Notes on: Young, M F D (2011) 'The return to subjects: a sociological perspective on the UK Coalition government's approach to the 14-19 curriculum'.  The Curriculum Journal, 22 (2): 265-78.

Dave Harris

The proposals emphasise knowledge and schools subjects, although there is no real consideration of the 14-19 curriculum as a whole.  The emphasis on subjects is controversial, as is the decision to rank schools on the basis of five subjects in the English Bac [which never really took off] - schools had really planned to focus on maths, science and English since these figured in the league tables.  There was also criticism that the approach was elitist and likely to produce new inequalities.

However, there is a need for a debate on the broader issue of the appropriate number of subjects that schools should teach, and what should count as a subject.  This debate challenges the earlier emphasis on learners.  There are also complex issues of governance concerned, especially the connection between the different departments in government -that relating to Business, Innovation and Skills, and that one relating to Education.  Earlier discussions about the nature of knowledge [in Young and Muller 2010] can be pursued.  Some practical issues about vocational education, a coherent 14-19 curriculum, and issues of social justice and equality also arise.

Young and Muller proposed three possible futures for schooling in terms of knowledge.  The idea that knowledge is transmitted through a curriculum can be classified as Future 1, where access to knowledge is the main issue, and knowledge is roughly equivalent to the range of subjects.  It can be seen as 'a curriculum for compliance' [citing Young 2011], and encourages memorisation and rote. Hirsch is a major exponent.  It draws on 19th century ideas that hard work and discipline will deliver results.  Knowledge is to be valued for its own sake, and this implies the notion of schooling as offering intellectual challenge, hence a sophisticated version of it survives in elite schools.  The government also implies that universities should take responsibility for A levels [again a failed initiative I think].  However, the model is long been challenged has not corresponding to expanded access or new relevant knowledge for the economy.

The modernising claims informed Future 2, where knowledge is a social construct driven by different social and economic demands: expanding access and new economic demands led to new ideas about subjects and the breaking of boundaries between them, between schooling and every day knowledge, and between the academic and vocational.  It claimed to have uncovered 'epistemological realities' [a contradiction in terms?] (267).  The discussion only opened the possibility of government interference on what had been a secret garden.  [Somehow this connects with the assumption that] standards get higher every year as indicated by increases in examination passes.  Knowledge is seen as arbitrary and as merely expressing power - hence the term '"knowledge of the powerful"'(Young 2009), and its primary emphasis was on who defined knowledge.  Subjects are therefore suspect.  The attack on external objectivity implies that the curriculum should expressed learners experiences and interests.  The curriculum becomes an instrument of politics, not one of 'achieving educational goals'.  One example is 'the new Scottish Curriculum for excellence'(268) with its emphasis on creating successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens, and effective contributors.  The teacher is a mere facilitator.  This is 'something of a caricature', but it has importance as something that the UK government wants to combat.  At the same time, it seems progressive and democratic, so it tends to attract the left and some researchers.  It does not appeal to elite educators who believe that knowledge is powerful in itself, not because it is defined by the powerful, that it offers understanding.  The failure to acknowledge this lies with labour governments and its own educational agencies, and 'may explain why inequalities between different types of school have increased in the last decade'(269).

Young and Muller argue that there is another option.  This agrees that knowledge is social 'in both origins and objective'[I think this should read 'both social in origin, and objective'].  Its objectivity is expressed in school subjects and disciplines.  It is not just a revived tradition, however but produced by 'specialist communities of researchers', hence its '"social" objectivity is not "given" but fallible and always open to change'.  However, these changes are not arbitrary or political but 'take place within the epistemic rules' of the different communities [which are presumably themselves seem to be neutral and not political - not at all what Bhaskar says, let alone loads of others, including Bourdieu in a different sense].  This is Future 3.  The objectivity of subjects mean we can treat the world as an object and this will help students gain access to understanding it in ways which 'takes them beyond their experience', and this should be the 'primary goal of schools'.

It is necessary that the concepts associated with different subjects are stipulated, and this will help us see that the relation between these concepts in a discipline makes them different from the 'everyday concepts that pupils bring to school'.  Concepts must be linked to contents that give them meaning and to skills in acquiring them.  This will provide a suitable balance between concepts, content and skills - pedagogy then helps students engage with concepts [sounds like a mishmash based on threshold concepts].

Using this approach, we can see that the 14-19 curriculum is incoherent.  It is more like 'an aspiration without a common substance and with few guarantees'(270).  It is like a rerun TVEI [Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative, funded by Euro cash, attracting all sorts of enthusiastic knobs who went round spouting on about the knowledge economy].  The new National Curriculum undermined it [by letting the traditional conservatives have their say about common or core traditional values].  The 14-19 separate phase gained popularity as an attempt to overcome the divisions between academic and vocational, although the original idea of the GCSE was to bridge the two, being 'designed to include the whole of each cohort', and weakened by the 'increasing emphasis on A - C grades', and its subsequent link with league tables.

Only a few students take the 14-19 route [once called the 'diploma' route, now embodied in Studio Schools].  A levels are still popular and 'perhaps 40%' of each cohort take them.  However the A level curriculum 'remains desperately narrow', as seen in the 'appalling record in learning foreign languages' (271).  What's left is 'confusion', about whether to stay at school, go to college, take an academic or a work based route, and the whole thing is awash with different curricular and qualifications, new diplomas, the old credit framework, divided funding between those offering the courses, and still the 'persistent and deep academic/vocational divide'.  Acquiring particular qualifications seems to be the main issue, partly because the government can use them to rank schools [and because the ludicrous Brown Report equated qualifications with skills].  This means the awarding bodies shape the curriculum.

How can this be made more coherent?  Advocates of Future 1 see the existing divisions between academic and vocational, for example, as 'some kind of given' instead of an anachronism.  Even vocational education represents these assumptions.  Michael Gove's recent lecture can be taken as an indication [always unwise, because he was a notorious kite flyer, and did not last as Secretary of State for Education anyway].  This lecture said that we must not undervalue practical skills and knowledge, that at the moment a vocational course was more or less taken as being designed for someone who had been rejected by an academic one, and that explains employers' preference for academic qualifications.  We must increase our efforts in technical education to compete.  However, Gove is wrong to blame failing education for the decline of manufacturing, as comparative studies show [the Asian tigers do not stress technical and vocational education, and government investment is the key].

Strangely, Gove also recommended the traditions of English literature and craft skills, both tinged with nostalgia for the 19th century.  In particular, there are now no crafts or trades, and no evidence that learning a craft will lead to further study or employment.  Underneath it all is a belief in two kinds of minds, the practical and the academic.  14 year olds should choose, even if they 'lack the knowledge of what they lead to'  (273).  We should be thinking instead of the likely new industries and services that will develop, and it is 'inconceivable' and these will be craft jobs.  Instead, industries will be based on knowledge [oh dear], 'application and imagination', 'thinking in and beyond disciplines and subjects'. We need to think about developing an 'export oriented economy in the future', and base our future vocational curriculum on it.  We should not rely on finance and services.

We need a more coherent approach.  The Government is looking backwards, to a given world.  They did not like the Tomlinson report, and nor did the Labour government 'for short term political reasons'.  We should return to its proposal for 'a unified system of qualifications that included A levels and GCSEs, school and college based vocational courses, and work based programmes'(274) [this would still not deal with differences in prestige, as a very early study of the difference between grammar schools and secondary modern schools showed - government could bleat on all it liked about equality of esteem, but parents did not believe it].  However, Tomlinson still adopted a Future 2 view, seeing knowledge as shaped to suit political purposes, so it was a political solution to an educational problem.

In Future 3, we must stress access to powerful knowledge.  We must allow for specialisation at the age 14, and recognise that equal opportunities for progression will require [what?  Intervention?  Careful monitoring?].  Pathways should be coherent in two ways for Muller -'"conceptual"', defined by discipline based knowledge, and '"contextual"', access to skills associated with particular occupations.  A proper curriculum should be based on both types in balance, and qualifications should reflect the curriculum instead of driving it [and, no doubt, all sorts of other shoulds].

Gove's proposals will create new inequalities, critics have argued.  Gove himself says he is advocating equality, in the sense of proposing a common curriculum for everybody [Young seems to agree], but his priorities in subject based curricula have been associated with inequalities in the past.  However, any curriculum can produce inequality, 'in a society such as ours which is based on systematic social inequalities'(275).  However, a subject based curriculum based on concepts can both reproduce inequalities' and also act as 'potentially a carrier of universal knowledge', knowledge that does not depend on its social origins or how it is produced.  [In what circumstances might these delights occur, though?].  The emphasis on concepts not facts that is important [although it is admitted that some of the facts 'will be concepts', 276 -- a general problem here in not defining what a concept is].  Concepts have the potential for treating all pupils equally, 'notwithstanding their specific historical origins', and it is clear that some working class pupils do succeed in such a curriculum [citing an historian, Judt].

Subject based curricula might have originated to suit the interests of the middle classes in the past, but this does not 'preclude their universalising educational potential'[the example is Boyle's Law, which also originated in the 18th century middle classes].  So subjects are not just determined by their social origin, but have 'a degree of objectivity as the most reliable ways we have developed of transmitting " powerful knowledge"'(276) [this is just constant reassertion of the same point].  Subjects can fossilise and become a matter of acquiring facts, however.  More important, opportunities to acquire this powerful knowledge are not equally distributed across schools, and better qualified teachers 'who are more likely to promote such acquisition', will tend to want to work with higher achieving pupils [so until we fix this problem, beating on about the subject based curriculum is a waste of time?].

So we have to address the shortage of specialist subject teachers and their uneven distribution, but this is not done in the current proposals for the 14-19 curriculum which is divisive and incoherent.  Current government policy of returning to subjects 'will in all probability lead to new inequalities'(277), but a subject based curriculum will lead to 'a fairer system for all'.  We must not continue to deny pupils access.  And those who are denied 'have most to lose from a curriculum that emphasises experience and relevance and plays down the importance of subjects; no child stays at school to learn what they already know'.

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