British Back Away From Skills-Based Education

The Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP speaking at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia.

The United States is not the only country that has experienced a shift in K-12 education away from knowledge-based education towards a skill-based one. The United Kingdom has experienced that trend as well but backed away from it.

The Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, who was elected a Member of Parliament in 1997 and later appointed Minister of State for School Standards at the UK Department of Education, discussed the importance of knowledge-based education at an event last week.

He first noted the shift towards skills-based education in 2007:

The way the curriculum is discussed in this country has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. In 2007, the previous government launched a national curriculum that had been stripped of knowledge content in favour of skills.

Could do Better’ – a review of the then National Curriculum carried out by Tim Oates in 2010 – found that the National Curriculum for England had been subjected to a protracted process of revision, with the 2007 reforms failing to adequately draw from emerging analysis of high-performing systems around the globe.

A change of government in 2010 prevented the Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum recommendations being brought in. This review argued that the primary national curriculum should place less emphasis on subject areas and a greater emphasis on so-called areas of learning and development:

  • personal, social and emotional development
  • communication,
  • language
  • and literacy
  • problem solving, reasoning and numeracy
  • knowledge and understanding of the world
  • physical development
  • creative development

He said the latest review highlighted the shift that Finnish Education took toward skills-based education, but cautioned that Finnish success in education is not attributable to this shift.

But as Gabriel Sahlgren argued in Real Finnish Lessons, Finland’s success – often a catalyst for skills-focused education reforms in other countries – is probably not explained by their more recent curriculum changes. These changes have been wrongly credited with education success, which is more likely to be due to Finland’s traditional educational culture until that point at about the turn of the millennium when it changed.

Instead, Sahlgren argues persuasively that Finland’s recent fall in performance – albeit from a very substantial height – is due to a movement away from this culture. In particular, the teacher-centred educational culture is being replaced by more pupil-led ways of working.

He then defends the knowledge-based curriculum that has been implemented in the UK once again:

Academies and free schools have control over the curriculum they teach, and with the National Curriculum setting the standard high, innovative schools led by exceptional head teachers have developed world-class curricula. But shifting a school’s focus towards a knowledge-based curriculum is not a short-term commitment, as Stuart Lock – the newly appointed headteacher of Bedford Free School – explains:

I think there is a real danger that developing a knowledge-based curriculum might be seen as “done” after a year or two. In reality, we are just over one year into a long-term job. There is no moving on to another initiative; we are playing the long game. This is what is important in schools, and hence is our continued focus for development over the next few years. Everything is subservient to curricular questions. So pedagogy, assessment, tracking and qualifications must lead on from us developing further our understanding of what makes a pupil knowledgeable, and ensuring we get as close to that understanding as possible.

This view is shared by Luke Sparkes and Jenny Thompson of Dixons Trinity Academy, which achieved outstanding results this year. Their excellent free school serves a disadvantaged community in Bradford, and is one of a number of high performing free schools and academies that demonstrate that a stretching, knowledge-rich curriculum, a sensible approach to behaviour and evidence-informed teaching result in exceptional results for all pupils.

High performing free schools and academies are providing empirical evidence of what it is possible to achieve when teachers and headteachers – given freedom to innovate with their curriculum – pursue an evidence-based approach. The exceptional results achieved by schools such as King Solomon Academy, Mossbourne Community Academy and Harris Academy Battersea demonstrate that disadvantage need be no barrier to achieving academic excellence.

He continues:

The West London Free School – run by Hywel Jones – is determined to provide a classical liberal education for all of its pupils. Too often, when considering what comprises a knowledge-rich curriculum, the arts are not given the prominence they deserve.

In tired arguments against the English Baccalaureate, opponents of the policy sometimes characterise proponents of a knowledge-rich curriculum as opposing the development of human creativity and appreciation of the arts. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This is an interesting development from across the pond. You can read his whole speech here.