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This year saw the publication of the Conservative Case for Education by Nicholas Tate. The book is well worthy of your time, even if it fails to achieve its stated ambition of providing a (small ‘c’) conservative vision of education. As I said in my review for ‘Schools Week’,
There remains, however, an underlying tension; Tate’s evident irritation with the direction of contemporary thinking, indeed culture, seems to hang over his work. There is nothing wrong with this, and as Chesterton reminds us, ‘he is a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of a conservative.’ But the rebel must also be a romantic, and have a cause to sell.
It is here that Tate risks reaffirming the caricatures of the conservative mindset – that it knows what it is against more than it knows what it is for.
Read the rest of the review here.
A little while back I wrote a blog post reflecting on some of my experiences of social mobility, teasing out some of the effects that have received rather less attention within a political environment that has held commitment to social mobility as a staple of virtuous and socially concerned politics. That blog post received some attention, and I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to talk through some of these thoughts on BBC Radio Four Thought. You can listen to the episode here.
The script for Four Thought is largely a condensed version of the original blog post, so I shan’t replicate it here, though for those who might be interested, I did add some further thoughts focusing in on how these things apply to our education system. Partly, these are the thinking through of a theme I have explored as part of Blue Labour here, a TES piece on ‘aspiration’ here, a post on the culture clash in our schools here, and a post on Brexit here. I have included the additional comments from the radio script below.
It is a theme I’ll no doubt return to in due course, but in the meantime many thanks all for the kind comments and good will.
As such, if you arrive from a working-class background, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You grow accustomed to the objects of derision being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the disdain might sometimes be delivered in the abstract, the barbs are felt personally, especially when aimed at a viewpoint common amongst those who comprised your upbringing. The creation myth of the liberal mind is one of a virtuous battle against intolerance, bigotry and demonization of the Other – but those who pursue such accounts of virtue don’t always realise, or don’t care, that these are precisely the sins they commit in the eyes of those on the receiving end of their disdain.
And this has become status seeking behaviour: there is prestige 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. Detractors revel in the eloquence of their disdain, as if articulacy were evidence of truth and justification of their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority, an argument for their presumed existential superiority, too.
There is nothing particularly new in this, and in any echo chamber dissent is proof that someone is Not Like Us, and thus wrong. From which naturally follows the belief that there’s a moral duty to help future generations become more Like Us, and thus right.
In our schools, this has real consequences, as a class of Anywheres, to use David Goodhart’s terms, seek to educate a generation of Somewheres, with the former believing success includes educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing.
And so pupils from a socially or morally conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) upbringing, will at times find themselves at odds with the moral norms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education, or more precisely the absence of it.
For our education system, children formed by such views must simply reject them, since that’s the character of being educated. Virtue, and intellect, demands it – and the educated are much better at making the intellectual case for their virtue.
But this feels unwise. In a contest between home and academic flourishing, some choose home; not because of ignorance, but because of a refusal to shed heritage as participation fee. For too many, education presents itself as not for people like them, at least not whilst they remain people like Them – to be educated too often means not being like your Mum or Dad. Thus, we present our children with a choice they should not have to make, in so doing pushing them away from an inheritance they should not have to abandon.
And so the cycle continues, a tension between home and school, in which the rejection of home is synonymous with being educated. Social mobility, it cannot be denied, has a cultural edge – the ability, even the demand, to walk away from who are you are, or at the very least where you are from. At the same time, a residential university system has entrenched the idea that flourishing is only to be found when we leave, less so when we stay.
If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation here.
None of which is to say working class kids need not aspire to high culture and education, a calumny which often rears its head in the guise of compassion. No, the precise opposite. It’s to say that our cultural and intellectual treasures are a heritage due to all, and we might better ensure its equal distribution if we focused less on the purity of the receiver, and more on the dignity of the receiving.
Of course, this is more complex than a simple to-and-fro between two competing accounts of the good life, and neither side are entirely wrong, even if heart battles fiercely with head in trying to work out the best, or worst, of the two. Still, if you join the affray from a working-class background, you inevitably have a foot in both camps, leaving you an outsider to each. The world that formed you, that helped you fly, can be the world that risks holding you back, a world which you both reject(ed) and embrace at the same time.
And it’s always the rejection that each side remembers, never the embrace.
Northern education is talked about frequently. Northern educators, on the other hand, are talked to rather less frequently. We are regularly told about the deficiencies of the education we offer; we are less regularly listened to about the challenges that shape the education we offer.
This is unjust.
We do not deny there are improvements to be made. We do not deny that change needs to happen. But we reasonably expect to have a voice of our own when discussing how these things might be achieved.
We are as skilled, as passionate, as well-informed as our colleagues in other areas of the country – we deserve to have our voice heard. And too often it feels as if it is not, with discussion and access always based far away from the villages, town and cities that we teach in.
This needs to change.
And so, we propose the creation of a Northern Education Forum. We’ve put together a Google Form [sign up here] for those who may wish to register their interest in being involved. The details of its remit, its membership, and its role will be fleshed out over the coming weeks.
But in the meantime, we have one simple question:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).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.
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.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.
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.
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
- Agnus Dei
- 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…
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.