Skills are dead, knowledge is king. That was the contribution by schools Minister Nick Gibb to the curriculum debate reignited by Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman.
Gibb appears not to understand that debate means discussion not reaching a foregone conclusion.
Gibb was speaking at the launch of the The Question of Knowledge, a series of case studies promoting a knowledge curriculum. It's published by ASCL and Parents and Teachers for Excellence, the supposed grass roots group stuffed full of Gove supporters. Unsurprisingly, some case studies come from these: the West London Free School; Mark Lehain, formerly head of Bedford Free School and now PTE’s director, and an Inspiration Trust free school. And Rachel de Souza, Inspiration Trust, writes the foreword.
The best case studies are reasoned advocates for knowledge. The less good have a whiff of zealotry. Fortunately, they’re in the minority.
Gibb said the pamphlet made the case for a knowledge-rich curriculum. They do. But they aren’t all as dismissive of skills as Gibb suggests.
Michaela Khatib Executive Head, Cobham Free School, wrote:
‘The focus on imparting knowledge does not mean that we dismiss the value of pupils acquiring skills and, indeed, we feel that schools should offer a balance of approaches.’
Rebecca Handley-Kirk Principal, Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form, said:
‘…we have introduced a purely knowledge-based curriculum at Sir Isaac Newton, but we still value the skills students require to take their next steps into society.’
Hywel Jones Headteacher, West London Free School said:
‘We want children to leave our school with the confidence that comes from possessing a store of essential knowledge and the skills to use it.’
Carolyn Roberts Headteacher, Thomas Tallis School even dared to criticise Gibb’s department. When she took over Thomas Tallis she found ‘experienced staff were rightly annoyed by the de-professionalising of teachers by a Department for Education addicted to whim, diktat and short-termism.’
Gibb didn’t confine his sources to The Question of Knowledge. He cited research done by the New Schools Network which showed EBacc had had no negative effect on pupils taking arts subjects at GCSE. This was contradicted by the Education Policy Institute which found GCSE entries in arts subjects in 2016 had declined to the lowest level in ten years even when accounting for variation in cohort size. Provisional data for 2017 indicates this decline is continuing.
Finland’s small decline in PISA tables was, Gibb said, a sign that skills-based education system was failing. He quoted Gabriel Sahlgren, research director at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education, who argued Finland’s fall was caused by moving away from a ‘teacher-centred educational culture’. But a slight drop in PISA rankings isn’t a sign that a country’s education system is failing.
The dichotomy between skills and knowledge is false. Pupils need both. Gibb’s enthusiasm for knowledge blinds him to anything else. And Gibb’s continued sneering at skills puts him at odds with the education secretary Justine Greening. This raises the question which I’ve asked before: who is really in charge at the DfE?