Gove’s latest obsession: The “Core Knowledge Curriculum”


October 21, 2012 by lambethteachers

Just when we think it can’t get much sillier, Fran Abrams at the Guardian discovers Gove’s latest obsession (click here to read the article). This time it’s ED Hirsch’s plan to pump every American kid full of “essential cultural facts” – or rather the English version adapted by right-wing think tank Civitas.

This is just a sample of what Civitas thinks children should learn:

Rejkjavik, Brussels, Copenhagen, Amenhotep, Hatshepsus, Nefertiti, Ziggurat, Ishtar, Hammurabi, Eboracum, Mercia, Dal Riata, Aidan, Bede, Ken MacAlpin, Harold Godwinson, Roald Amundsen, Rosetta Stone, Ptolemaic Period, Lindisfarne Gospels, Odo, Monet, Hockney, Hogarth, Rego, tetrahedron, congruent, pictogram, nutrients, omnivores, circulatory system, nonconductive, igneous, sedimentary, Edison, Jenner, Pasteur… Fair enough, you say, but this is only Year 2!

There’s nothing wrong with gaining knowledge but demanding these long lists of facts from children so young will only lead to meaningless rote learning.

Why these and not others? Hirsch has been criticised for his elitist white Anglo male selection, so to avoid this accusation there is a light sprinkling of Africans and Asians in the Civitas version and even the odd poem by Mike Rosen.

Not to worry, these 6 year olds will already be really bright and have lots of knowledge to build on, because in Year 1 they’ll have learnt all seven continents, Simon de Montfort, Robert Walpole, Breughel, Miro, Hepworth, Pugin and (random woman) Jane Goodall.

These brilliant five year olds will understand that

  • The barons of England forced King John to sign Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. This limited the power of the monarch.
  • The Glorious Revolution of 1688 took place when James II was forced to flee after his failed attempt to overrule parliament.
  • Robert Walpole achieved influence with George II and with the House of Commons. He became the most important minister in the Cabinet: the first Prime  Minister.

They will be enriched by looking at the parts of the Palace of Westminster that Charles Barry and August Pugin designed, and study the science biographies of Joseph Banks, Jane Goodall and the Wright brothers… among a few thousand other things.

Has Gove ever met a six year old? Did he spend his sixth birthday reading the life of Walpole? Perhaps not. One day a new fact will be revealed – a Guardian obituary will inform us that the education minister from outer space didn’t have a navel.

PS You’ll find lots more to keep you awake at night at

You can also find Michael Rosen’s response to Hirsch here.


7 thoughts on “Gove’s latest obsession: The “Core Knowledge Curriculum”

  1. Andy Stone says:

    Secondary history teachers will be familiar with some of the proposed elements of the ‘core curriculum’ listed here – they are generally taught to years 7 and 8, rather than year 1. So are Hirsch and Gove going to warp factoring our five year olds away from the ‘soft bigotry’ of our low expectations? I think not.
    Whatever the weaknesses of Piaget’s ‘ages and stages’ correlation, it’s clear to anyone who’s been near a classroom that learning is a process, and meaningful learning builds upon previous experience and understanding. Teachers can’t bypass this by having the ‘right’ lists of things to study.
    And what a list! Look at some of those institutions and abstract concepts either explicity or implicitly required – barons, parliament, monarchy (absolutist and constitutional), political influence, revolution, prime minister, cabinet, emigration. All worthy areas of study – but for 5 and 6 year olds?! To make them required content means they will inevitably be memorised not as living, contested concepts but as dead and meaningless jargon. And history will be associated in the child’s mind not with exploring ideas and stories but with the pressure of recalling vocabulary.
    This is of a piece with Gove’s desire to dictate a historical narrative that glorifies Briitain and its Empire – for more on which see my article here:

  2. alasdair smith says:

    The history element of this “Core Knowledge Curriculum” is risible. It is entirely devoid of conceptual understanding. Extensive research over five decades from Denis Shemilt’s School Council History Project, the CHATA project and the How People Learn research programme from the US National Academies of Science have repeatedly emphasised the need for the development of conceptual understanding in history (evidence, interpretation, change etc). Without it, knowledge of ‘facts’ – events, people etc are virtually meaningless. It is a recipe for rote learning of kings and queens. It will be tested and regurgitated. History will be something that is ‘done to us’ instead of something that we engage with, evaluate critically and learn from so as to help create a better world. Another history is possible

    Big Society? Better History? Or Same Old Nonsense? Drawing the Battle Lines for the Future of School History. Forum Volume 53 Number 1 (2011)

  3. Gillian Carr says:

    Text speak usually leaves me perplexed, but reading this CIVITAS site genuinely made me LOL. Farcical. I have a Cambridge degree and have been teaching for eight years now, and I was blissfully unaware of most of the historical ‘facts’ deemed essential for six year olds. While other developed nations are emphasising the importance of play and the development of social and emotional skills, it is suggested that we sit babies down to memorise a set of facts that it is just not possible for them to comprehend.
    Leaving aside for a moment the lunacy of their proposed knowledge of monarchs, the lack of personal or local history is a huge concern. Six year old are only just beginning to develop concepts of the passage of time, and so they need to establish that first in contexts that are meaningful to them.
    I appreciate the premise of the project, that some ‘core knowledge’, a certain ‘cultural literacy’ as they term it, does help a citizen to access our cultural wealth, but I strongly contest that this should or could ever be boiled down to some sort of list or table. As Andy Stone said, it breeds a sense that things of cultural or historical value are ‘out there’ somewhere, decided by official organisations, solidified in text books and exam syllabi and not a living, breathing essence of human existence to be accessed and created by all.
    As a special needs teacher for some years, I have witnessed the damage done to a child’s capacity to learn when they have been denied the time, space and attention to be childlike and learn through play, in ways suitable to their development. Good teaching is responsive and education is not something that we do ‘at’ children. Given the reduction of university level funding, perhaps this is part of a longer term vision of reducing the number of young people who enjoy learning and wish to continue to higher education, causing a nuisance for those in power wanting to cap participation.

  4. Jess says:

    As Mr Grandgrind, Dickens’ parody of a fusty old school master once said, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”
    The only problem is that Gove is not a parody. He is the real thing!

  5. Jess says:

    Horrible histories author Terry Deary, has written excellent attack on the Grandgrind curriculum of Michael Gove that can be found here

  6. Jess says:

    one more link . . . people may be interested in this BBC report about Benjamin zaphaniah’s speech from the NUT’s Anthony Walker memorial lecture. Zephaniah attacks a top down, white, colonialist approach to school history. . .

  7. Andy Stone says:

    I see Bill Gates is backing the claims of ‘Big History’: On the positive side, this challenges the nationalistic tub-thumping of Gove and Niall Ferguson; it stresses interconnectedness and totality, both important aspects of historical materialism. (Potentially change as well, though I think that depends more on the historian.) On the negative I think its proponents tend to minimise the role of internal contradiction – e.g. class struggle – in driving historical change. So you can end up with a kind of Big Whig History. And while the existence of nations might be a source of regret they have had a large material impact on the last few centuries.
    There are of course great works of historical materialism like Chris Harman’s ‘People’s History of the World’ (, which share the ambition of Big History without these limitations.

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