It is said, with some justification, that the supposed National Curriculum is very white and very middle class. I would like to add to that. I think it is also in some respects, very Southern. Consequently, I feel that it is letting many of our children down badly.
It is well documented that school results are not as good in the Northeast and much of that is attributed to the fact the Northeast generally has greater poverty per head of population.
There can be little or no doubt that that is true and that the accompanying lowering of aspiration and confidence cause our children great harm. However, I also think that we should consider, that the curriculum our children must navigate is perhaps not as relevant to them as to their counterparts further south.
Areas where the Curriculum can be relevant and used by teachers in the region
Let me start by indicating areas where the Curriculum can be relevant and can be used by teachers in our region in creative ways to help make it relevant to our young people, who represent our future, as we go forward into an uncertain future, which we can only hope will be bright and a place where our young people can go on to live fulfilled lives, with the same opportunities as those in other parts of the country. So, in what ways can the National Curriculum be tailored to make it relevant to ‘wor bairns’?
In History there is a requirement for local history to be taught, while in Key Stage 3, pupils should be taught about local, national and world history again opening opportunities. But how many teachers would be confident teaching some of the great stories from our region, in this context?
There are also opportunities for pupils, especially in primary school to learn about our rich traditions of Northumbrian music. Learning about their own musical traditions could also act a springboard to help pupils to better understand music and other cultural representations from other parts of the world.
How about opportunities in English? For primary school children, the National Curriculum requires teachers to teach “Vocabulary development.” Perhaps this could include looking at local and regional dialect words. But how often does it?
In Geography, there are opportunities to teach about our region, to help pupils have a sense of place, while Art in Key Stage 3 requires teachers and pupils to examine periods of Art history. Why couldn’t this include looking at the development of the Lindisfarne Gospel, the Cullercoats school of artists or the great art made by pitmen painters in Ashington or Spennymoor. Finally, there are also opportunities to teach local dishes in Technology, while Citizenship also offers opportunities for teaching about life from the perspective of the North.
So, opportunities do exist in the current curriculum. However, there are few support materials and while some teachers do great work, making the curriculum relevant from a regional perspective, there is no opportunity for a general regional slant on the curriculum, to make it more relevant to our children and young people.
Areas where our children are being let down
Despite the opportunities, there are numerous areas, where I think our children are being let down by the National Curriculum. Although there may be opportunities, teachers are not always encouraged to take them up. Let me start by considering a place where the National Curriculum as we know it in the Northeast isn’t followed: fifty miles or so up the road in Scotland.
I have taught about Northeast history and culture in several schools in our region and have often showed the pupils a book, while hiding the title. The cover of the book looks like that of the ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ and the pupils always assume it is, but when I show them the title, I reveal that it is titled ‘Diary of a Wimpy Wean’. It is the same book as the original translated into Scots.
I was alerted to the Scots’ version of this and several other children’s favourites by a teacher in Scotland and so I ended up buying myself a copy. I then decided that I would ring up the publishers, Itchycoo Publishing based in Edinburgh and ask them if they had considered, bringing out Northumbrian or Geordie versions of these books. Somewhat to my surprise they said they had considered it but had decided not to do so.
I didn’t ask the reason why this was, but this much is certain; there is a demand for books like ‘The Diary of a Wimpy Wean’ in schools in Scotland because Scots pupils get their native tongue taught and it is in the curriculum in Scotland. They are being taught, through their curriculum, to take pride in the way they speak. Our young people are not.
Following on from language work, we have literature.
Our pupils are bombarded with a lot of literature, but how much of it is from our region? In my experience little or none.
No wonder our pupils don’t do as well in exams, when so much of the literature they encounter is based in places hundreds of miles away and often in a quite different culture. How can they possibly relate to it as well as pupils in other parts of the country?
We have a wealth of interesting literature, going back many years. Isn’t it only fair that our pupils get a chance to consider literature from places they know and a culture they can relate to?
Then there is the question of history. We have a wonderful history in our region, but sadly little of it is taught to our young people. Why? Because it isn’t in the National Curriculum. Consequently, our young people are taught about the Fire of London, but not the great Gateshead Fire of October 1854, when the fire was so fierce that the flames jumped across the Tyne from Bottle Bank to the Quayside on the Newcastle side of the river.
They are taught about kings and queens, who often never came anywhere the North and probably only gave it and the people here a moment’s thought when considering an invasion of neighbouring Scotland. But they get little or nothing about the working people of our region, their real history.
The worst of it is they get taught a version of national history, but ours is a different history to that of the dominant South. It was always different going back to at least Roman times when the North was known unfortunately as Britannia Inferior to the South’s Britannia Superior. Yes, I know, strange that wasn’t it?
The North was always hillier and wetter and colder, and this meant different lifestyles and cultures developing. But the real point of divergence was the first Industrial Revolution when the North achieved much Yet little of this is taught to our pupils.
It was during the late 19th and 19th centuries that a confident, vibrant working class developed in the North, finally leaving any vestiges of the of feudal system and its deference behind. Perhaps that’s why it is barely mentioned in the National Curriculum. But it means that their many achievements are left generally untaught and unknown.
There were the political achievements as people from the North, especially after the Peterloo Massacre at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester in August 1819, lead the demands for a fairer political system.
There were large protests to the Peterloo Massacre across the North including Sheffield, where it is thought 40 000 turned out and Newcastle, where a remarkable 76 000 came to the Town Moor in October 1819, to protest the events in Manchester two months earlier and to demand a fairer country. Certainly, there was support for a fairer country in London and other parts of the South too, especially the Chartists, but it is still an uplifting part of our northern history, of which little or nothing is taught to our pupils.
Meanwhile, in the 20th century the North became one of the very most important heartlands for the Labour government in 1945, that brought in our NHS. There is simply not enough teaching of the way that working people in the North, and the country as a whole for that matter, built a fairer and better society. Perhaps it might give pupils ideas…
Working people in our region and indeed the wider North were also responsible for several great social achievements.
There were the Rochdale Pioneers, who set up the great Cooperative Movement, which also became such a prominent part of life here in the Northeast.
There was the way that miners in our region, put some of their money aside from their pay, to help pay for the Aged Miners’ Homes, we still see dotted around the area, for miners and their families, who faced eviction when they got too old to do the back breaking work down the local pit.
There were the libraries and educational facilities, such as the Mechanics’ Institutes, which helped develop a more civilised society.
In short there was a wonderful, community level self-help spirit in the North, which our young people could learn from. Yet, we don’t teach them about it.
Inspiring stories from the past
We have inspiring stories from the past, yet we rarely teach them to our pupils.
Pupils across the region are rightly taught about the tragically short life of Anne Frank. Yet, how many of them are taught that had she lived another month, she would have been rescued by the Durham Light Infantry, who oversaw the Relief of Belsen in April and May 1945?
For that matter, how many of our children are taken to see the grave of Emily Davison in Morpeth or told what the Cooperative Movement was about when they go in the old Annfield Plain Cooperative shop at Beamish Museum?
Then we have our heritage of inventions from the railways to the hydraulic crane, from turbines to the lifeboat, from the safety lamp down the mine to the lightbulb on our ceilings, to name but six.
The number of world-changing inventions from the Northeast is quite astounding, yet this proud part of our heritage is kept hidden from pupils in our region.
Would it really be wrong to try and inspire our young people to step up to the plate and see what they could develop?
Our young people will need this spirit of innovation as they go forward and face the challenge of the Climate Crisis.
This of course, also raises other questions about why we don’t have a more technical and practical curriculum for those whose strengths lie in those areas and leading on from that, why don’t we as a society show more respect to those who do the practical tasks we need doing.
Ways in which lack of academic achievements could be addressed
It has already been noted that generally speaking, pupils in the Northeast don’t match the academic achievements of pupils in other parts of the country. I think that there are several reasons for that, including low self-esteem. Again, I think that this is another area where the National Curriculum lets our pupils down. It doesn’t help teachers to have a real sense of pride in where they come from and who they are.
There are many ways in which this could be addressed. We need a curriculum, which can help our pupils to feel that they are as good as anybody else and can achieve as much as anybody. We need to have a curriculum which can let our children know who they are, what has been achieved in the past and what they could achieve themselves.
There is one final way that I think the National Curriculum is letting our pupils down; it does nothing to provide a vision for their future, as we tackle the existential Climate Crisis. There is no sense of a blueprint for them to follow to help them to understand about the huge transition that will be needed to reach a carbon free economy. And no sense of how they as individuals and ourselves as a region can play a massive part in that, with our heritage, expertise, and natural advantages.
What we need
It is of course true that there is only so much that can be put into a curriculum, and it makes sense to have a national aspect to it.
But what we have now is a curriculum that looks at the national aspect from only one perspective and one direction.
We need a Curriculum that is relevant to our young people, that they can relate to and one which can give them a sense of place and pride. And we need a Curriculum for our young people that can help to prepare them for the challenges of the Climate Crisis ahead.