Are you good at thinking ahead?

What’s in store for education over the next fifteen to twenty years? We were asked to consider this question – albeit put across in a more eloquent way – during our Division day at the Institute of Education yesterday.

As usual, it made me wonder about the nature of individual subjects, curriculum development and various recent political announcements. It prompted me to write the following which I shared on our Division wiki and repeat here for any of you out there who may be interested.

Following on from yesterday, I felt that I should say a little bit more about how I see the role of subjects within school and the positives and negatives of using them as a building block in the curriculum.

Firstly, I don’t want anything to think that my view is that subjects are not important. They are. The knowledge, skills and understanding that each subject has developed over time are vital. We must respect and value each of our subject cultures and not trample all over them. But just because subjects have been taught and organised in the way that they have been in our schools doesn’t mean, in my view, that they need continue to be done in that way.

So, my second point is that I think that subjects often present barriers to student engagement because of their artificiality. Within school, they are often slow to change and develop (perhaps for good reasons). This propensity to stagnate, along with a qualifications framework that reinforces their hierarchy, means that it is very difficult for teachers (and us) to conceive of alternatives. The same is true for curriculum managers and headteachers.

But, if we are to rise to this challenge to think differently, I believe it is important to consider other organising principles for teaching and learning within the school (which, as we seemed to agree, is going to be a location for teaching and learning for some time to come). What might these alternative principles be? Discuss!

Perhaps discrete subjects will remain the preferred option? The coalition government believe them to be the right way to organise the curriculum. However, in an age where schools (and in particular Headteachers) have sole and absolute power to make decisions about nearly every aspect of their work, a ‘slimmed down’ National Curriculum means, to me at least, that many subjects (I would guess including music, art, history, geography, etc) may well become at best optional and at worst potentially ignored in some schools. Certainly, the principle of a broad and balanced curriculum entitlement for all students seems questionable. In what may be a classic political trick, the coalition government may espouse the value of this type of curriculum, but ultimately be able to assert (blame?) individual schools or headteachers when they don’t enact their values. Either way, the National Curriculum as we know it may not contain that common entitlement in a year or so from now. In relation to this point, we have much to learn from John Rainer about how drama has remained within many schools despite being outside of the formal National Curriculum framework.

Perhaps these changing notions of subjects within the curriculum will create the conditions where a cross-curricular or inter-disciplinary approach to the curriculum will be fostered? But recent history does not bode well in this respect either. I doubt it will given recent pronouncements by Gove et al.

For us, in ITE, what happens in schools will have a major affect on how our courses should be structured and delivered. To be blunt, what’s the point of a PGCE in Music when music isn’t taught and part of a common curriculum entitlement in schools? I can see a time coming when we may be forced out of our subject boundaries into some kind of broader ‘arts’ or ‘humanities’ ITE roles. It would be better to develop the approaches to ITE in these new arenas along principled lines that we can all agree on, ensuring that subject cultures are respected and built upon, rather than be forced into rapid changes and dancing to another’s tune and timeline (and can you dance to a timeline?).

Anyway, perhaps I’ve got this all wrong. Maybe we’ll be doing the same sort of courses as we are doing now in 15 years time? But would we want that either? The challenges seem to me to be about a broader set of circumstances, issues and ideas that we should be engaging with to shape what we are doing today as well as how we plan for the future. For me, at least, a broader notion of cross-curricularity and inter-disciplinarity is essential because that is what is happening in the real musical world as I understand it. As a trite example, the visual impact of The Muse’s concert last Saturday made as big an impression on me as the musical impact and certainly engaged the whole audience The longer that we retreat into our subject and find comfort there, the more we will alienate young people and others from learning about it in school. Music has a dreadful legacy in this respect which can’t be allowed to, and shouldn’t, continue for much longer.