The ‘bland and joyless’ English school curriculum

Both the head teacher and the deputy at a primary school in Hampshire that was rated ‘outstanding’ by Oftsed recently decided to resign, citing their reason as the government’s educational policies. According to The Guardian, Alex and Peter Foggo were “profoundly opposed to recent changes in England’s schools” and resigning was “the only morally honest course open to them.”

Their opposition lay with a number of policies, including the “bland and joyless” nature of the curriculum, the impact of high-stakes testing on young children’s mental health, the reintroduction of grammar schools, and widespread cuts to school budgets. So, this begs the question: is the loss of focus on so-called creative learning damaging the education system? Is the focus on prescriptive curriculums and the existence of selective, test-intensive schools damaging to children and young people?

It’s a complex issue; when every child has their own way in which they learn best, it’s difficult to standardise a one-size-fits-all way of teaching or assessment. Exams are undoubtedly important; they teach skills that are valuable in later life, but they are not the be-all-and-end-all. A fixation on testing and exams risks robbing young people of the joy of learning. For me, anyway, A-Levels made it a chore and I was only able to rebuild my excitement for academia once I was at university and study what I was really passionate about.

Even if pupils want to pursue academia, “exam factory” style teaching doesn’t necessarily set them up for university. Learning to jump through hoops and regurgitate mark schemes doesn’t lay robust groundwork for, say, humanities subjects, the whole point of which is to have your own ideas and opinions. I understand the need for exams, but surely the learning that precedes them doesn’t have to be so formulaic and uninspiring? Obviously, this depends on the teacher, but even the best can only do so much with the curriculum they’re given.

Another point the Foggos made in light of their resignation was regarding the reintroduction of grammar schools, and this has been a contentious subject of debate in recent months. Currently, there are only 164 in England, the majority of which are in the south-east of the country, but Theresa May is keen to make them more widespread.

Those in favour of selective state schools argue that they increase social mobility for children from low-income families. However, the national average of children who are eligible for free school meals is 18% while the number who attend grammar schools is merely 3%. Social mobility may be happening, but not for many.

Additionally, grammar schools are so over-subscribed that parents often hire private tutors for their children to make sure they achieve high enough marks, as the content covered in the 11-plus such as verbal reasoning is not taught in primary schools. The cost of this tutoring obviously creates another barrier for poorer families. This is not to say that there are no working-class students at grammar schools, but it is also important to note that they are, more often than not, a minority.

Moreover, grammar schools are notoriously test-intensive and it is questionable whether this is conducive to healthy learning environments. Is it beneficial for young people at an impressionable time of their lives to feel like so much of their worth depends on their grades and academic success? If so much time is spent just preparing for the next test, it seems no wonder that “bland” and “joyless” were the Foggos adjectives of choice to describe the current education system.

Furthermore, the effects of grammar schools are felt beyond their own four walls. Studies have shown that disadvantaged pupils who attend comprehensives in areas with selective schools achieve worse grades at GCSE than those in areas without grammar schools. In non-selective areas, 33.3% of disadvantaged pupils achieve five A*- C GCSEs. However, in wholly selective areas, this figure falls to 30.1%. The case for grammar schools is far from watertight.

The loss of creative methods of teaching is hugely detrimental to the education system, particularly at primary school level. There is time enough for more “serious” ways of learning once children reach secondary school; education should not have all the fun sucked out of it before pupils’ ages even reach double figures. There isn’t one narrative that all young people follow, so it doesn’t make sense for only one to be presented as the right path to follow. Not all children will go to university or pursue academia, and while it is important to nurture those who want to, particularly in low income areas, it’s equally as important for children to know they have other options. At the moment, our education system doesn’t seem to be doing a particularly good job of setting up younger people for any walk of life. Something needs to change.

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