Toby Young: The new national curriculum will help all children excel

Writing in the Telegraph, Toby Young argues that the new national curriculum  is Michael Gove’s most important legacy and says today’s children should be learning essential skills that will enable them to find employment in 21st Century industries…

…The short answer to the charge that the new curriculum is “old fashioned” is that it includes computer programming for the first time, so is hardly antediluvian. More generally, it isn’t nearly as “Victorian” as some of Gove’s opponents have suggested. On the contrary, the emphasis on building up children’s factual knowledge – which has been wrongly described as “rote learning” – is underpinned by the latest research in cognitive science and supported by a good deal of empirical evidence.

Let’s take the “rote learning” charge. To begin with, there’s almost no material in the new curriculum that children are expected to learn by rote, with the exception of their times tables (and maybe Phonics) and that was also true of the old curriculum. Yes, it’s a “knowledge-rich, subject specific” curriculum (Gove’s words), but the manner in which this will be taught is a far cry from the Gradgrindian stereotype conjured up by Gove’s critics – rows of children sitting in front of a blackboard obediently writing down what the teacher dictates. Unlike the old curriculum, the new curriculum isn’t prescriptive about how teachers choose to deliver the content. For the most part they’ll continue to teach in the gentle, child-friendly way that they’re used to. In terms of content, the main difference is that children will be supplied with a schemata in each subject. That is, they’ll begin by learning some basic factual knowledge that can then be built upon in a logical, systematic way. In Geography, for instance, this means learning the names of the seven continents, the five great oceans, the four points of the compass, the difference between latitude and longitude, the rudiments of map reading, and so on.

Critics contrast this knowledge-building approach with a skills-based approach in which children are taught all-purpose abilities such as “problem solving”, “critical thinking” and “creativity”. But this is a false dichotomy. The consensus among cognitive scientists after three decades of research into the development of the human brain is that you can only solve problems in a particular subject if you already know quite a lot about that subject. Higher-order thinking skills like “problem solving” and “creativity” aren’t abstract, stand-alone abilities that can be taught instead of subject knowledge, as some people mistakenly believe. Nor does teaching children factual knowledge inhibit the emergence of these skills. On the contrary, children only begin to develop these skills in a particular subject after they’ve memorised a good deal of facts about that subject…

Some critics of the knowledge-building approach claim it’s only suitable for white, middle class children – that the new curriculum is designed in Michael Gove’s own image. But the evidence from America suggests otherwise. As a result of its curriculum reforms, Massachusetts saw the attainment gap between children from different social and ethnic backgrounds narrow further than in any other state between 1998 and 2005. Between 2002 and 2009, the NAEP scores of African-Americans and Hispanics improved faster than those of white children, and children from low-income families made similar gains…

The reason for this is obvious. Children of educated, middle-class parents pick up a good deal of knowledge in the home and that gives them a head start over their less fortunate peers when they begin their schooling. Unless the school compensates for this by adopting a knowledge-building approach, disadvantaged children will struggle to catch up. This was the finding of two Kansas psychologists, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, who set out in the mid-1980s to find out why a government programme designed to help children from low-income families wasn’t doing much to improve their grades…

There’s no doubt that the new curriculum is ambitious. One of its stated aims is to introduce children to “the best that has been thought and said”. That’s a phrase coined by Matthew Arnold. But it would be wrong to think that a knowledge-based education is only suitable for children at private schools or in the top half of the ability spectrum. As the example of Massachusetts shows, all children can benefit from this approach, regardless of background or ability. To dismiss it as right-wing or conservative just because it’s championed by Michael Gove would be a mistake. On the contrary, it is in keeping with the democratic ideal underpinning the introduction of universal, free education in Britain in the last century…

Toby Young has written a parents’ guide to the new national curriculum with Miranda Thomas called What Every Parent Needs to Know.


Your reactions to Toby Young’s defence of the new curriculum? Has it been unfairly criticised because of dislike of Michael Gove? Please give us your feedback in the comments or via Twitter… 


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Categories: Policy.


  1. dianabrighouse

    SchoolsImprove toadmeister Rubbish. It will alienate teachers & children from the fun that learning should be, & write off less able.

  2. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove toadmeister I think that the main issue is that much of it has not been fully considered & some not finished yet eg. Maths

  3. BoHetherington

    SchoolsImprove toadmeister with all due respect what on earth qualifies to write about this stuff? I’d love an answer.

  4. toadmeister

    BoHetherington I’ve co-founded three schools, two of which are primaries, and studied the new National Curriculum for the past year 1/2

  5. toadmeister

    BoHetherington SchoolsImprove And my co-author, mirandathom, has been a teacher for >25 years and is a Chair of Governors at a primary

  6. BoHetherington

    toadmeister SchoolsImprove mirandathom How are your schools faring? Any serious teaching experience? Sounds like you need Miranda to 1/2

  7. BoHetherington

    toadmeister SchoolsImprove mirandathom help provide some experience to the smoke screen that is your political educational career.

  8. Janet2

    Thought the curriculum at WLFS primaries was the core knowledge curriculum from the US rehashed for the UK by the short-lived head of PImlico Primary Free School – the one sold by CIvitas, linked to schools minister Lord Nash. I’ve read Book One and the folk tales have been rewritten by someone with no appreciation of the beauty of language. But I suppose the children can tick the stories off the knowledge list.

  9. Janet2

    Academies and free schools can opt out – this is supposed to give academies an advantage. If opting out is such a good thing, then why trumpet the Curriculum as such a wonderful innovation?

  10. MrStaveley

    imagineinquiry toadmeister Reckon he was just so proud of getting ‘antediluvian’ into a sentence that he couldn’t resist writing the rest?

  11. Bradthetrad

    “Unless the school compensates for this by adopting a knowledge-building
    approach, disadvantaged children will struggle to catch up. This was the
    finding of two Kansas psychologists, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, who
    set out in the mid-1980s to find out why a government programme designed
    to help children from low-income families wasn’t doing much to improve
    their grades…”
    Wow that’s what you call conclusive evidence. Quick, let’s change the curriculum of and advanced western democracy on the basis of Betty and Todd in the 80’s.

  12. g56g

    GrannyPat60 echeadmaster SchoolsImprove he is a parent as well as being blindly opinionated. Oh he went to school once. Like #politicians

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