BBC News

Gove sets out 'core knowledge' curriculum plans

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image captionSchools in England are about to receive a new curriculum

Pupils should be taught a robust "core knowledge" of facts and information, the education secretary has said, setting out the principles of his curriculum changes.

In a speech on Tuesday, Michael Gove promised to rid the curriculum of "vapid happy talk" and ensure pupils had a structured "stock of knowledge".

New curriculums for schools in England are expected to be published shortly.

Labour's Stephen Twigg said the ideas were "backward-looking and narrow".

Mr Gove set out the principles underpinning forthcoming changes to what is taught in England's primary and secondary schools.

He argued that for young people to understand and engage with the changing world around them, they needed to be equipped with core sets of information, in areas from science to culture and history.

'Cultural capital'

A command of such basic knowledge was necessary before developing and debating other ideas, he said.

Even to understand the results of an internet search engine, he argued it was necessary to have firm foundations of knowledge.

"Unless you have knowledge - historical, cultural, scientific, mathematic - all you will find on Google is babble."

Mr Gove argued that it was poorer families that had the most to gain as "the accumulation of cultural capital - the acquisition of knowledge - is the key to social mobility".

He said such a traditional approach to education was part of the success of private schools such as Westminster and Eton, "where the medieval cloisters connect seamlessly to the corridors of power".

The education secretary highlighted the influence of ED Hirsch, the US educator and literary critic.

The retired academic has argued that there should be a set body of information - the core knowledge - that should be known by children in each school year.

Mr Gove gave the example of the US state of Massachusetts as an example of a school system that had applied the principles of a "knowledge-based curriculum".

Subject plans

The exact details of what will be included and excluded from this latest version of England's curriculum have yet to be published, but Mr Gove promised: "Our new curriculum affirms - at every point - the critical importance of knowledge acquisition".

  • For maths, he says there will be "early memorisation of tables, written methods of long division and calculations with fractions"
  • Science will teach "the scientific principles and laws which drive proper understanding of the natural world"
  • English will emphasise "grammar and punctuation, clarity on the essentials of clear composition and a requirement for proper knowledge of pre-20th-Century literature"
  • In history, there is promised "a clear narrative which encompasses British and world history, with space for study of the heroes and heroines whose example is truly inspirational"
  • Geography will have "proper locational knowledge with an understanding of how to use maps and locate rivers and oceans, cities and continents"
  • Language teaching will have "a clear emphasis on the importance of translation - including the study of literature of proven merit"

Labour rejected the proposals, saying that the education secretary was more interested in sound-bites than evidence about how to narrow the educational achievement gap between rich and poor.

Shadow education secretary Mr Twigg said: "Michael Gove is clearly rattled by the widespread opposition to his EBacc exams.

"Instead of lecturing others, he should listen to business leaders, entrepreneurs, head teachers and parents who think his plans are backward-looking and narrow.

"We need to get young people ready for a challenging and competitive world of work, not just dwell on the past."

Mr Gove also spoke in defence of the English Baccalaureate.

But Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, added to the criticism, warning there was a "reasonable middle ground" in making schools accountable, which would avoid the "chaos and disruption" of constant changes.

He warned "the EBacc shows the dangers of using narrow statistics to drive behaviour, rather than engaging with the profession in a dialogue about the aims of education, a dialogue which could ensure greater enthusiasm and avoid mistakes in implementation".

More on this story

  • ED Hirsch - the guru of core knowledge