Cambridge academics attack national curriculum

Connie Fisher -Deputy News Editor 8 March 2012

Two professors have spoken out against the national curriculum claiming that its excessive focus on ensuring students pass exams is completely failing to prepare them for university.

Speaking at a seminar organised by the think tank Politeia on Monday, history professor Robert Tombs said able students leave school lacking basic skills. He said the highly structured examination methods dictated by GCSEs and A-levels require students to be too formulaic and suppresses their natural flair, leaving them unable to articulate their ideas successfully at degree level.

The St John’s fellow said students had been “drilled into writing a particular way, making particular kinds of arguments in a particular order and not writing their own ideas or responding to questions in a fresh and original way, and that’s very damaging, and it’s very visible.”

Another history fellow, Professor David Abulafia, said he was “worried about the increasing evidence that undergraduates, when they arrive, even at Cambridge, don’t seem to know how to write essays.” He added that bright students were “grappling with difficulties” which once would have been “inconceivable,” even among less able students.

Abulafia also identified what he believes are serious problems with the national curriculum. Concerning the current GCSE history syllabus, which gives students the chance to cover certain periods in detail and miss out others completely, he said: “The lack of continuity is a fundamental problem. What one actually wants is a sense that things join up, a sense of context.”

The professor, from Gonville and Caius College, outlined 31 key events of British history, which he believes all school children should learn about. He also criticised the emphasis on students learning to interpret sources rather than studying history itself, a method he believes has “deadened interest in the past among students.”

Abulafia has proposed a new curriculum which he believes ensures “continuity across long expanses of time”. Politeia is planning to publish a series of pamphlets written by academics proposing changes to the school curriculum, beginning with history, later this month.

Jack Jervoise, NatSci at Churchill College, agreed that school learning “certainly can seem far too formulaic”, but added: “you need a curriculum in order to stop the subjective nature of Arts subjects skewing the results depending on the examiner.”

History student, Holly McCann, said: “We were definitely pushed to pass the exam but this doesn’t mean we weren’t learning. You need the knowledge in order to answer the question, no matter how formulaic your response is. I do agree that more attention needs to be given to topics on the history syllabus.”

Connie Fisher -Deputy News Editor