Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

What should schools teach?

The purpose of a great education is simple: it should enable a child to become the author of their life story, says Mark Lehain

What and how pupils are taught has been argued about as long as there have been schools. Ancient Greeks debated whether education should be solely spoken in method or if writing should be included, with some worrying that putting stuff down on parchment would impact negatively on students’ ability to remember things, in a fashion similar to how we worry about the use of more modern educational technology such as computers and tablets. Plus ça change.

More recently, Kenneth Baker’s Education Reform Act turned 30 years old. Alongside the introduction of school choice and school autonomy to the state system for the first time, this act led to the creation of the first national curriculum for the country. An intense debate about what should or should not be included has continued ever since.


Of course, what should go into a school curriculum depends entirely on what you think the purpose of education is. The ‘why’ leads to the ‘what’, and then inevitably on to the ‘how’ – although all-too-often things are bolted on in an arbitrary fashion, depending on the political or cultural mood of the time.

Also, schools are about the only kind of place where nearly all the nation’s children can be found all year round. As such, the national curriculum has become the go-to place to for people trying to solve all of society’s ills.

This has happened since the national curriculum was first rolled out, but with the rise of social media it has been easier and easier to make these calls, meaning a day almost never goes by without some celebrity or educational expert extolling the values of another potential addition. Amid all this ‘curriculum dumping’, minimal thought is given to any sense of how schools might accommodate this change in terms of time, resources, who would actually teach it, or what might make way to make room for it.

Parents and Teachers for Excellence, the organisation I run, has been tracking the various issues that have been proposed to add to what schools teach. Since the start of 2018, over one hundred suggestions have been advocated by various organisations, corporations, and celebrities. Yes, that is right – more than one hundred things have been put forward to add to an already jam-packed school year, and we are only halfway through the year!

🎓 To improve education, we must address inequalities inside and outside schools

They are an easy way to fill a few column inches and stir up some faux-outrage. Why are schools not teaching about litter picking? Schools should be doing more to stop revenge porn! They should teach girls about both how to get and avoid getting pregnant!

Those are real calls from 2018 by the way. I picked them because they are important issues, and ones that children should learn about. However, they are often proposed without any sense as to why it should specifically be schools that cover them, nor how they can be squeezed in given everything else already we already ask of our school workforce.

What can we reasonably expect schools to cover, and what should be addressed by families and wider society? After all, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, not simply a school.

Alongside this, we have to consider that children have only limited time at school, limited energy to focus with, and a limited working memory to take stuff in. We have to prioritise what can be covered. There is an opportunity cost to every decision for what should be taught – to not consider this is to ignore reality.

Even if one can decide definitively what should be in a curriculum then you still have to consider how to fit it all together; carefully made links within and between subjects, and over time, are vital if we want students have the best chance of memorising and learning everything, and get the most joy and pleasure from it now and into the future.

Given the above, what then should we look to do with the national curriculum in the future? It all comes back to the ‘why’ – what is the purpose of education?

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This is where nearly everyone will have a different opinion, and why we will always argue about the national curriculum and our schools. However, I think this is perfectly okay; indeed, I think it is a sign of a healthy liberal democracy. The challenge is to find a solution that as many people as possible are happy with, without watering things down and rendering them meaningless.

In my opinion, education is not about preparing kids for jobs that do not yet exist – whatever that even means. It is not about stuffing them mindlessly full of backwards-looking facts either. And it certainly is not about student engagement: if something is worth knowing, it is worth knowing regardless of the learner’s current state of interest.

For me, the purpose of a great education is simple: it should enable a child to become the author of the story of their life.

I believe that the best way to do this is by teaching everyone from a young age a curriculum based on the best that has been thought, said, and done – rich in literature, history, geography, theology, music, art, science, maths, and so on. It cannot teach them everything, but it should cover a little bit about a lot, carefully sequenced so that the dots can be joined up and gaps filled in later as they move through life.

With this in mind, I am of the view the current national curriculum is the best that we have had so far. I also think that schools should go further than this and define clearly what they will – and will not – cover. Not only is this the right thing for our kids, but it will keep the curriculum dumpers at bay and give a clear statement of intent as to what our education system is for.


Mark Lehain is director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence


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Mark Lehain

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