I find current polarities distressing. Some educators and commentators forget that in the first half of the 20th Century, it was key thinkers of the Left who argued for access to ‘powerful’ and ‘privileged’ knowledge. This important fact seems to have been lost. Recalling it may encourage a truce in an unnecessary conflict.
Those thinkers knew that writing and calculating were essential skills and that schooling should naturally be a complex mix of knowledge and skill. They also knew that knowledge is always hard-won – it’s hard to acquire established knowledge and tough enterprise to derive new knowledge.
Many children acquire rich knowledge through the cultural context of their families. Others do not or cannot do this, and schooling is their only chance to acquire it. Closing gaps between young children from different social backgrounds depends on us closing this knowledge gap.
So I challenge some of the assumptions made about the school curriculum.
Knowledge is boring
The first is about boredom. Yes, school should be exciting, motivating and engaging. And yes, acquiring knowledge is hard. But being hard does not mean it need be boring.
And yet the two are constantly equated, leading people to argue that we can make education more engaging by moving away from a focus on knowledge. In truth, all the evidence from international comparisons says that we should ensure the school curriculum is knowledge-rich and engaging.
Knowledge is passé
The second is an inference from the technology-led idea that knowledge is growing faster than ever before. True. This means that acquiring knowledge is an antiquated aim because any such knowledge is quickly redundant. False.
The particulate theory of matter is difficult to grasp, but is invaluable to advanced understanding. So are ‘pitch’ and ‘interval’ in music, the history of creative writing, and tectonic plates and glacial action. You can make any of these boring or exciting, but none are going out of date tomorrow.
Knowledge is failing
I have heard people say about Estonia, the new education ‘superpower’, that their curriculum is ‘competence-based’ and must be opposed to our ‘knowledge-rich’ model in England. They clearly have not read the Estonian national curriculum on which that nation’s current success rests. The two are uncannily similar.
The most persistent false opposition in our educational discourse remains knowledge versus skills. It’s a position which risks crystallising social differences, not reducing them.
But it represents a significant threat to social justice not only in academic general education but in vocational education too. The latter consistently under-represents the role of technical and procedural knowledge.
Knowledge is academic
All sophisticated contemporary analyses emphasise the fact that effective professional practice is a complex amalgam of knowledge and skills. The ‘competence-based’ movement of the early 1990s rightly argued that vocational and technical qualifications should be based on the practical content of work. But it went wrong when rhetoric and guidance argued that practical outcomes were all-important and any focus on knowledge irrelevant. Among serious negative consequences, this has opened up a gulf between higher- and lower-level professional qualifications.
Some occupational areas like health have begun closing this gulf. But this has not occurred through the recognition of a progressive ladder of combined knowledge and skill (which would be evidenced by high levels of traffic up the professional ladder from basic roles to higher ones). Rather, it has occurred through the irresistible practical pressures of escalating workloads and labour shortages.
In much of the labour market we see poor ladders of progression from lower technical roles to higher professional ones. A major factor is the emphasis on ‘practical outcomes’ driving the content of lower-level qualifications while higher-level qualifications are knowledge-rich with practice-based elements.
It is a credit to recent policy-makers that higher-level apprenticeships are beginning to break these divisions. But failing to mirror this model for lower-level apprenticeships denies young people the foundational knowledge to move up the progression ladder. It is the missing rung of that ladder.
This is what the next government should focus on: not bringing more competence and skill back into academic learning, but establishing knowledge firmly in vocational learning. Learning programmes in all tracks should be motivating and engaging and result in empowered, confident and capable young people – and knowledge intertwined with competence is at the heart of that endeavour.