The damned National Curriculum
It’s obviously desirable that nearly everybody – everybody who doesn’t have a significant mental deficit, that is – should be able to read and write reasonably well, and should have a basic level of numeracy. It would also be good if nearly everybody knew basic first aid, and had age-appropriate sex and relationship education! Beyond that, I think the National Curriculum is a VERY BAD IDEA. That’s not to say that I think education should stop with these things, of course it shouldn’t, but it should be much less regimented – the curriculum should vary from pupil to pupil, from teacher to teacher, from school to school, and from time to time.
Reading and writing shouldn’t stop with achieving a basic level of literacy, but where it goes from there should be a matter of what inspires the individual. Some youngsters may find Shakespeare inspiring, others might prefer Jacqueline Wilson. The child who finds Jacqueline Wilson inspiring today might move on to Shakespeare later – or not, it really doesn’t matter. Maybe they’ll move on to Mervyn Peake, Ursula LeGuin or Kurt Vonnegut – or even Chaucer! It doesn’t matter. It might be that they get inspired by their teacher in some particular direction, or it might be they find their own direction. They’re much more likely to be inspired in some direction or other if it’s not rammed down their throat, you must learn this. The more different directions different individuals head off in, the better – the wider will be the experience of the community at large, and the more likely each individual is to be enthused about what they’re doing.
Mathematics shouldn’t stop with basic numeracy, either – but again, there’s no very good reason why everyone should learn the same stuff. Exactly what constitutes basic numeracy is an interesting question, and one where I don’t think the powers that be have the right idea – but I’ll leave this issue for the moment. It’s quite important that a signficant number – not a huge number, but a significant number – should learn some specific mathematics beyond basic numeracy, because we need people who can be engineers and scientists. Other than that, there are many interesting avenues of mathematics that can be explored just for fun. It’s good mental exercise, and again, the more different directions different individuals head off in, the better – the wider will be the experience of the community at large, and the more likely each individual is to be enthused about what they’re doing.
As a society, we’re more likely to come up with new ideas if we aren’t all mental clones of the people who come up with the National Curriculum. Our teachers will be more enthusiastic if they’re allowed to teach the things that inspire them, rather than be forced to follow someone else’s ideas; enthusiastic teachers are much more likely to have enthusiastic pupils; and enthusiastic pupils are much more likely to develop mentally. So what if they all learn different things? There’s no disadvantage in that – in fact, there’s a huge advantage. If everyone follows the same curriculum, there’ll be huge areas of knowledge that no-one knows anything about. Far better if everyone heads off in different directions. It might make it hard for examiners – but we’ll have to come to terms with that somehow, it’s really a very much less important issue than the quality of education children receive, and the breadth of knowledge and understanding of the community as a whole. No one individual can know everything, the only way for the community at large to know a huge amount is for different individuals to cover different areas.
And of course First Aid, and Sex and Relationships (subjects that ought to be well understood by everyone) aren’t even in the National Curriculum at the moment!
Coming back to the question of basic numeracy, I’ve written another piece about that: Basic Numeracy.
For an example of a different direction in mathematics that some folk might head off in, see In an Infinite Universe. Some might find it interesting and stimulating, it might lead to something useful – or not, who knows? Well...interesting and stimulating IS useful! But it’s not something everyone needs to know.
On the virtue of people not being mental clones, a related issue is linguistic (and cultural) diversity: see A Global Language?
Finally, here’s a related piece (is it a poem?) by Michael Rosen: Guide to Education.
 Or even whether education should necessarily take place in schools at all, see Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society.”