Mini-Essay: The Curriculum

In almost a decade of answering questions from parents about boarding schools, I have never been asked about a school’s curriculum. And yet it is hard to think of a feature that has more of a bearing on a child’s education. This short essay makes a case for why the curriculum is quite so important, and suggests a few ways to judge individual schools on the merits or demerits of their curriculum.

I should say a word on the term. A school’s ‘curriculum’ is the course of study it has chosen for its pupils. In detail, it would describe the content of every lesson. Although schools are directed to some extent by national examinations, they nevertheless – and especially in the independent sector – have a lot of freedom to design their own curricula.

Very Brief History

To understand the importance of the curriculum, it is necessary to have a whistle-stop look at its history.

Before the nineteenth century, boarding schools offered a curriculum that appears baffling to the modern parent. Most schools exclusively taught the Classics; Harrow also offered…Archery.

From the nineteenth century onwards, though, after spirited debate as to the merits of new-fangled subjects like Science and English Literature, the curriculum began to take the shape that it was to retain to the present day. This is a curriculum arranged into discrete subjects, such as Maths, English and Science, and organised around the core knowledge included in these subjects. To my knowledge, no more effective curriculum has ever been devised or instituted.

Such a curriculum is what late nineteenth century commentators such as Matthew Arnold called a “liberal education.” (For more on the term, read my mini-essay on the topic.) Importantly, it was thought to be a curriculum that should not be limited to independent schools, but which had universal appeal and benefit. From the 1870s onwards, it met with the approval of headmasters, politicians and commentators of many different stripes. And it was just such a liberal curriculum that inspired the formation of the first National Curriculum in 1988.

However, though the support for such a curriculum was broad, it was by no means unanimous. Weakened by the ideological currents of the 1960s and 70s, the consensus faltered and, as David Conway charts in his brilliant summary of the events, the mainstream educational establishment began to view this curriculum as elitist, irrelevant and not fit for purpose. Since 1988, the National Curriculum has been steadily distancing itself from the curriculum beliefs that had been upheld for so long by both the independent sector and beyond.

From the late 20th Century onwards, then, there was has been a decoupling. The National Curriculum has become ever more suspicious of traditional subject knowledge, and has promoted instead a curriculum that is based on skills (such as “collaboration” or “project research”) and rooted in the knowledge brought to class by pupils rather than knowledge imparted to pupils by teachers. The independent sector, on the other hand, has by and large stuck to the curriculum principles laid down in the nineteenth century.

How does this affect boarding school parents?

Concerns for Parents

Parents should be anxious as to whether the independent sector is safely insulated from the modern educational orthodoxy on the curriculum.

This is not the place to go into detail about why a traditional knowledge-based curriculum is so important for children. For parents who want to read more, the book to read is Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education. For now, one quotation of hers out of many that favour the traditional boarding school curriculum will suffice:

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge.

So do boarding school parents have any reason to be anxious? In general, I am glad to say, no. Most independent school leaders have rejected modern curriculum orthodoxy, no doubt seeing that their belief in traditional subject knowledge is one of the reasons why the private sector has so outstripped the maintained sector in the last few decades.

However, there are a two concerning trends that I have noticed:

  1. An increasing number of teachers in boarding schools have been subjected to two years of modern curriculum philosophy during their training on the PGCE. “Skills-based” curricula are terribly seductive. I should know: I was enthralled by them when I was a recent graduate teacher myself. What was the point of learning pointless lists of Kings and Queens, when – in the twenty first century – knowledge is just a click away? The modern child surely did not need such an outdated curriculum; he needed to be a flexible, resilient, lifelong learner instead! Without the underpinnings (scientific and philosophical) of a knowledge-based curriculum, many new teachers are prey to the seemingly more enlightened theories of Sir Ken Robinson et al. I have met many well-educated and well-meaning teachers who have been trained to look on traditional curricula with hostility. Such teachers are ever more numerous in UK boarding schools.
  2. For the same reasons that a “skills-based” curriculum is seductive to new teachers, it is also seductive to many new parents. Hence the ever more frequent promise on school websites that they are “preparing students for the twenty first century” by, for example, “developing skills of creativity, flexibility, lateral thinking and enterprise”; or by “fostering intuition and resilience” or by “nurturing empathy and courage.” If these melodious mission statements are achieved by sticking to a traditional subject-based curriculum, the potential for damage is limited; if they are accompanied, as they are in some boarding schools, by a subversion of the curriculum, the potential hazard is immense.

Tips for Parents

How can parents tell whether a boarding school curriculum is knowledge-based or skills-based?

Out of all the aspects of a school’s daily life, the curriculum is one of the hardest to get a handle on. Whenever I visit schools, I do my best – but am often left none the wiser about the content of a school’s lessons. This is particularly the case as few registrars ever have intricate knowledge of a school’s curriculum. A few tips will suffice, though I would be delighted to hear more:

  • Ask to be shown round by a pupil, and ask them what they have been learning in their subjects recently. I particularly enjoy asking about their History lessons. I was told by one group of prep school boarders, with inestimable delight in their eyes, about all the intricacies of the Battle of Waterloo. If pupils relay knowledge (as opposed to vaguer accounts of history projects or source analysis), it is a very healthy sign.
  • If you can’t gain a good idea of a school’s curriculum from its website, ask whether the Director of Studies would mind receiving an email from you. Ask him or her simply what principles underlie the school’s curriculum. If the emphasis is on knowledge over skills, or at least if knowledge is seen as the essential foundation block upon which skills can be built, you can rest easy.

This is a thorny but fundamental topic and, if parents have the time, one that well repays further reading.

Sir Ken Robinson – Do Schools Kill Creativity?

As soon as a friend or acquaintance becomes interested in education, it is not long before they send me Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity? Accompanied with subject-lines like ‘Been kept up all night by this…’ or ‘SO TRUE!!’.

Once a fellow believer, my short time in education has convinced me of the utter falsehood of his position, and the troubles that result from this sort of thinking. As the talk is representative of much progressive thinking on education, I thought it would be helpful to point out what I believe to be the three most glaring errors:

1. The ‘Unpredictability’ Argument


“If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue…what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”

This statement is not so much wrong; it has simply been true of education forever. It was as true in 1911, in regard to 1965, as it is true today. It reveals a common mistaken belief that the pace of technological change is now so fast that knowledge is out-of-date almost as soon as it has been learned. It’s a popular stick with which to bash academic education – with such an uncertain future, why learn Latin etc?

It is the assumptions, rather than the point itself, that are troubling. Instead of boring, outdated knowledge, they argue, we should teach students ‘dispositions’,  ‘habits of mind’, and ‘aptitudes’ that will help them in the future. What are these dispositions? Dubious abstract nouns – creativity, innovativeness, team-work, problem-solving – that are as hard to define as they are to teach.

2. Anti-academia


“At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think math is very important, but so is dance.”

You can’t be a respected educational progressive without beating up on Maths. Guy Claxton devoted a whole chapter to it. A moment’s thought should reveal the strangeness of this line of argument. There are many competing definitions for the ‘purpose of education’ (to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next; to help increase GNP; to have an educated democratic citizenry; to alleviate social inequality – to name a few). None would allow for Dance to have equal-footing with Maths.

But that is to miss the point. Because like most arguments put forward by education progressives, they are fighting a battle that they have already won. There is dance in schools – to the exclusion of academic education. And at the same time: there is less Maths. We have plummeted in the PISA league tables in Maths. And frankly who’s surprised when Maths, as conceived by the National Curriculum, is defined like this: “mathematics provides opportunities to promote spiritual development, through helping pupils obtain an insight into the infinite, and through explaining the underlying mathematical  principles behind some of the beautiful natural forms and patterns in the world around us.”

3. Educational Romanticism about Talent


“All kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them…ruthlessly.”

The first half of this statement is Robinson as the father in The Talented Mr. Ripley: “every man must have a talent, Mr. Ripley. What’s yours?” Except that: it’s not true. Most teachers you speak to will admit it – there are some children who do not have tremendous talents. The problem with the current system is not a pessimism about the potential of children, but the reverse: a crazed optimism, an “Educational Romanticism” in Charles Murray’s words, that refuses to discern between the varying abilities of children.

As a result, those who do have tremendous talents are not allowed – whether it is through grammar schools or other selective means – to realize that talent; and those who have less academic talent are not given opportunities to learn the sorts of valuable skills at secondary schools that will enable them to lead valued lives.