Give Them the Facts
The lack of knowledge and emphasis on skills is partly responsible for making our exams easier. Below is an example of one of the easiest exam questions from an O-level Maths paper in 1970:
Now this is an example of one of the easiest exam questions from the Higher GCSE Maths paper in 2010:
A box contains milk chocolates and dark chocolates only.
The number of milk chocolates to the number of dark
chocolates is in the ratio 2:1. There are 24 milk chocolates.
Work out the total number of chocolates.
Need I say more? True, not everyone sat the O-level in 1970. But neither does everyone sit the Higher GCSE papers now. Our Oxbridge candidates at age 16 are spending their time answering questions like this. Rigorous English and Maths have practically evaporated from our schools. As for History, some of our children quite literally have never heard of Winston Churchill, yet do Nazi Germany to death year after year. Of course one of the motivations for moving away from the knowledge-based curriculum was because some of the critics consider knowledge to be right-wing and claim it propagates the assumption that the West is best. But is it not possible to teach children both of Churchill's victories and failures? Can they not learn about the great disaster of Gallipoli and then use their skills to their hearts' content in evaluating Churchill's leadership? Knowledge comes in all shapes and sizes and if some of it was ever problematic, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water.
The skills agenda is so ingrained in our thinking that we don't even question it. For all the good of "teaching people thinking skills", we seem incapable of being critical of the dogma that is depriving our children, in particular our poorest, of the privilege of basic knowledge: what the skills advocates themselves had in abundance at their own schools when growing up.
Michael Gove is swinging the pendulum back in the right direction by restoring a voice to knowledge. He is opening doors to a world that should not remain the prerogative of privileged public schools. Finally, Dickens, quadratic equations, Voltaire and Churchill will belong to us all.
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