Education prepares pupils for the world of work. A broad education prepares pupils for life.
That a broad education is a good thing isn’t a new idea. The Romans knew that “Mens sana in corpore sano” (a healthy mind in a healthy body).
The Ancient Greeks devised a curriculum of grammar, logic and rhetoric underpinning arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. The Romans coined them the “artes liberales” – the arts worthy of a free man. The suggestion is that the curriculum should prepare pupils for active participation in civic life.
Even in the 16th century Richard Mulcaster espoused the virtues of “drama, singing, dancing, wrestling, handball and football” to enhance the curriculum of the day. The curriculum of the day being Latin and Greek.
So there is historical precedent for a broad education. Ask a modern day headteacher why the school offers one and you’ll probably get an answer along the lines of “we believe in educating the whole person”. And that whole person, at the end of their school journey, is “rounded”.
If you pushed for something a bit more specific you’d get something like this;
- To prepare pupils for the next stage in their learning career, the workplace and life.
- To engage pupils with a wide variety of learning experiences; academic, artistic, creative, sporting and social.
- To facilitate the acquisition of knowledge, skills, aesthetic appreciation, empathy, personal wellbeing.
OK, but to me it sounds a bit catch-all and waffley. Having followed my travails in “How broad is a broad curriculum?” you’re probably screaming now. You think it’s blindingly obvious. It’s about getting a job. That’s what the headteacher said too.
A broad education makes pupils more employable
For many of us education has ultimately been about achieving a set of milestones on the journey to a career. We studied maths and English to prove our numeracy and literacy. We studied other subjects to improve our general knowledge for a purpose unspecified (pub quizzes maybe). And then we did extra-curricular activities so that we could differentiate ourselves on our CV or UCAS personal statement. The “Why do I have to learn…?” questions were handled with “To get good qualifications to get a good job” answers.
On the face of it the “to get a good job” argument leads to a narrow education. You may decide that only maths, English and science (or STEM subjects) are important for a job or school entrance exams. So why bother with anything else? Why bother with French unless you’re going on a French holiday, or geography if you’re not going to be a geographer? In this case you don’t need a broad education. Everything outside those chosen subjects is…nice, but ultimately dispensable.
Ultimately, you’re betting that those three or so subjects will be all that will be necessary for a “good job” in the future.
Some educators believe otherwise. Over the last 20 years technology has, and will continue to, radically affect the way we work, live and play. The future is no longer as predictable as it was in the 150 years previous when public education was invented. If it is true that 65-85% of the jobs that our children will be doing in 2030 haven’t been invented yet then it is a brave call to limit the scope of the curriculum that needs to be taught today.
A broad education serves four important objectives
In his book “Creative Schools”, Sir Ken Robinson provides a much neater raison d’être of a broad education. He suggests that education should fulfil four objectives; economic, cultural, social and personal.
Economic. This is the qualifications for employment idea. An educated and skilled workforce is good for the prosperity of the country, community and individual. The curriculum should be broad because we don’t know what subjects and skills are going to be most valued in the future.
Cultural. This refers to the belief systems, language, customs, art, etc of the many cultures of the world. The curriculum should promote understanding of the pupil’s own culture, the culture of others and promote cultural tolerance. Which means languages, literature, humanities, social sciences, visual and performing arts.
Social. The curriculum should encourage pupils to become engaged and compassionate citizens. If that happens they will address social and economic injustice and promote the effectiveness of democracy. This is probably not taught in a classroom but practiced as extracurricular within the school.
Personal. Sir Ken refers to most curricula as objective. It means “This is the way the world is with or without you in it”. It’s not how we experience the world as individuals. Our experience is subjective. We experience the world through our own hopes, fears, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, etc. We feel valued the world embraces our subjective world view, and we feel alienated when it does not. A subjective curriculum helps the pupil realise their value in the world by helping them pursue their interests and passions. This route to personal fulfilment will be reciprocated by that person’s eventual contribution to society. It is perhaps the hardest of the four to achieve because it requires the curriculum to be tailored and personal.
If you accept these as worthy objectives for a curriculum then that curriculum should be very broad indeed.
A broad education makes pupils more virtuous
Someone has recognised that there is more to schooling than just exams. There’s also Character Education; all those things that make us moral, law abiding, respectful, civic minded, tenacious, etc. Sponsored by the English Department of Education, in 2015 The Jubilee Centre published its Framework for Character Education in Schools. In short, it suggested that each of the 14 national curriculum subjects could be vehicles for teaching one of the 16 virtues of character. So, geography, for example, could convey teaching on honesty, integrity and neighbourliness. Languages could convey lessons on tolerance, respect, curiosity and confidence.
The point is that each of these subjects is important for giving our children desirable character.
A broad education develops all seven intelligences
In 1983 Howard Gardner, a development psychology professor, coined the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. He proposed that we all experience the world in different ways according our relative strengths in seven types of intelligence. These are; musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal (empathy), intrapersonal (self-reflection).
Even though intelligence can be expressed as any of those seven modalities school curricula focus on just verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical.
A broad education, therefore, should also address musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal.
Time and size constraints on a broad education
Clearly there’s more to a broad education than the “Three Rs”. And if that education is to be successful, it needs to fulfill economic, cultural, social and personal objectives.
I’m sure every school would love to offer the broadest education possible. But they can’t. There are constraints. And those constraints strike at the fundamental structure of a school; the length of the school day (teaching time) and the size of a school.
A typical state primary curriculum might dedicate 50% of teaching time to English and maths and 10% to science. The remaining 40% might be distributed evenly to each of the remaining nine obligatory subjects. So, PE, art, DT, music, RE, languages, history, geography and computing get an average of 4.4% of curriculum time. One hour per week.
If that typical state primary wanted to add another subject or activity to broaden the curriculum it would have to;
- Squeeze the extra subject into designated teaching time so reducing the time for all other subjects. A and B weeks or termly curricular changes are a manifestation of this.
- Or extend designated teaching time into the remainder of the school day; typically, before school, lunch times and after school.
Obviously, a longer day allows for more subjects and activities. Independent schools tend to have longer days, and boarding schools longer still. Their claim to offer a broader education is basically down to this extension of the school day.
Now let’s presume that a school could find a magic 5% of curricular time for an extra subject or activity. What specialist is going to work for 5% of the week teaching at that school? Unless it’s a large school with many classes to teach. A larger school is more likely to be able to offer a broad education than a smaller one.
Exam constraints on a broad education
It’s the same problem if the school wants to increase the time spent on a particular subject. This is most common for PE and RE. The same time constraint either reduces time available to other subjects or lengthens the teaching day.
This example is evident when it comes to national exams. Schools are accountable for pupil achievement or progress scores in certain subjects. For example; SATS, 11+, entrance exams, EBacc, Progress8, A Levels, etc.
This accountability distorts teaching behaviour such that the curriculum becomes little more than preparation for the exam. Schools dedicate more time to measured subjects to improve their rankings in league tables. The consequence is that other subjects are deprioritised and marginalised so that they become uneconomical to teach. If they are uneconomical to teach they will be dropped from the curriculum. Bye-bye broad education.
And so art, design and technology, PE, music, drama are all experiencing a reduction in teaching time. Teachers specialising in these subjects are finding it more difficult to find work.
I happen to think that testing and exams are useful. But this conflict between exam preparation and a broad education is damaging. If our children need a broad education to prepare them economically, culturally, socially and personally then we need educators to think smart. Churning out platitudes about “broad”, “rounded” and “whole” isn’t good enough.
In conclusion, the introduction
The point of these two broad curriculum articles is to encourage parents not to take the interchangeable terms “broad curriculum” or “broad education” at face value. Many wise and qualified people are debating curricular content and merits. I’ve merely introduced what I understand a broad education to be, what the point of one is and the difficulties a school faces in offering one. The articles are a precursor, a prologue to the other articles in the Breadth of Education section of the blog;
- How broad is a broad curriculum?
- What’s the point of a broad education?
- What is a broad academic curriculum?
- Notes for parents on some common academic curricula,
- What is a broad sports curriculum?
- What is a broad creative arts curriculum?
- School trips and guest speakers,
- Outdoor education,
- Charitable and community activity,
- Character education,
- Do school accreditations mean anything?
- Pupil participation.