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British teach less Churchill, more global warming

Starting next year British teenagers will face an exotic range of new disciplines designed to equip them with more practical skills.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 24, 2007


Once upon a time, the British curriculum was straightforward. There was math, English, science. You learned about Winston Churchill, how to locate Greece, and how to say "My name is John" in French.

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But starting next year British teenagers will face an exotic range of new disciplines designed to equip them with more practical skills. Healthy cooking, personal finances, and global warming are in. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and the Battle of the Nile may be nudged out.

Under a syllabus revamp, citizenship classes will be enhanced with homework on British values, languages will be expanded to include Mandarin and Urdu and a new rubric entitled "personal, social, health, and economic well-being" has been developed.

The overhaul, which was introduced in 1988, has whipped up strong feelings from traditionalists who are alarmed that it will "dumb down" education, sacrifice conventional studies for subjects without much academic rigor and produce students with a weaker grasp of basic knowledge. Their basic point: that kids who work hard at math will be just as well equipped to handle money than someone with an A in "economic wellbeing;" that those who learn geography will get global warming well enough; that history students will understand ideas of citizenship and diversity better than if it is spoon-fed to them as a separate subject.

Out with the old, in with the new

"The old curriculum aimed to give children experience of establishing the truth and was based around the traditional subjects," says Professor Alan Smithers, an education expert and former member of the national curriculum council. "This is moving more away from subjects and towards skills and issues and handing out a received message.

"The new curriculum is making assumptions that you can teach things like citizenship and coping with debt and equality, rather than thinking these are things children could pick up through studying history or English literature," he says, adding that he believes the traditional subjects are a better way of "making sense of the world."

Some complain that the new syllabus even has an air of knee-jerk reaction to it: The government is concerned at rising obesity and in goes a course on healthy cooking; personal debt has soared to more than $2 trillion and suddenly there's a course in managing personal finances; ethnic minorities are deemed to need encouragement to assimilate and the new-fangled citizenship subject is enhanced. "All these initiatives are giving children little bits of governmental advice that distracts teachers from the job of getting people to read and write and get the basics across," says Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University in southeast England.

But what are the basics? The government argues that in a fast-changing, complex world, the basics are as much about learning how to buy a house or manage relationships as they are about algebra or the Battle of Trafalgar.

Alan Cox of the government's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) says that the new emphasis is on "trying to encourage schools to think ... not just in terms of academic subjects but how you organize things and deal with life skills. They are important to equip kids for the modern world and the increasingly complex decisions you have to make on a daily basis."