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.
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."
Emphasis is now on the practical
Or, as eminent educationist John White puts it: "We don't spend much of our time reading about the Battle of the Nile but we spend a lot of time working out what do about holidays, jobs, children, relationships. We are practical creatures and education should have something to do with preparing us for that." And he doubts whether children can fully come to understand the modern world through the eternal truths of the classics. "Issues to do with the environment are not really treated in Jane Austin or Dickens," he quips.
Mr. White, the emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the University of London's Institute of Education, says the shake-up is important because "for the first time in English history the government is taking very seriously the question of what should education aimed at."
The government has identified three aims: to produce successful learners, confident individuals, and responsible citizens. White says that only recently has the government started thinking about the second and third aims. "If you look at what education should be about, it's issues to do with preparing people to lead a fulfilling, meaningful life, and be a good citizen. Those are obvious aims," he says.
Yet the revamp comes amid deepening concern about the "dumbing down" of studies and exams in British education. Many university lecturers and professors now complain that the school-leaving exams in Britain – GSCEs for 16-year-olds and A levels for 18-year-olds – are far easier than they were 15 or 20 years ago. Every year, results improve across the board, but university professors complain that new students are so weak at the basics that they need refresher courses before they can embark on undergraduate courses.
Quality going down?
"Every academic I have talked to feels an A level is basically a far inferior version of what it would have been not so long ago," says Professor Furedi. "Many universities put on refresher classes on basic math, stats, and teaching people to write essays – things you would take for granted in previous times."
Others are concerned at what subjects will make way for the new syllabus themes. Tellingly, the new curriculum makes no specific mention of towering historical figures like Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin. The QCA says this is part of an overall aim to be less prescriptive and give teachers greater flexibility, and insists the big names of history will get covered. Historians are not appeased.
Chris McGovern, formerly a government education adviser and now headmaster at St. Anthony's Preparatory School in north London, says the latest redesign of the national curriculum will further erode pupils' grasp of history, which is no longer taught as a chronology in schools but as a series of episodic fragments studied as topics.
"We are producing a generation who know little or nothing about the past, and the bits they do know have been carefully selected to manipulate their views of the world," he says. "We have a national amnesia. Go out on the streets, ask English children on Trafalgar square who is on top of that column. They won't know."