Subject-Based Learning: Not Fit for Purpose

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Subject-based learning ignores vital concepts, knowledge and values for children to learn to live sustainably, improve their skills and ability to live peacefully with others and to themselves benefit physically, emotionally and intellectually.

Michael Mac

Note to overseas viewers of this webpage

The context of this article is Britain as a democracy with the freedom for articles such as this one to criticise the provision for learning in the hope of influencing change to that provision.

Six reasons why the subject-approach to learning is not fit for purpose

As exemplified by the National Curriculum in England, the subject approach to learning for young children is no longer fit for purpose.



Many countries express curriculum content as a number of subjects to be learned with little or no connection between subjects. This approach is regressive.

An example of this regressive approach is the National Curriculum in England.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines regressive as a word used to describe ideas or systems that are old-fashioned and do not encourage change or development.

In Britain teaching by subjects goes back all the way to the 1870s when schooling for all children was made compulsory in the reign of Queen Victoria.

The information, skills and concepts children had to acquire then were organised into different categories of learning called subjects.

The three most important Victorian subjects were the so-called Three Rs – Reading, WRiting and ARithmetic. Added to these were physical education, hygiene (in a bid to clean people up a bit), the geography of the British Empire and the kings and queens of history.

Of course, the subject approach has developed over the years since Victorian times. Longer serving teachers and education historians will recognise the development of individual subjects over the years and the addition of new subjects.

There are currently eleven subjects through which learning is organised for young children in England: English, mathematics, geography, history, science, design technology, art & design, music, a modern foreign language (MFL), computing and physical education. In addition, the PSHE Association has developed personal, social and health education (PSHE) as an additional subject.

From the above evidence it is clear there is a thread of continuity from the first beginnings of education 150 years ago through to the present day. That thread is the expression of what is to be learned as a number of subjects.

The inability of government to move on from the subject approach was exacerbated in Britain by the 1988 Education Reform Act. For the first time, what to teach was made statutory. The subject approach was enshrined in law.

Not only did the 1988 Education Reform Act persist with the old fashioned subject approach to learning, the act effectively quash opportunity for change and development until such times as politicians can be persuaded otherwise.

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Out of step

The way children’s learning is organised into a number of subjects to be learned is out of step with the needs of the modern world.

This example is the National Curriculum in England, but it equally applies to all countries still expressing learning as a number of subjects to be learned.

Since Victorian times, when education was provided to all children in Britain, a technological revolution of unprecedented proportions has transformed the world. No previous revolution can compare, either in the speed of change or in its impact on people’s lives.

The revolution is marked by scientific advances, information explosion, world travel and immediacy of global communication.

The subject approach has been unable to incorporate effectively today’s greater knowledge of how we function as human beings, how we can interact more effectively with each other and how the planet is being used and abused.

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The subject-approach to learning is cumbersome.

If your country is anyway similar to Britain, you will have a collection of subjects to be learned and much else besides added in on top.

In Britain, unable to fit new information into the traditional subject-based approach, the solution is to bolt onto the subject framework a raft of learning strands, cross-curricular themes and dimensions.

The example is the themes and dimensions set out by its National Curriculum Council in the document Curriculum Guidance One: A Framework for the Primary Curriculum, published in 1989, a year after the National Curriculum became law in Britain.

Children were now also to be taught ‘careers education and guidance’, ‘health education’, ‘gender and multi-cultural issues’, ‘personal and social education’, ‘economic awareness’, ‘political and international understanding’ and ‘environmental education’.

Since then, most of these themes and dimensions have been swallowed up into the unwieldy ‘Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education’ — ‘PSHE’ for short.

The PSHE Association was set up — with government backing — in 2006.With nowhere else to go but the subject-based route, the association is currently progressing for all aspects of PSHE to be given statutory status. The health and relationships (primary) and relationships and sex education (secondary) aspects of PSHE education is compulsory in all schools from 2020. Schools are encouraged to adopt the new curriculum early from September 2019.

Separately from this, ‘Safeguarding Children’ was added in 2015 as statutory for schools to deliver. The government has yet to make the economic well-being and preparation for work strands of PSHE compulsory, but schools are expected to continue to prioritize these areas.

The resultant curriculum is a spaghetti bowl of disconnected subjects and fragmented knowledge, unwieldy in the planning, undeliverable within the time constraints of the school day and weak in its focus on what really matters.

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Narrow and unbalanced

Subject-based approaches to learning are narrow and unbalanced in their learning priorities.

This criticism may not apply in your country. ‘Narrow and unbalanced’ depends on the emphasis given to the different subjects.

In England the intention is for a ‘broad and balanced ‘ curriculum, but in practice is is ‘narrow and unbalanced’.

In England, the earlier decades of the twentieth century were marked by an education consensus for the school curriculum to be ‘broad and balanced’

In a more official capacity, the concept of a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum is written up as a central tenet of the HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate) Survey of Primary Schools made in 1978 (DES, 1978; Schools Council, 1983).

The same assertion of breadth and balance is made in the key National Curriculum document statutory for – and used by – schools today:

“Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based”

DES, 2013, The national curriculum in England: Key stages 1 and 2 framework document, section 2, page 5: The School Curriculum in England

The subjects taught to children are indeed broad in content. There are eleven subjects to be taught as well as PSHE and much else besides, as the government issues exhortations, criticisms and guidance in response to the latest societal ‘crisis’ or moral panic.

However, although broad in content, the National Curriculum is narrow in delivery and terminally unbalanced.

Mathematics and English are ‘core’ subjects to be taught above all else. They are also assessed and inspected above all other subjects. This narrow and unbalanced focus on the teaching of English and mathematics is to the detriment of all other learning.

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Your country may well have a different purpose to Britain. In England the focus is very much on preparing children for the world of work by learning a number of subjects and passing examinations in these.

The subject-based approach to learning avoids the realities of modern day life and living

Historically and today, the purpose of subject-based curriculum is to serve industry and commerce. In Victorian times, business required pen pushers and ledger accountants — hence the Three Rs . Today it is English and mathematics (and science to a lesser degree) above all else.

The consequence of this disproportionate focus on English and mathematics is a neglect of key issues facing individuals, society and the environment.

The National Curriculum subject-based approach is failing to impact on the obesity crisis, the increase in mental ill-health among the young, social and domestic violence, disaffected learners, language deprivation, fractured relationships, social alienation, species extinction, habitat degradation and the plundering of the Earth’s resources.

This life-avoiding approach is damaging to children, damaging to society and damaging to the environment.

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Not for everyone

A key issue for subject-based approaches to learning is the potential for a built-in reduction in value to a substantial percentage of children – at least that is the outcome of the British education system.

In Britain, Central Government took charge of the curriculum to raise standards. Yet, for all the brouhaha and high expectations over the thirty years since the introduction of the National Curriculum, there is little evidence that learning in English and mathematics has improved to anything close to the extent required.

In the English system, up to 40% of 16-year-old students consistently fail to meet the expected standard in English and mathematics year on year in the one-off GCSE exams taken at the end of eleven years of schooling.

For these young people there is a reduction in their hopes for the future, a breakdown of trust in the system and a lack of respect for education. Many of these young people have lost any love of learning, disheartened by a system of assessment based on winners and losers.

In England, Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) judges schools as ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘requiring improvement’ or ‘inadequate’. Central Government’s insistence in its expression of learning as a number of subjects to be mastered — with particular focus on the subjects of English and mathematics — falls into the category of ‘inadequate’.

Footnote: Read about ‘a broad and balanced curriculum’ here. The article outlines many of the ways in which the current National Curriculum subject approach is problematic.

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