Curriculum, Educational Reform, Philosophy
Comment 1

Education in England Today: Where Are You, Charlotte Mason? by Dr. John Thorley

We do have a change worth celebrating this year in primary education in England – not a big change, but at least a change in the right direction. Our National Curriculum, from September 2010, is to be taught in six ‘Areas of Learning’ instead of in the water-tight subject compartments of previous years. The six areas are (to shorten their titles a little) English, Mathematics, Science, Arts, History/Geography, and Physical Development, and teachers are now to be given greater freedom on methods, and are encouraged to develop cross-curricular approaches in the six areas. The whole thing is far less prescriptive than previously. Our politicians have agreed to this change only very grudgingly, and have insisted on retaining the SATs at the age of 11 in English and Mathematics. The result will be that the final year of primary education will still be devoted largely to English and Mathematics, because that is what the SATs will test, and the ‘League Tables’ of schools are based on these. Still, teachers are grateful for the new freedoms they have been given in what to teach and how to teach it.
As you may know, we are about to have a general election in the UK in May. Education in this election will not actually be the big issue, as it was in the last two elections, because our financial problems are at the moment centre stage. Nevertheless, education is an issue, and in March our BBC late-night current affairs programme ‘Newsnight’ was wholly devoted to education. A panel of three politicians from our three main parties was lined up: Ed Balls, the current Labour Party Minister of Education, Michael Gove, the Conservative Party shadow minister (who undoubtedly hopes to be Minister of Education in May), and David Laws, the Liberal-Democrat spokesman on education, who has very little chance of being our new Minister of Education in May. Arrayed against them, and sitting symbolically facing them in a row, were three teachers, a science teacher from a secondary school, a well-known children’s author and retired teacher, and one of our most distinguished headmasters of a London secondary school. Sitting somewhat apart was a ‘businessman’ to give an employer’s perspective on the debate.
Now I realise that you in North America may not be too excited by our little debates across the Atlantic. But bear with me. You will find some things familiar, indeed some things distressingly familiar.
Our Minister of Education, Ed Balls, declared that the main thing in primary education must be ‘Basics, Basics, Basics’ – because that’s what employers wanted. The businessman nodded sagely at this point. I do remember that Charlotte Mason said something about this …
Our prospective minister of education, Michael Gove, said that the Conservative solution to problems in schools will be the creation of ‘Free Schools’. These will be set up by groups of parents, who will then receive state funding for their new schools (Michael Gove has heard about your US ‘charter schools’). And, as an incentive for parents to set up these schools, the schools will not be required to teach the National Curriculum, nor will they be required to administer the SATs tests. And there were we, all thinking that the National Curriculum and SATs tests were supposed to be a good thing! Not apparently if you do what Michael Gove wants you to do and you set up your own school – with tax-payers’ money.
Our Liberal-Democrat spokesman did say some sensible things, but he had no sound-bite (at least nothing as good as ‘Basics, Basics, Basics’ or ‘Free Schools’), and anyway he is not going to be the next minister of education.
The teachers all said their pieces, about the need for a broad curriculum for every child, about children exploring their world, about respect for the individual aspirations of every child, and especially about the need to develop to the full those children who are not among the most able 20%. All good stuff, and you could almost see Charlotte Mason nodding her assent. They were of course totally ignored by the politicians.
I got the uncomfortable feeling that we were back to the 1870s, with the same debates that Charlotte was having then. For our politicians the answer to all our ills is either ‘basics’ (the notorious 3Rs) with national testing, or it’s some minor structural change to the educational system. To be fair, they did give a nod or two in the direction of ‘good teaching’, though what they envisaged by that was left unsaid.
So if anybody ever suggests to you that Charlotte Mason’s ideas are old-fashioned or out-dated, get them to listen carefully to the debates that still go on in education. I suspect that Charlotte would be concerned, though probably not too surprised, to learn that we are still debating today the same basic principles that she was debating, and that our politicians are still more interested in controlling the system of education than in developing the whole child.

This entry was posted in: Curriculum, Educational Reform, Philosophy


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.

1 Comment

  1. recnepsrefinnej says

    Thank you, Dr. Thorley. I followed the British election with interest because it was so close. From here, the people seemed fairly disenchanted with all three parties. With the Conservatives gaining a slim majority and many schools boycotting the SATs this year, perhaps the “Free Schools” idea may follow soon. You will have to keep us posted on the changes in education in your country and their effects.

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