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.

Mini-Essay: What is Liberal Education?

One cannot be a modern “educationalist” without a pithy defence of what education is and what (or who) it is for.

One cannot be a modern “educationalist” without a pithy defence of what education is and what (or who) it is for. Definitions for the purpose of education are to be heard everywhere, and are often loaded with personal or political bias. Someone new to the topic – told at every turn that education is one of the most important features of modern life – can be forgiven if he is left scratching his head, or if he is attracted by the meretricious glow of trendy definitions (or manifestos, as they increasingly seem to be called) currently doing the rounds.I have found it helpful to look backwards at how education has been defined in the past. It is a great comfort to do so, for although details and methods are debated, the central purpose of education seems to have been universally understood since it was begun in Athens in the 5th Century BC. The phrase “liberal education” – and this site – takes its inspiration from this old common understanding of what education is for. That this definition should be supplanted by something fit for the 21st Century is a case that has been repeatedly made; I would ask which developments have made the definition below no longer fit for purpose.The essay to read is Anthony O’Hear’s Introduction in his The School of Freedom, from which this brief, and personal, summary draws its inspiration.Firstly, how is Liberal Education liberal? In two principal ways:1. Its purpose and scope is broad.


The goal of liberal education is…to produce educated persons. Qualifications may be more or less required depending on the historical circumstances, but the chief measure of a liberal education is a frank look at the end product: is this person educated, or is he not? How do we test this? Principally, by how much he knows. This is where that glorious – but much too debated – phrase from Matthew Arnold comes in: that children should be fed a diet of “the best that has been thought and said.” The point is that the knowledge selected for the child to be taught should not be dictated by how useful it will be for a particular job, but for its own inherent quality. This means: the best novels; the most ground-breaking scientific breakthroughs; the great events in history. I disagree with a few points of Martin Stephen’s essay The Strange Death of Liberal Education, but he does use this attractive phrase. A liberal education, because it is concerned with more than training for a particular job “has time to gather flowers by the wayside.”

2. Its ambition is to liberate.

The more specific an education, the more trapped are its graduates. The payoff for the rigours of a liberal education is intellectual liberation. A diet of “the best that has been thought and said”, if taught in the right way, equips children with the mental armoury needed to be truly autonomous, protected in adult life from the temptations of sophistic hucksters or commercialist knaves. It was an education designed, in the words of the 15th Century writer Vergerio, to be “worthy of a free man.”

I shall leave to a future essay the central paradox of liberal education. To my mind, it is the reason that its name is so often taken in vain. Briefly, it is this: in order to achieve liberal education’s highly ambitious ends, teachers and parents have to use means, especially in the early years, which will feel illiberal. Memorisation; grammar tables; rote learning; high standards rigorously upheld. As Anthony O’Hear very eloquently puts it, “personal freedom requires an internal locus of control.” Supporters of liberal education have a low estimation of a child’s ability to reason. As Aristotle says in his Ethics, “no one would choose to live with the intellect of a child throughout his life.” Again, this is put very well from Professor O’Hear: “it is the responsibility of parents to exercise judgment on behalf of their growing children, and the most generous choice is to train the child’s own reason in anticipation of his or her necessary freedom in majority.” It is in these coercive areas – a recommended canon of knowledge, rigorously taught – that the Liberal Education tradition runs counter to some of the orthodoxies of modern permissive parenting. The payoff is worth it though. Anthony O’Hear again: “by aiming at such uniformity schools produce all the diversity of freedom…No pedagogy has ever shown more faith in its charges; no generation has ceded so much power to their successors.”

Liberal education is defined in essence above. It has two interesting lesser priorities, which I shall touch on very briefly here. The first is that it has an aesthetic element to it. Martin Stephen says that “A liberal education seeks to inculcate an awareness not just of why a thing works, but that it can be beautiful in its working”, and Professor O’Hear agrees: the ideal product has “…an educated sensibility in matters of value and the aesthetic.” The last point is that it includes quiet political ambitions too. Students who have been truly liberally educated want to engage with the world politically. “Reason,” as O’Hear says, “will call its pupils to action.” I shall be discussing the non-intellectual character elements of liberal education in another essay.

As a last point, it is worth answering the question of who, as opposed to what, liberal education is for. After its coercive elements, the next biggest problem for liberal education in this century is the whiff of elitism that accompanies it. Of course, it was precisely this elitism that made it attractive in the past. In more ambitious ages, people of all backgrounds thronged to the great books and ideas precisely because they basked in glory. This should be the rejoinder in the present age: when previous generations from all backgrounds took such succour from liberal education, why is it modern young people from poor backgrounds who are denied it? It is, after all, the unprivileged who have more use for intellectual autonomy than the privileged. The book to read on the topic is Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. In it, he charts the reading habits of the British working class over hundreds of years. The book teems with fascinating portraits: Catherine Cookson’s biography is famous; my favourite are those of the Midland weavers who had copies of Great Books propped up on their frames as they worked. As O’Hear points out, the initial aims of Liberal Education were to extend aristocratic Athenian culture to all Athenian citizens; this ambition needs to be urgently re-stated.