Young people despair over prospects of a one-dimensional curriculum

This blog picks up on last week’s decision by the UKYP to campaign for ‘a curriculum that prepares us for life’. The back-story is at the end, should you need it.

If you’re sixteen, all you’ve heard about education in the last five years is ‘exams’. A good school gets people through exams. Exams are the gateway. The school system is being overhauled to get more people through tougher exams.

Interestingly, the UKYP had no problem with supporting good academic achievement. That was fine as one baseline. But they were definitely protesting about ‘curriculum’; not ‘education’. They knew that they meant ‘prescribed content’. And they knew that as far as the Education Secretary is concerned content is first and foremost academic. After that everything is optional.

He may today be delighted that young people are pressing for the next layer of school activity, after the academic, to be well styled in order to develop their social and political capabilities. I don’t think they would settle for that. Here’s why, as I see it…

Like people, education has to be three dimensional. On one plane it gives foundational knowledge and develops the intellectual capability for lifelong learning. On another it prepares each new generation to inhabit and maintain the social order they inherit: in our case an egalitarian democracy. And on the third plane it must enable each child to identify their vulnerabilities, aptitudes and capabilities such that they can achieve prosperous, fulfilling lives in balance with the needs of others.

If the nation can only mandate the first dimension as ‘curriculum’ then young people are rightly sensing some kind of retraction of responsibility. After all, they have got to go to school. That suggests that the content of what is delivered in school is a consensual transmission of the nation’s priorities for their future wellbeing. Is this as far as the nation can think… to get them through exams? Why don’t we care about anything else? Are the people who passed exams now reproducing the nation in their exam-passing image?

Michael Gove is clearly much cleverer than that. I would say that he sees my first plane as the gateway level. He reckons that unless significant political weight achieves systemic change, our schools will never leverage a new dawn where social mobility is achieved through universal high quality education at this ‘level one’.

I applaud that conviction. Yet the world has often been changed for the better by strong willed visionaries delivering slightly flawed ideas with deep conviction. Probably more so than when theoretically better ideas are delivered half- heartedly, which may be his conclusion about the old system.

The downside of that is that around ten years later some pragmatist has to step in with the corrective and tweak the system back to a more sustainable norm. And then of course it loses energy again. ‘Balance’ is surely now one of the least motivating social drivers? The opposite of ‘passion’…

Yet our MYPs were passionate about their corrective to current proposals: they wanted three-dimensional education. They wanted set content on politics, sex and relationships, personal finance and economic awareness. They wanted content in the curriculum that made sense to life before you had finished university with a £40,000 debt. And for all the other 75% who will never get there…

They were passionate, in my view, because they are feeling the problem and not sensing that the cure will work. All around them in the family, in the high street, in falling youth provision and on screen are the stresses of life after the global financial crash, yet schools are carrying on as if the old cure will work. Pass exams, go through university: stick in. And in our political system we are carrying on as normal: temporarily hold back on spending until things return to normal.

The dismaying thing about their demands has to be that most schools and educationalists will say that the very content that they’re asking for is already being offered to them. Citizenship and PHSE bring most of it.

Here’s the disaster:

The closing speaker believed that both these subjects had been removed by Mr Gove.

Neither has, and hopefully neither will be. He has yet to pronounce, but we can see that it would be unpopular with them if it was. They have to be in there. But she thought they were dead because he has neglected their value for three years now.

Equally drastically, many have had such ‘life preparing’ education, but it hasn’t been delivered in a way that they value. They’re not even getting a say whether or not ‘life education’ to date is working. That’s pretty unbelievable. It’s representative of an education system that does to them not with them. And that won’t change if the current debate about the curriculum is settled by a one-dimensional mandate with a prime emphasis on exams.

No matter what happens with the UKYP’s vote, if nothing else than by demanding a fuller curriculum, young people have raised their voice to say that they can be trusted as partners in their own education.


On Friday, the UK Youth Parliament took over the House of Commons for their fourth annual debate. Their deliberations had to identify this year’s campaign: something that they believed matters most to their peers. They considered a higher minimum wage; public transport; youth unemployment and ‘marriage for all’. But these lost by a long way to an educational rallying cry: “a curriculum that prepares us for life”.

In case you think this reflected a minority interest; the back story… Over a quarter of a million young people’s across hundreds of schools expressed opinions during the past year. In the chamber sat democratically elected ‘MYPs’ (Members of the Youth Parliament) who had been chosen by constituency through hustings in youth clubs and a first-past-the-post election process. These were about as representative as any government, yet were people who could not yet vote.

You had to be there to realise that this was a genuinely rebellious voice. The tone was of infuriation – demanding to override the current system by insisting on the kind of education they think adults don’t care about any more: Education for Life.

Their indignation was as palpable as the questions it begged. Since when did young people care this much about education, particularly the type that doesn’t achieve positional advantage?

I can’t help turning to the contribution of Michael Gove.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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