expect children to know, that are slipping through the gap. As such, we hoped to find a way to bring in aspects of personal and moral development into the Reward System. We had heard from a local school of a Headteacher’s Challenge award and, after having a look and being impressed, we have decided to put something together of our own.

As it stands, the idea is to run an annual award scheme, and those who complete the challenges will attend a reward trip at the end of the year. The children receive a small booklet with all the targets listed, to be signed off by a teacher upon completion. Not all need be completed (we have set a minimum of 27 to be completed out of 32 total challenges) – we’re aware this has to span over several year groups, and interest/capacity for some targets might vary, so latitude is needed.

One question upon which we are not yet firmly decided is how to structure the targets. Whilst the original idea was to focus exclusively on life skills, we have expanded it to include three core areas – study success, personal living, and spiritual/moral development (we’re a Catholic school). This is not set in stone, and it can make the targets look a bit hotch-potch, but we hope it will link with what is already in place to ensure our children know that excellence must exist not only in academic achievement, but personal skills and development too. In the end, it is about developing discipline, in the broadest sense of that word – this will underpin any successful future attempt in the art of living well.

The award is initially anticipated to be targeted at Key Stage 2. There is something to be said for separate lists for each year group, or perhaps each phase, to follow a child all the way through their schooling, and maybe this is something we will look into going forward. This would certainly allow us to include a great deal more targets, and take a more expansive approach to personal development. Still, as an initial run, we will focus on introducing a scheme with Key Stage 2 and refining as the need arises.

And so, below is the provisional list we are working with. These are subject to change, and some are under discussion. I have also included suggestions below that others have offered. Since we’re trying to split this over three different categories, it is impossible to include everything, and some valuable things have to be left out – maybe this is something we can consider moving forward, particularly if we decide to go ahead with having different age-related strands in future.

Anyway, if you have any thoughts – about either the organisation of the scheme or the targets in it – then do please comment below.

  • Take on a household job for a term
  • Become a House Point Star
  • Achieve a commendation certificate in celebration assembly.
  • Recite a poem off by heart to class or during a school assembly.
  • Perform on stage (or support off stage) in a school production or concert.
  • Attend Mass in the parish at the weekend at least three times
  • Keep a class or school job/responsibility for at least half a term.
  • Achieve an attendance award
  • Write a formal thank you letter to a member of school staff
  • Know all your times tables by heart
  • Research and write a biography of St. Cuthbert (compulsory)
  • Know the Our Father, Hail Mary and the Glory Be off by heart
  • Attend in full school uniform every day
  • Run/jog a mile without walking.
  • Achieve full marks in every spellings test for a term
  • Be able to read an analogue clock
  • Read 12 books from the school library.
  • Be able to keep eye contact whilst talking with an adult
  • Be able to use a knife and fork correctly.
  • Attend an after-school club for at least three half-terms
  • Attend an out of school club for at least a term
  • Raise money for a charity
  • Be able to tie shoe laces
  • Be a reading buddy for a younger child for a term
  • Add a prayer to the Prayer Tree
  • Receive a House Point for cursive handwriting
  • Use your school planner and hand homework in on time
  • Find a five (or more) letter word in a dictionary in seconds or less.
  • Lead class worship
  • Receive a House Point for good manners or politeness
  • Know ABC and be able to put someone in the recovery position
  • Make a simple healthy snack or meal (with adult help)

Other suggestions that have been made, primarily through Twitter, include:

  • Be able to iron a shirt
  • Know your own address, birth date, and telephone number
  • Write a birthday card
  • Polish your own shoes – with polish, brush and buffer
  • Be able to introduce yourself politely, with handshake and eye contact
  • Write a simple thank you note
  • Grow a plant or vegetable
  • Be able to sew a button on to clothes
  • Be able to cross a road safely
  • Be able to wash hands properly
  • Be able to ride a bike
  • Be able to swim at least 20 metres
  • Be able to identify ten common plants/birds/bugs
  • Be in charge of washing up and putting away dishes for at least a term
  • Have cared for an animal for a period of time
  • Use a screwdriver
  • Make a bed properly
  • Clean and dress a wound
  • Be a reading buddy for a younger child for a term
  • Be able to plan a balanced meal
  • Be able to follow a recipe
  • Be able to tie a tie
  • Be able to fix a puncture
  • Visit a retirement home
  • Do a cartwheel.
  • Pack an overnight bag
  • Be able to boil an egg

 

 

 

Notes from Nowhere

I think I was 14. It was an English lesson, as I recall. And the words were delivered with the hint of a smirk.

‘Well of course, the Sun has a reading age of eight.’

Innocuous enough. And I didn’t know if it was true, nor much care. The truth was less important than the implication, to be honest, veracity less important than meaning. I knew what was going on, what was really being said: ‘here are people who are not like us, we clever ones, we sophisticated ones, we who can see through the ruse to the ignorance of folk. We, children, know better, are better.’

I wanted to be part of the in-group. I wanted to have real status and authority, too. To be like you, Sir, all knowledgeable and self-assured and authoritative. I didn’t want to be one of Them, so subtly scorned with a barbed comment and the raise of an eyebrow. So it seeped in. It became true. Those stupid Sun readers – thickos, bigots all.

Only, my Dad was a Sun reader. And many of my family. And most of the folk on the council estate where I grew up. I knew this because I delivered their morning papers seven days a week. And it was nearly always the Sun, occasionally the Star, the odd Daily Mirror. Except on Sundays, when it was usually the News of the World, and occasionally the Sunday People.

I was, to use an unfashionable term, something of a ‘chav’ at school, though I can chart a change in self-image from around this time onward, from Kappa and Ellesse to Officers’ Club and a whole different section of the Littlewoods catalogue. Perhaps this was just normal teenage rebellion. Either way, I had decided that I wanted something different, that I was cut from different cloth, that the world held better in store for me than it did for those whose love and support had brought me to this point. I distinctly remember being in a GCSE class, reading aloud Heaney’s Follower, a poem superficially about a boy helping his father with jobs around the farm, and the words of the final stanza hitting like thunder – ‘I was a nuisance, tripping, falling/Yapping always. But today/It is my father who keeps stumbling/Behind me, and will not go away.’

My father, no academic but a bloody good soldier, and in many ways our salvation (I need not go into details), with all his coarse dependability, became an awkward moment, to be transcended, to be left behind.

Or when I graduated from my degree course. My gramps, an Irishman who came looking for work in the chemical factories in the North East before finding work driving wagons and settling in Stockton, proud enough of my achievement that he had tears in his eyes. I’ll never forget the hug he gave me. It might have even been my first, aged 22 – you didn’t really do that kind of thing in the Merrick family.

The whole tribe came up to Lancaster, and we went for a meal in a little village called Heysham, which was awkward to get to but classier than the Brewers’ Fayre some had suggested and enabled me to show that I was now a bit more upmarket than that. Whilst we were waiting, Gramps and I went for a stroll, settling just along from a rock with graves carved into it, looking out over the sands of Morecambe Bay. I was in heaven. I’ve always idolised my Gramps – he was different, from somewhere else, with stories to tell. And so when we talked, and he began to give his sage advice, I lapped it up. And then he said, without hint of humour or irony, ‘Michael, you’re a bright boy – have you ever thought about running a pub?’ As my memory tells it, I guffawed, and assured him I had my sights set on greater things. He fell quiet and, after five minutes or so looking out to sea, we made our way back for the meal.

His Dad, it turns out, my great-grandad, ran a pub. In Dublin. And his Dad, my great-grandad, was a great man, a source of pride.

I had just guffawed.

Or with my other Grandad, a bluff Yorkshireman from Wakefield who drove wagons his whole life. We sat in his front room, a three-bedroomed former council house in Pendlebury, Salford. He enjoyed films, did my Grandad. And so when I asked, he started telling me about the ones he liked best. Pretty soon I launched into a monologue about my favourites, all of them foreign language films, airily pronouncing on their artistic qualities, the more obscure and niche the better; Satantango, Russian Ark, Yojimbo, Roma città aperta, Dekalog. I asked him if he’d seen them, and when he said he hadn’t I suggested he lend them (I’d just been to the Trafford Centre and bought a load from HMV), and was mystified when he said no. In the end, with a smile, he gently assured me ‘I’m not into all that,’ and gazed back at the television screen, flicking through what was on and settling for CSI Miami.

I don’t know if these were my favourite films. Maybe they were at the time, though to be honest I doubt it. Looking back, this was about status. Me, the smart-arse, the graduate, the one who went to university, lording it over my Grandad, in his own sitting room. I asked my Dad about this other day, suggesting I was perhaps unbearable after university. He smiled, a sympathetic, loving smile: ‘well, sometimes maybe.’

I had been the first to go to university in my family, on both sides, save for my grandmother’s brother, an outlier whose name was spoken in hushed tones, and whom I had never met because like all clever people he had moved away and was different from us now. And I thought that could be me. It came with a fight – I had had to quit professional football to go to university, much to the incomprehension of various family members, especially when it became clear I was studying Theology (‘do you want to be a priest or what?). In the end, I think I enjoyed the mystique. I was being just like my ‘uncle’ Tony.

And yet, for all I was quietly rejecting them, they never rejected me. I was one of them, even if I increasingly gave the impression of not wanting to be. I was ‘our Mike’, and forever would be. And as time has gone by, I realise how intensely proud I am of them, and of the great fortune it is to have been raised as a working-class kid, as one of them. This background was not an obstacle to be overcome, which is what arguments for social mobility nearly always collapse into, but a fertile soil in which to plant the seeds of future success. It is only with passing years, and the challenges that come with raising your own children, that such issues find a way back to the now, to be chewed over and answered once again, ugly truths and all.

All of this might, of course, hold no greater lesson than my own deficiencies as a human being. I’m happy to acknowledge I have plenty of them. And maybe this post would have been more accurately entitled ‘Gentle Regrets’ or ‘Confessions of an Arrogant Fool.’ But if this is the case, I suspect I share the platform with plenty of others. And this whole thought process was kicked off by the following series of tweets, by Mike Tyler, tweets that resonated with me.

See, that was me. I was those graduates. Much to my shame, I thought that was the character of being educated. And maybe, at times, I still do. Blood is thicker than water, but professional and social respectability is a powerful confounding variable. My own kids have a different childhood from the one I had –so am I rejecting it, or building on it? I can’t honestly say I know the answer to that question. And when you dwell on that loss of identity, of simple surety, it can cut deep. When others tread all over it, it stings.

 

Neither Here nor There

It is a long established truth that graduates tend to be much more liberal than their non-graduate compatriots. Indeed, since the referendum, plenty on the Remain have been quick to point out the education gap between Leave voters and themselves. The observation is innocent enough, though it too often contains all the smirk and subtext of that teacher from my youth.

Thus the graduate professions take on a particular character, with norms of outlook, of worldview, indeed of morality. The moral compass of the liberal outlook is distinct from the conservative, and these things split broadly over class, which correlates with level of education; these tribes value different things, draw lines in different places. But when the deck is stacked so heavily toward one over the other, the chances of any effort to comprehend the difference diminish whilst self-certainty proliferates. And liberals, contrary to assumption, tend to be as intolerant as conservatives, who have a broader moral outlook, though less understanding of the conservative viewpoint than the other way round. In a profession which is graduate dominated, and with graduate-level education so tightly correlated with liberal outlook, so we might see the roots of an important disconnect. Conformity to the norms of the in-group becomes the mark of the sophisticated, the cultured, the educated. And transgression comes at a cost.

As such, if you arrive from a working-class background shaped by these subversive norms, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You must grow accustomed to the objects of derision and mockery being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the derision might be delivered in the abstract – against a general viewpoint or unidentified Other – the barbs are felt personally. The word bigot, or any of its linguistic manifestations, is chucked about casually, but it hits specific targets, especially when it addresses a common viewpoint amongst those who comprise your upbringing. Those ‘xenophobes’ and ‘racists’ who voted Leave, for example, are not disembodied, theoretical people, but those who you know to be nothing of the sort, such as grandparents, who were always so loving and kind, and parents, who have lived a life of service to others, friends, who are decent and hardworking, the folks who live next door, the lady who you see at Church each week, the priest who baptised your kids. It becomes personal, and it jars.

But with public affirmation of in-group norms comes prestige –  in the echo chamber of social media, there is status to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. An army of followers giddily RT and ‘Like’ such comments, as if their articulacy were evidence of their truth and justification for their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority a justification of their presumed existential superiority, too.

They say in comedy that you should never punch down because it makes you look a bully, though this does not seem to be a moderating influence when there is a witty observation to be delivered highlighting deficiencies of the ‘deplorables.’ I remember attending a Diversity course as a GTP trainee, delivered through a series of dramas and roleplays. It was a good day and I learned plenty, particularly about the importance and power of language – something I grappled with here – though it was noticeable that each time a bigot was portrayed in a drama, they had a strong regional accent and performed a manual trade, with uniform and props to match. When I asked about the apparent incongruity I was told, in a stuttering response, that this simply reflected real life. Prejudice, indeed.

There is nothing particularly new in this, and since most culture-forming and socially prestigious professions are graduate dominated, so the outlooks and assumptions are reflected back and reinforced, presenting a wall of affirmation through which any dissent is proof that someone is Not Like Us, and thus wrong. And from this, the belief that it is a duty to help future generations avoid such a fate, and become more Like Us, and thus right.

In our schools, this has real consequences – as I have explored here and here – creating a representation vacuum as a class of Anywheres seek to educate a generation of Somewheres, Pioneers against Settlers, with the former holding all the power and believing professional success consists in educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing. Pupils from a socially conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) background, will at times find themselves at odds with the ethical and moral paradigms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education (or the absence of it). And so the cycle starts over, an abiding tension between home and school, since in this case to be educated is to leave behind what you hear and are taught at home.

But some do choose home. Not because of a lack of learning but because of a refusal to shed heritage and home as the participation fee. If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation there. That those who agitate so fiercely for social justice, and write and speak so piously about the disenfranchisement of the working class, should choose to studiously ignore this particular deficit, and indeed locate their own virtue in the perpetuation of it, tells us a lot about the intractability of the culture clash we accommodate.

Of course, it follows that the same is true with teachers, though perhaps more acutely, since the heresies of those within are more serious than the ignorance of those without – the latter is tragedy, the former is malice. During Brexit, half a dozen teachers confessed to me that they voted Leave, all by DM, and all saying they did not dare say so publicly. To date, I’m only aware of one having since revealed their vote. And yesterday, in response to a question about one thing that Twitter had changed your mind on, one person DMed and said abortion, but they could never admit this publicly.

I’m not sure such conformism can be described as an evident good, nor the surest sign of a good education. The current creation myth of the teaching profession is one of a virtuous battle against intolerance, bigotry and demonization of the Other – yet those who pursue such accounts of virtue do not always realise, or do not care, that these are precisely the sins they commit in the eyes of those on the receiving end of their evangelism.

And yet… it is more complex than a simple to-and-fro between two competing accounts of the good life, a power play with only one plausible winner. Neither side are entirely wrong, even if heart battles fiercely with head in trying to work out the worst of the two. If you join the affray from a working-class background, you inevitably have a foot in both camps. One may get defensive when those whom you know and love are targets of censure, but you also carry the knowledge that, in some sense, you also chose to leave this tribe behind. And, uncomfortable as it might be, one can also see the validity of some of the analysis, even if its descent into moral judgement and lack of charity becomes sufficient motivation for fighting it. Some might call this contrarianism, but maybe it is something more primal than that. We often see the faults in those we love, but we naturally get defensive if somebody from the outside decides to make it an object of their own crusade. Maybe the same applies here.

Needless to say, this high-minded detachment does not solve the feeling of disconnect. For a working-class kid in a graduate profession, having a foot in both camps mean not really belonging in either, an outsider to each, wishing it did not have to be either-or but finding it difficult to see how it might be otherwise. The norms of one are the enemy of the other. One might mourn the perceived conflict of heritage or professional flourishing, but it is difficult to deny. The world that formed you, that helped you fly, can be the world that holds you back, a world which you both reject(ed) and embrace at the same time. And it is always the rejection that each side of this conflict remembers, never the embrace.

And so you crash along, feeling like an imposter wherever you stand, looking for allies in the cause. But it can be a lonely place. And who wants to be lonely?

Forming the Curriculum

Curriculum (re-)design is again in fashion, as inspectors and inspected alike recognise what should have always been obvious: that what we teach is equally as fundamental, likely more so, than how we teach.

Cue a flurry of activity from leaders and middle-leaders, getting back to fundamentals and looking once again at neglected and tired schemes of work, asking how we might be more ambitious, more attentive, and indeed more inspired by the subjects we love, or at least once loved, when we were still allowed to do so.

And what a wonderful development that is.

But as we tread the path to curriculum excellence, a central truth must be upheld: the curriculum is not just an academic matter, and the writing of it even less so.

Knowing What to Value

What we teach is a distillation of that which we deem worthy for future transmission. And not all those choices are strictly utilitarian – or at least they ought not to be. Populating the curriculum necessarily involves value judgements on the part of those tasked with constructing it; those judgements reveal something of the person creating it, the world they inhabit, or the world they wish to inhabit.

And this is important. Those tasked with fashioning a curriculum bear the heavy responsibility of creating the intellectual landscape of a domain we wish our pupils to experience, even if they choose to ultimately reject it. Its aesthetic, its values, its very temperament – a world pupils might not otherwise choose to aspire toward, or at very least might not otherwise fully appreciate. In a very real sense, designing a curriculum is therefore as much a spiritual reflection as an academic one.

This brings controversy, of course, since it cannot avoid value judgment, and one can well understand the challenge of those who argue that the move toward core knowledge can be exclusionary, or that it privileges particular kinds of knowledge over others, or that its aesthetic can be of a marginalising hue – from a particular perspective, there is a valid argument to be met here (see my previous post on one potential perspective here).

Anthea Hamilton’s infamous Turner Prize nominated sculpture – cultural literacy?

After all, if one deems a core knowledge curriculum to consist of art and culture beyond the parochial boundaries of place, or deems cultural literacy to consist primarily in knowledgeable articulacy of the contemporary, certainly more than the past, then clearly an alternative vision exists to the one most commonly proffered, and needs to be taken account of.

I’m not sure how often we see that challenge accepted. Curriculum development often appears to proceed without acknowledgment of an argument that concerns its very soul, sometimes ignoring altogether, other times attempting a cross-fertilisation to avoid accusations of the chauvinistic. One might well understand why: this is a minefield, strewn with the traps of politics and identity. But also, because it requires one to retreat back to first principles and ask the most basic questions: if the core curriculum goes hand in hand with developing cultural literacy, then what comprises this culture? And should we only focus on this culture? And what is our aim in seeking to transmit this culture to the next generation?

The Moral Dimension

Potential responses only outline the space for future dialogue, rather than providing a comprehensive answer. The curriculum is the capture of a process, the staging post of cumulative decisions and experiences coming together to form a proposed canon of knowledge. It is the principles guiding these footsteps which offer the best chance of fruitful dialogue.

And so, they begin: are curriculum decisions made with utility in mind – to help ensure future employability and the ability to hold one’s own, in general society as much as in esteemed company? Is it identitarian – to infuse children with the fruits and intellectual architecture of the culture in which they are being formed, the better to increase their attachment to it? Is it simple familiarity – those things which, through time and fashion, have traditionally comprised a liberal education and have long been seen as constituent parts of a quality curriculum? Is it resurrecting a memory – choosing a canon based on its resonance with a particular past, offering pupils ways of finding meaning in the cultural landscape around them? Or is it spiritual – to form the children in front of us and help them inhabit a worldview, a manner of being, which might otherwise remain alien to them?

A collection of all these? Or something else entirely?

The latter might be considered out of place, a soteriological cherry on top of what is otherwise a utilitarian project, by varying degrees, and there are those who would claim such an ambition is an act of oppression, taking upon itself an intimate concern with the soul that should properly be beyond the remit of the school. I am not sure this can really be upheld as a novel exercise – all schools do it, even those who deem themselves most devoutly secular, from content taught to rules administered to values upheld (children from socially conservative traditions, and with socially conservative views, will experience this most acutely in our schools today).

As such, the question is not whether the curriculum is in some sense shaped by a prior moral or spiritual commitment, or even whether it should, but rather which it should be – and how we should decide. Howsoever one finally chooses to answer that question, the issue of content selection as co-constructing that project is never far away, but it most properly follows the prior vision, rather than preceding it.

In a world of busy-ness and deadlines, the time to reflect on such matters can seem indulgent, even should the desire exist to do so – better to simply chuck all the ingredients in and get the job done. But avoiding these questions, or tactfully choosing not to consider them, only gives justification to those who would maintain that our curricula do not represent expanding horizons, but expanding certain horizons, whilst leaving others unattended – with the interlocutor free to speculate for themselves the underlying reasons for any omission. And whilst time is finite, and decisions must be made as to what makes the cut, this is of course understandable. It is not unfair for detractors to ask on what basis curriculum decisions are made.

Curriculum Kitsch

Looking around, it can sometimes feel as if curriculum improvement consists primarily of simply adding more stuff. This is clearly problematic – it is one thing associating challenge with quantity, but if there is no underlying coherence (important for both the learning and the remembering) to weave such knowledge together then the curriculum lacks authenticity, and gives to those charged with teaching it or learning it no justification for doing so, beyond personal fiat – the determination of a particular Head, at a particular time. Here, the curriculum risks losing its inner dignity, becoming an atomised collection of things, ready to fall apart once the authority of the person insisting upon it ceases to be its sufficient cause.

The focus on content accumulation, on simple quantity, risks turning knowledge into just another consumer product, in which the capacity to consume and one’s accumulated consumption becomes a social signifier and sign of success. And the more glamorous the consumption, the more niche the diet, the better, not because of the interior quality of what is consumed, but because of the status associated with the ability to acquire the exotic.

However, in elevating knowledge consumption by quantity to prestige status, we risk a sort of consumerist kitsch, choosing knowledge not to enhance or nourish, but to impress, to define oneself, to affirm status and the ability to consume and to have consumed – knowledge as performance, as spectacle, knowledge as bling.

The Alfred Jewel – likely the head of a ‘æstel’, much like a yad, which were distributed along with copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s Regula Pastoralis

I’m not convinced this approach has longevity beyond the personality of the individual leader insisting upon it, lacking meaning since it lacks telos – something which underpinned the motivations of those tasked with creating curricula and composing the canonical in ages past. When King Alfred completed his project of translating particular works into English, and insisted upon their distribution and even their reading, he did so not because of a desire to simply fill a neutral pot called knowledge, where the fuller it became the better, but instead because those works were ‘most necessary for all men to know.’ The justification, the enlivening principle, was formation, not a gluttonous accumulation. It was anticipated that the wealth of wisdom could flow from reading these texts, from knowing these principles, to the benefit of both the individual and society.

Whilst exposure to a broader variety of knowledge is certainly a starting point, and learning for learning sake is a virtue to be rehabilitated, this is not a permission slip for some sort of educational nihilism, either for pragmatic purposes or ideological: the question of ‘why?’ has to remain central. Only once this has occurred might one get down to better considering the what, and justifying the discrimination (in the literal sense) necessarily involved in defining it. Because in a finite world, or more specifically a 25 hour timetable, one must indeed be discriminatory in choosing what to include over the myriad other things that could have been included. And one best have in mind the reasons for doing so. Only here can one find the dignity of the curriculum, beyond fiat and fashion, to develop a coherence worthy of the formative years of our children.

Conclusion

The elephant in the room here is the demand placed upon schools by our accountability system, and the pragmatic necessity for highest possible exam performance. This has been left alone not because it is deemed to be of lesser moral worth – I tend to agree that the best we can do for our children is to deliver an education which enables them to achieve excellent exam grades – but because curriculum development is in some sense leading the way over qualifications, being at once more ambitious and more aware of the principled necessity of a broad and high-quality curriculum.

And this is as it should be – examinations capture a slice of what has been taught; they should not become the outer limits of what we teach.

Here’s hoping, then, that the current race toward curriculum improvement proceeds with a clear commitment to an underlying coherence. Or else we’re just playing at this. And however politically astute that might be, and however much professional prestige and career advancement people might find tied up with it, it shall nonetheless be destined to crumble with the passage of time, when, as inevitably happens, people ask why we study this, and do not study that, before realising that we have neglected to ever give an answer.

The Federation Hymnal

At the St Ninian Catholic Federation we are seeking to develop a knowledge-rich curriculum that introduces children to learning opportunities that do not yet feature in our current programme. As I have written previously, whilst we are indebted to the work of Hirsch in lighting the way on this, we also need to develop a curriculum offer that reflects our own Catholic ethos, our tradition and our identity, our priorities and needs.  Just as the Catholic vision of education is a broad and coherent whole, embracing beauty, goodness and truth in both the religious and the secular, so we aspire for our curriculum to do likewise.

As a result, we wish to develop our music curriculum to better recognise its central status as part of that vision. Whilst this will include new programmes of study, it will also a commitment to ensuring that each child has a minimum entitlement when it comes to knowing the hymns and prayers that form our heritage (I will blog on the specific prayers the children will be taught and expected to know at a later date).

As such, we have decided to develop a Federation canon of 20 hymns that we will aim to ensure all children know before they leave school, and a further list of hymns or chants chosen for their liturgical or spiritual value in the life of the Church. Of course, over the course of 7 years’ worth of hymn practice and Mass attendance the children will come to know more than just this list, and they will come across age appropriate songs at each age level, but identifying a core list helps ensure this minimum entitlement is met.

Whilst this is still a working document, and open for change, the hymns we currently have identified as comprising a core canon are:

  • Adeste Fideles
  • Amazing Grace
  • As I Kneel Before You
  • Be Still for the Presence of the Lord
  • Be Thou My Vision
  • Eat This Bread, Drink This Cup
  • Faith of Our Fathers
  • Forty Days and Forty Nights
  • Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer
  • Hail, Queen of Heaven
  • Holy Virgin by God’s Decree
  • How Great Thou Art
  • Immaculate Mary
  • Lord of All Hopefulness
  • Sweet Heart of Jesus
  • Take My Hands
  • The Lord is My Shepherd
  • Ubi Caritas
  • Veni, Veni Emmanuel
  • When I Survey This Wondrous Cross

We also want the children to know and be able to recognise different prayers and parts of the Mass that might be sung, or prayers often sung on special occasions. For this, our current list is:

  • Pater Noster
  • Ave Maria
  • Credo
  • Kyrie
  • Gloria
  • Agnus Dei
  • Sanctus
  • Salve Regina
  • Tantum Ergo
  • Te Deum
  • Dies Irae

Many of these the children will have already been introduced to, primarily through the weekly Mass, which will ensure the music they learn and sing reflects the liturgical year or spiritual use for which it was originally designed. It is also important to note that list will work alongside the wider curriculum (and in many cases overlap with it), which will include a variety of musical traditions, both secular and sacred, complementing the performative aspect of singing with both theory and the ability to read and be able to follow sheet music as part of that performance.

There are challenges of course – from expertise, to resources, to time. These are significant, though not insuperable. We are also aware that the curriculum must remain mindful of the pupils, and not become a simple adornment of our own ego – it is all too easy to produce a list of increasingly obscure suggestions, not to develop the abilities and interest of children, but to make a statement about one’s own.

For this reason, the curriculum will be under constant review. In the first instance, however, we are determined that music will no longer be seen as an adjunct to our learning, but as a core component of the Catholic curriculum, helping us deliver a suitably rounded and coherent vision of human flourishing in what we teach our children, or more accurately for the purposes of this blog, what we expect them to be able to sing.

And that is where we are to date. If you think there are other hymns you think would be worthy for inclusion, or have any other thoughts to share, I’d be delighted to hear from you – do please either use the ‘Contact’ form on the website or make recommendations in the comments box below.

 

N.B. Newman needs to be on there – Praise to the Holiest in the Height. Hmmm…

Hirsch, Secularism and the Catholic Curriculum

In a previous blog (‘Contesting the Canon’), I explored concerns regarding the potential (anti-Catholic) partiality of the canon, but also the overarching effectiveness of the core knowledge curriculum for achieving its principal goal of cultural literacy. In sum, I suggested that whilst I support and advocate the idea of a canon, the core knowledge approach seemed to have taken on an overtly secular character, meaning the contents of its canon were necessarily restricted and restrictive. This was a problem for us, a Catholic school, but also for the very notion of cultural literacy – or as I wrote then, ‘if one starts from a position of neglecting the religious and theological backdrop of the culture in which so much of our cultural inheritance was formed, what is offered is but a shadow of artefacts, and ultimately historical and cultural illiteracy, a secular humanist wish-projection of what our shared history and identity should have been, rather than what it practically and really is.”

With the kind help of Dame Rachel de Souza (@Rachel_deSouza) of the Inspiration Trust, the blog gained the attention of E D Hirsch, architect of the core knowledge revolution and someone whose work and influence I admire. He was kind enough to comment on the blog and gracious enough to answer a follow-up question, which shall form the basis of this blog.

But first, the background of the question. Since the core knowledge (or similar) agenda took off in the UK, I have wondered why it seems to neglect such a huge area of learning as scripture and theology. Since one needn’t have a faith persuasion to study either of these things, and since they seem fundamental to a halfway competent understanding of so much of our shared history and culture, the oversight is curious. Quite why it might exist is open to debate: be it subliminal partisanship or wider ignorance (in the literal, non-pejorative sense), it nonetheless existed.

But the danger of such an oversight seems clear: one risks falling into precisely that trap set by anti-canon activists, who insist the whole project is not the objective exercise in aesthetics its proponents claim, but instead the imposition of a highly partial and exclusive account of ‘us’. I disagree with this, but the absence described above opens a door to the claim – after all, if we wish to construct a canon of the best that has been thought and said, we better make sure its contents reflect the value of things in themselves, and not the personal hangups or preferences of those charged with collating it. Failure to do so risks precisely the philistinism of which the core knowledge agenda is intended to be a riposte.

It is from this perspective that I wished to press the point regarding the secular character of core knowledge. Whilst I recognise that Hirsch operates in a US context, and has indeed tipped his hat to the role of scripture in shaping the cultural, I was curious as to how far he thought his might go, not least since advocates in this country seem to have paid this curiously little attention.

And so my (with hindsight very wordy) question, which was:

My main question… is to do with the core proposal of the original piece, which is that the core knowledge movement, certainly as I have come across it in the UK, seems to have become secular-humanist in both content and delivery, and in so doing risks two consequences, each of which aggravate against the very concept of core knowledge: firstly, it can neglect high value cultural treasures and over-promote others, thus giving a distorted account of cultural value; secondly, it presents an obstacle to effective understanding of the key content of our canon, denying pupils the principal interpretative framework to understand the canon in its true historical and cultural context…. Hence the suggestion that core knowledge, in this particular form, risks promoting cultural illiteracy and misunderstanding, and putting together something akin to a ‘knowledge menu’, which is prone to the kitsch… I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the matter.

 

And thus came the response:

In the UK there’s a Church of England.  In the USA, there’s not a Church of the USA.  That was the political/cultural decision that was taken by our founders, and stressed before the founding in the Virginia Statute for religious Freedom of 1786 authored by Jefferson.  The statute named theology and scripture “opinion” and indicated that it must never be part of the official public sphere.   The aim was to keep unity and peace — against the backdrop of the bloody wars of religion of prior centuries in Europe.   

The tradition in the American schools was to teach about religion as a historical phenomenon, but to leave hymns, prayers, and scripture to the home.  

Instead we instituted a quasi civil religion (Rousseau’s idea) with a National Anthem (i.e. National Hymn), a holy secular symbol (the flag). The Core Knowledge curriculum outline is very much in that tradition.  Even Bible stories as stories were approached with caution.  

There is a lot to unpack there, beginning with that very first sentence, since it rubs against the argument of the original post that the core canon excludes the Catholic from our accounts of culture and nationhood, and that this had been precisely the intention and reality for hundreds of years (see the original blog for the expanded version of this argument).

But to focus on the broader argument, Hirsch seems to be clarifying that the core knowledge curriculum is intentionally framed within a resolutely secular narrative that actively confines to the personal many of those things that I would argue are essential aspects of any broad account of cultural literacy. Religion could be studied through a sociological gaze – which might itself be open to questions regarding effectiveness – but any more than this transgresses the separation-ideal of American civic life (a civic space that, it must be noted, is very different in history and character to the UK.)

At this point, the core knowledge curriculum appears to take on a slightly different ambition from what I had assumed, and I now wonder if it might be better to suggest that it more accurately advocates the acquisition of ‘knowledge capital’, which is unquestionably a good thing, and with which we acquire cultural literacy. I understand how this might make sense within a clean-slate secularism such as that which prevailed in the US, though whether it can be seamlessly transposed into the rather more entangled and undulating history of the United Kingdom strikes me as doubtful. The direct link from expanding knowledge capital to improving cultural literacy might make sense in a US context, but less so in a UK context, and insisting upon such a separation might even have the unintended consequence of inhibiting it.

Of course some might disagree here, and suggest that Hirsch’s divide between these two knowledge realms is desirable, perhaps even necessary within our de facto secular education system. And whilst I see how this might make superficial sense, or better reflect the worldview of those without faith, or those accustomed to the view that faith is a private matter, I only offer the same challenge as set down in the previous blog: how do you give an honest and authentic account of our cultural inheritance whilst sectioning off those things which were and remain principal components of it? How do you teach an accurate understanding of so many of our historical events, of our institutions, of our political reforms, of myriad cultural references, of legal developments, or literary expression, or social customs, or shared festivals and celebrations, or architectural history, or innumerable other things, without it?

Without scripture and theology one is destined to miss the target on these things, and will instead garner only a superficial collection of cultural tidbits (themselves chosen by the same highly partial criteria), denied of the framework within which to properly understand their worth, making erroneous assumptions about our shared history and identity accordingly. In other words, there is a difference between knowledge capital and cultural literacy, and the latter requires more careful thought than the former, since the former can easily collapse into a form utilitarian kitsch whilst the latter depends upon judgement and wisdom

What does this mean for our schools? Over the next few months at the St. Ninian Catholic Federation we will be seeking a way to integrate the best of the core knowledge agenda as it has already developed, rooted in the desire for both knowledge capital and cultural literacy, whilst curating a canon that better reflects a fuller account of learning consistent with the Catholic vision of education.  In other words, we are looking at how we offer a genuinely Catholic core knowledge programme, to present the riches of human achievement on the one hand, situated within a proper account of human understanding and flourishing on the other (whilst out of fashion now, Catholic philosophy historically preferred to use the term ‘formation’, which more accurately depicts this account of flourishing).

Of course, this is not a process of manufacture and pedagogical consideration also informs our considerations, as do questions of what support structures we can offer to help children achieve the highest standards. Perhaps that will be a matter for another post, but for now the focus is on constructing a compelling, broad and challenging curriculum. It promises to be an exciting project. If you are interested in our work, or would like to collaborate in creating an outstanding core curriculum, then do please feel free to get in touch – we would be delighted to hear from you.

 

Contesting the Canon

The face plate opposite adorns the tomb of Philip Howard, who died in 1786 while in the service of the King of Sardinia. It is a moving tribute and speaks of the earnest desire of an Englishman to serve his country, even whilst precluded from doing so. His patriotism was clear; his cultural endowment ought to have been equally so.

But it wasn’t. The Howards were recusants, seeking to uphold the Old Faith against a political elite determined that such obstinacy was tantamount to sedition. And this little Anglican chapel nestled on the western banks of the River Eden at Wetheral, with its mausoleum hidden away through the north transept, housing the testimonies and remains of ‘papists’ and bearing this poignant plea for clemency, stands in quiet witness to the messiness and splintered loyalties bequeathed by the Reformation and the persecution that followed (the chapel was originally the local church for the Howard family of nearby Corby Castle, the same Howards who, following the emancipation of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829, commissioned A.W.N. Pugin to build a Catholic church, further away though this time on their side of the river). Whilst another branch of the Howard line, based ten miles to the east at Naworth Castle, eventually conformed (with inducement to do so – Charles Howard was made first Earl of Carlisle), others held firm and became outcast.

And outcast really is the word, especially if our interest is cultural inheritance. Loyal Catholics, during that period described by Cobbett as ‘an alteration greatly for the worse’, had their wealth purloined as much as their stake in society, and found themselves asset-stripped as the Acts of Uniformity, the Test Acts, and myriad other laws achieved their principal objective and diminished the influence and position of Catholics. Cultural alienation followed – notwithstanding notable exceptions, from Byrd to Tallis, Campion to Shakespeare(!), it is difficult to generate, let alone bequeath, great art, literature and architecture, while isolated and stripped of the web of relationships and influence that underpins such flourishing. From patronage to possessions, Catholics found themselves outcasts in their own lands, a land they built, a land which bore the marks they laid upon it, which sang the testimony of their deeds in stone and quill.

Carlisle Cathedral, Eastern window

It may be tempting to see this as an historical debate, though that would be to miss the continuing impacts of that centuries-long dispossession, one that is a source of interest for anyone wishing to think again about curriculum and what we pass on to our children. Sat amidst the architectural and artistic beauty of Carlisle cathedral (described unfairly by Pevsner as ‘not much more than half a cathedral,’) during a recent choral concert,  the question became pertinent: why does the Catholic community have such comparatively feeble offerings? Why are we largely absent from culture in this sense, a culture which we historically defined, the treasures of which remain at the heart of our national story today? The answer lies in the disenfranchisement outlined above, no longer possessing the organic infrastructure or accumulated expertise and culture to do so. Whilst this might be ameliorated in the big cities, beyond here the Catholic church often exists in a liturgically, architecturally and aesthetically emaciated form.

Since exclusion was as much about ideas as it was property portfolios, so  ignorance of, and hostility toward, the Catholic faith became a way of asserting rightmindedness and affirming social credentials – to be a member of the in-crowd, one had to be able to mock and ridicule Catholics, to repeat and defend what Newman called the ‘myths and fables’ of the anti-Catholic record. The temperament remains prevalent today, with ignorance of the Faith seemingly synonymous with a cultured worldview and an elevated intellect (one might point to the jingoistic whiggery of Michael Gove’s recent offering as a fine example of this enduring phenomenon). And politically, too: we fight for our right to exist in the state sector, and put at risk our employment within it where our adherence to doctrine might be deemed incompatible with the dictates of the state. How poetic history can be.

What relevance has any of this to curriculum? Well, it is important to state these truths, since this is the historical milieu from within which our educational canon is constructed, the well from which our intellectual waters are drawn. If we are to discuss what we deem worthy of transmission from generation to generation then the curation of that canon, and the judgement of what best comprises it, is a matter for scrutiny, lest we risk repeating the disinheritance and wrongly calling it scholarship.

For myself, this has become a more pressing matter in recent weeks, as we look at ways we can develop a core knowledge curriculum at our schools, a broad vision of learning which really does offer, to quote Arnold, the best of that which has been thought and said.

And here one runs into difficulty. Bluntly put, one is tempted to question whether the Hirschian approach, and more so the evangelism of his disciples, might be insufficient for the task. It seems increasingly the case that the core knowledge movement restricts itself to the straight jacket of secularity, cutting itself from whole fields of interpretative frameworks and placing insufficient stress on theology and especially Scripture. For many this presents no barrier (I have seen few protest the point), either lacking the personal belief to deem it important or working in a non-church school where it might be deemed inappropriate anyway. But surely this is to accept an impoverished canon, blind not only to the realities of our shared history but also to the very concept of core knowledge and cultural capital in the first place.

Examples? Well, prayer is an obvious place – is Kipling’s If self-evidently more worthy of recitation than the Our Father? Is the rosary in possession of less cultural capital, and worthy of less attention, than Shelley’s Ozymandias? Is the liturgical year, the cadences of which shaped the very psyche of our island and the customs and rituals therein, unworthy of detailed study? Is scripture, which lay at the heart of learning for hundreds of years and shaped everything from our laws to our literature, not a foundational aspect of any coherent concept of cultural capital? And lastly, is theology, the lens through which one must approach so many historical events to have any meaningful understanding of them, not worthy of as much attention as the events themselves?

Calendar page from the Book of Hours of Jean de Berry

Of course this might jar, with some seeing a jump into the theistic problematic in a system that is resolutely secular (though I suspect Arnold himself, whilst no theist, would have rejected this line of thought). But if that is the case, then we must confront an uncomfortable truth: should the best that has been thought and written be determined primarily by our present philosophical hue? If we say yes, then do we not also reject the notion that elevated knowledge and cultural value is timeless, and reaffirm that our curation is focused not by the worth of the texts themselves, but as the reflection of our own prejudices in approaching them? And if so, isn’t this precisely the point that those who criticise the notion of having any canon at all (‘Dead, White Males’) have long been making themselves?

In short, if one starts from a position of neglecting the religious and theological backdrop of the culture in which so much of our cultural inheritance was formed, what is offered is but a shadow of artefacts, and ultimately historical and cultural illiteracy, a secular humanist wish-projection of what our shared history and identity should have been, rather than what it practically and really is.

Which brings me back to our schools. Taking into account this deficiency, wanting to give a fuller account of that cultural fruits we wish to see preserved and bequeathed, do we, as a Catholic federation, need a Catholic canon? One hundred and sixty five years after Newman sought to define the proper curriculum of a Catholic university, must the Catholic community undertake a more systematic effort to define the proper curriculum of a Catholic school? Do we need to stake out our own vision, to include those treasures of our own that have not only been neglected, but from which we have been excluded? Something of the sort does exist, though not in a collated or systematic form. Should that be our next project? And if so, does that undermine the very notion of a canon, by definition shared and universal, or reaffirm it?

Or should we accept what we might believe to be a sanitised product, projecting an account of worthiness defined, ironically, by the whims of the now? This would certainly be easier. But I for one cannot shake the feeling that we might have something worthier still. Or put another way, would a Catholic canon cast aside the secular in the same way the secular casts aside the theological, or a thousand years after last having done so would it instead preserve them equally since, as with Chesterton, ‘it is only Christian men/Guard even heathen things’?

I’d certainly welcome your thoughts.

Read the follow-up post, including an email dialogue with Hirsch, by clicking here.