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Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine by Martin Robinson A Review





A fresh critique of the curriculum in secondary schools requires a fresh voice, and Martin Robinson certainly has that. Curriculum is at times quite searing in its analysis of the education system. In Chapter 7, entitled 'Performance Management', Martin Robinson opens with a quotation from Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil:


“the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanise them.”

The implication is that schools have become that bureaucracy, with teachers as the cogs. If you read this chapter with Pink Floyd’s The Wall on repeat it wouldn’t seem inappropriate. Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine contests that schools have lost their way in terms of what education is really about. Somewhere schools aspired to being efficient machines, in which numerical data is one of their most valued products. Athena, from Greek mythology, was renowned for wisdom and guidance. In Robinson’s view these are traits that schools should be nurturing in their students; instead schools are machines, obsessed with reducing the richness and complexity of learning into spurious, quantifiable data.


We can all engage in a rant about the education system, but Robinson’s book must be credited for doing much more than this. He deals at least as much with the way forward. That said, I was entertained by his polemical bent:


“Children aren’t regarded as human beings with a right to be well-educated but as customers purchasing a clutch of grades that make the school look good, and that the young person can trade in for more of the same another institution.”

I was surprised when I heard Robinson speak at The Battle of Ideas that he was an advanced skills teacher in a previous life. It is hard to imagine him getting on for any length of time in the education system. In such sentences as above he encapsulates succinctly what many teachers might like to voice. There is something subversive about the idea of children being denied their rights to be well-educated when they leave the school with a clutch of impressive-looking grades. The effect on children is perhaps a more fruitful way to attack “the machine” than commenting on the woes of teachers:


“For the contemporary teacher, what was once a manageable job has become frantic - from passive-aggressive e-mail pings demanding immediate action at any time of day or night to demands for a quick response to ‘worrying’ new data.”

In 1997, when I started teaching, the extra pressure on teachers was one of the reasons that New Labour were able to take reforms as far as they did. If teachers are complaining then that is a sign of good policy, the logic went. After all, the public servants who get thirteen weeks holiday and finish at 3.30pm each day really shouldn’t be at all happy with a government who want to sort out the education system. The latent anger against teachers emanated, no doubt, from a generation of parents who wanted to get their revenge on the haunting games teacher who behaved like Brian Glover in Kes.


Still, Robinson has a vision for a knowledge-based (but not exclusive) curriculum in which real understanding and wisdom are key. The idea of wisdom is rarely discussed in schools as a desirable trait for students:


“Knowledge improves us by setting us off on a quest for wisdom”.

The shaping of the curriculum is crucial so that the students are introduced to a narrative in which they can contextualise new knowledge.


Is this book something of a wish list? Schools are not data-driven, it seems to me, through internal choice. They are answerable to league tables and exam results. Still, if Robinson is right, that such an approach does nothing for satisfaction or ultimate wisdom, there may soon be a discussion about what education is for and a change in direction. This does not mean that exam results will ever be incidental, but that they might be an indicator of an outcome rather than the end in itself. Martin Robinson’s book is an erudite attempt to discipline the machine of bureaucracy in UK schools.


Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine by Martin Robinson is published by Crown House Publishing

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