A new science teacher at my school reported to me a conversation which he had had with his pupils. They had asked with astonishment how he knew what they had studied before, when he had just arrived. He explained to them that there is a national curriculum which specifies the content to be studied in science, so pupils in different schools essentially study the same material.
I don’t know what that’s like. I teach English, in which the national curriculum doesn’t get much beyond ‘read some stuff and write some stuff’, once you’ve removed all the jargon and flannel. It isn’t until public examinations are being taken that things start to take a slightly more specific form.
I’m working on creating an English curriculum which builds knowledge of literature and literary history in a coherent, chronological way, so I will actually know more about what my pupils know from year to year, and they will be able to establish a mental schema into which they can fit new knowledge about literature across the ages. I would welcome a national curriculum for English that genuinely helped teachers build resources which they could share across schools. I would welcome a national curriculum for English that created a common body of knowledge, for teachers and for pupils.
There are many problems with curricular incoherence, as E D Hirsch has pointed out. One of them is that when pupils move between schools, there is no common body of knowledge that they are expected to know. When a new pupil arrives in my class, I just have to assume they know nothing about literary history and classic literature. It’s a pretty safe assumption, frankly, given the fluff which fills the English curriculum in most schools prior to GCSE. If they join in year eight or nine, it’s hard on them to have to try to catch up with the years of hard work my pupils have put into mastering core knowledge.
Specifying content and then testing it through national examinations is currently the only way in which coherence is established in the English curriculum. I am very much in favour of the testing of specific knowledge in English. Given the emptiness and incoherence of so much English teaching around the country, it can only be a benefit actually to specify something so that the years aren’t completely wasted on vacuous ‘creativity’. The howls of outrage with which testing of grammar and punctuation in primary school is greeted show how much resistance there is to the government’s, actually very mild, efforts to turn English into a real subject with some hard content that can actually be tested objectively. What, you actually want them to learn something specific? How off-putting!
With a significant increase in specific, objective testing, there would be some chance that at some point in the future, I would be able to depend just a little more on the pupils who arrive in my classroom knowing something definite. But for the time being, I just have to start from scratch and build the knowledge myself.