Roy Blatchford: ‘The State of Things Curriculum’

Roy Blatchford reflects on ‘the best that has been thought and said’

What should be taught and learned in schools? Just try asking that question when next with a group of friends who are not teachers. The fact that everyone has been to school means everyone has a view on the subject.

The professional adventurer and Chief Scout Bear Grylls is the latest media personality to weigh in, proclaiming at the recent Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai that his Eton education didn’t prepare him well for adult life. (I wonder what one member of the audience, former Eton Headmaster Tony Little, said to him afterwards, given Little’s deeply held commitment to a well rounded education.)

Grylls, who seems not to have done too badly for himself, bemoaned: ‘There’s stuff I wish people had taught me. I wish they’d taught me how to keep fit, how to eat healthy food, how to lead a team, how to communicate with people. A bit of entrepreneurial stuff or citizenship – all this sort of stuff – a bit of tax, a bit of legal’.

I think the man does protest too much and, to make a publicity splash, rather under-estimates just how much Eton did teach him about keeping healthy, leadership and communication. It was Grylls of course who was previously criticised by the RNLI for leaving his then 11 year-old son alone on rocks in the sea by Abersoch in north Wales. He defended the stunt, saying it had been carefully planned, and argued that children needed to take more risks in life.

Matthew Arnold memorably observed that a good modern society can only come about when all its citizens are educated in ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’. That probably leads to the subject based curriculum, for better or worse, with which we are all familiar today.

Any national curriculum, anywhere in the world, is passing on to the next generation the nation’s history, traditions and values. Equally that curriculum is preparing students for today’s and tomorrow’s global society with skills and knowledge the nation believes will be of value.

Countries across the globe, regardless of wealth or political complexion, are wrestling with similar themes and tensions around the purposes of education and thus its content. In what proportion should we be teaching knowledge and skills? How do we secure the 3Rs? Is technology an opportunity or distraction? Is education for creating civilized citizens or tomorrow’s workforce?


Working internationally, I frequently come across the International Baccalaureate and its well established learner profile, seeking to produce learners who are: inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, balanced, reflective and risk takers. This model, in theory and classroom practice, has much to commend it, from ages 5 – 18.

I find equal power in those primary and secondary schools which centre their curriculum around Howard Gardner’s ‘five minds for the future’, creating learning opportunities which, over time, produce in young people: the disciplined mind; the synthesizing mind; the creating mind; the respectful mind; the ethical mind.

Last month I encountered a new state-of-the-art school which has set out its stall to operate what it calls a tri-lingual curriculum comprising Arabic, English and coding.

Looking back over the five decades I’ve been working in UK schools, one might reasonably conclude that when a fresh social challenge arises, the school system is expected to confront it. Perhaps that’s just as it should be: the state of things curriculum. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll have often shaped curriculum content as much as Newton, Shakespeare and Hitler.

As a teacher in inner London in the 1970s, issues of race, gender and class filled our classrooms. Then the ‘Aids epidemic’ led to a flurry of personal and social education initiatives. Through the 1980s in Oxfordshire I recall ‘multi-cultural education in mono-ethnic schools’ influencing the curriculum, alongside economic awareness and industrial relations. Into the 1990s and citizenship arrived, closely followed by healthy eating in dining halls and health ed. lessons. The acronym duly expanded from PSE to PSHCE, via PSED.

With the advent of the 21st century, e-safety, safeguarding and LGBT awareness have influenced course content. More recently, we have Hollywood star Orlando Bloom urging teachers to teach confidence; Sir Anthony Seldon wants happiness and empathy in classrooms; and, the circle turns, compulsory sex education (again) is pending legislation.

Last month in the Guardian, Peter Hyman, Headteacher of the pioneering School 21, wrote powerfully about what he describes as ‘an engaged education’:

Teachers are hungry for a more expansive education that connects pupils to the great works of our past but also the richness, variety and opportunities of the modern world. An education that is layered, ethical and deals with complexity as an antidote to the shallow, overly simplistic debates our young people often have to listen to. The best defence against extremism and illiberal democracy is an education that teaches reflection, critical thinking and questioning.

Observing the current education scene, one Times columnist wittily observed: ‘One can’t help but feel that, by the time teachers have got round to the empathy, the humility, the confidence and the rest of it, there will be hardly any time left for the quadratic equations, the acid-base reactions and the Beowolf’.

Talk to your non-teacher friends about what should be taught in schools! ‘The State of Things Curriculum’ will always be with us. When social ills emerge, politicians (the people’s representatives) look for speedy answers, and schools are obvious places to which to turn. As teachers and school leaders we must learn to accept that the best that has been thought and said will always have to sit alongside the fads, fashions and social issues of the day.

Roy Blatchford CBE is Founding Director of the National Education Trust. He is author of ‘The Restless School’ and ‘A Practical Guide: National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers‘.

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