This blog is part of a series in the spirit of ‘Cranleigh Thinking’, intended to provoke thought and debate and raise questions. The arguments are born out of observation and experience and I make no apology for holes and gaps for readers to fill and question.

This particular series raises questions about the nature of curriculum, national policy and why Cranleigh has chosen the ‘Cranleigh Thinking’ approach.

For a fuller context, please refer to the blogs ‘Running with a purpose‘, ‘The curriculum beast‘, ‘Getting Back on Track with a Purpose‘ and ‘Unleashing a Beast

When I was Headmaster at Wellington School, the relative of a recently deceased Old Wellingtonian sent to me a 1922 prospectus that she thought we would like for the archives. What intrigued me most were the aspects of curriculum management which still speak into the issues we face today around relevance and context.

In 1920s Wellington, the school was divided into three streams: the scholars (those whose destination was university), a commerce stream and an agriculture stream. The curriculum naturally varied for the different streams. For example, mathematics did not exist as a standalone one-size-fits-all subject as it does today. The scholars would take courses in arithmetic, algebra, and Euclid; the commerce and agriculture streams would take courses in arithmetic and book-keeping.

Now there are obvious dangers aligned to such a model. As I argued in the blog ‘Unleashing a beast’, it is possible for a curriculum to be too determined by starting with an end-point rather than a question of purpose. Moreover, setting off on a schooling pathway that restricts opportunities either by ability demonstrated at a particular age or a career is neither egalitarian not sensible in a world where the concept of ‘a career’, certainly ‘a profession’ is unstable and uncertain. I will not be alone in knowing many who were denied the opportunity of taking ‘O’ Levels and had to take CSEs which hampered later progress.

However, there is some sense in a model which plays to people’s strengths and motivation: I can hear the voices of countless pupils asking the relevance to their future work of learning how to prove Pythagorus’ theorem, just as I hear the voices of big business moaning that employees are insufficiently literate or numerate. Would it not be better for those who are not going to take pathways which require higher level mathematics or literary analysis to become more secure in the skills which they will need on a daily basis – we will not all progress to A levels or degrees in these areas?

I find myself torn between a desire to champion a liberal, egalitarian approach to learning which denies no-one opportunity which resists valuing only what is ‘useful’ and a pragmatism which knows that people and governments are motivated by what they perceive to need. It also challenges assumptions which suggest that breadth is better than narrowness or whether the latter encourages a depth of specialisation that leads to more expert and perhaps broader thinking.

Again at Wellington, I remember having a long discussion with a stone mason who was replacing some of the decorative Bath Stone on the Chapel. I marvelled equally of the skill of a craftsman who with a chisel and hammer could shape straight lines into beautiful, accurate curves and who could tell me with enthusiastic eloquence all about the geology and the palaeontology of the stone and how that affected the cutting and shaping. He had not followed a conventional ‘academic path’. The route to knowledge, skill and understanding – in short, expertise- had come through vocational training and apprenticeship to a master mason.

There is a distinction to be had between a national curriculum and a school-based curriculum. What we learn from the independent sector is that the freedom for schools to choose a curriculum which suits their pupils leads to strong pupil achievement. Greater flexibility around subject choices also allows more refined budget setting. Dearing’s suggestion that vocational and academic subjects should be considered on a par was a good one. All schools should be able to choose from a nationally recognised suite of qualifications at different levels, with a more varied assessment methodology and which are appropriate for their cohorts and build motivation, confidence and resilience rather than leaving so many disenfranchised and schools forced by measurement down the wrong path.

In education we have to keep looking forward, adapting to our context and to likely futures. We cannot, as Gove did, just pick out something that worked in our childhood. But where the old ways do give clues for future direction, then we should not ignore them.