“Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you ever learnt in school”, claimed Mark Twain.  We don’t remember, at least I don’t, the content of what we learnt all those years ago, but what we do use every day (quite literally for our survival) is just how to learn.  That was the vital lesson.  But here is the problem.  It is impossible for children, or us, to learn how to learn without having some content to learn.  While it is comparatively easy to define what a child should learn, and measure this (like testing a child’s memorisation of history dates) it’s much harder to assess the process that they adopt to do this.  And it is the process which is the transferable, lasting, part.  For instance, should children simply memorise the dates of English kings and queens, or have the understanding that if Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 Henry must have died sometime before that because her sister Mary and brother Edward each ruled before her.

Which is why “pedagogy” (the theory of teaching) has to be at the heart of primary education and why the relationship between pedagogy and ‘curriculum’ (that which is taught) is so difficult.  Too often formal assessment schemes simply measure that information which is likely to become redundant with time, and largely ignore that which should be with us for a lifetime.  The contrast between content and pedagogy is politically sensitive.  Whether one harks back to the opposition as posed in the 1960s between the child’s need and the curriculum’s need, or the current polarisation which is no less helpful between knowledge and skills, the Cambridge Primary Review “Towards a New Primary Curriculum” out today warns readers that the “curriculum is not just a political and professional battleground; it is also a conceptual minefield” which is why the Cambridge Review has upset the government who is placing its own confidence in a Review which itself had already commissioned, but which operates within limited criteria.

The author of the Cambridge Review, Professor Robin Alexander, warned that too much emphasis on testing the basics was impoverishing learning across areas such as the humanities and creative arts.  It argues that the inadequacies in the primary curriculum stem from mistaken belief that breadth in the curriculum is incompatible with improved standards in the “basics” of maths, literacy and numeracy.  This goes to the heart of what has been government policy over recent years.  To such a charge a government spokesman predictably accused the Review as being “insulting” and insisted that all commentary should be deferred until its own enquiry completed its work later this year.  To which I was asked to make a comment:

“Primary-aged pupils have to learn to listen attentively, formulate their own ideas, and reflect carefully on criticism before making sweeping statements.  We should expect nothing less from government spokesmen who should surely understand that the relationship between the mastery of basic skills, and the excitement of spontaneous learning, is undoubtedly complex.  For government to regard criticism of their pet ideas as ‘insulting’ (BBC News 20th February) seem more like the rough-and-tumble language of the playground, rather than the intelligent classroom that government claims to be encouraging”.