pedagogy · Policy · Powerful knowledge · Progressivism

On the sacred and profane of powerful knowledge


School’s minister, Nick Gibb, frequently talks about the national curriculum in terms of a canon. In ancient Greek, a canon referred to a measuring rod, which could offer a symbolic description of the current education system.  The canon of the medieval education system was the gospels; the trivium introduced the medieval elite to the word of God, and the quadrivium his worldly works (Bernstein, 2000).

The point of the Christian canon, according to Durkheim, is the separation of the sacred from the profane. The learned are enculturated into the knowledge of the powerful and insulated from the profanity of the everyday. The divine has to be supernatural and out of the ordinary; otherwise, it is not worthy of worship. A curriculum, at its worst, becomes a religious canon; a recontextualised body of knowledge that bears little resemblance to any purposeful activity in the everyday.

I was pondering all this as I read Michael Young’s article on powerful knowledge in Impact, the Journal of the Chartered Institute of Teachers. Powerful knowledge is Young’s contribution to the ongoing curriculum debate. As John White noted in his paper An Unstable Framework – Critical perspectives on The Framework for the National Curriculum powerful knowledge influenced the thinking of the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review:

Chapter 1 is about ‘some fundamental educational considerations’, especially to do with the nature of knowledge. Here the Expert Panel takes over Michael Young’s currently celebrated notion that school education should be about giving all pupils access to ‘powerful’ knowledge, and that school subjects are where pupils acquire this.

What is powerful knowledge?

Powerful knowledge does not subscribe to the notion of a canon, but rather it advocates that knowledge is generated by fields and best taught as a subject. Students are introduced to the work of academics and professionals in their particular field of study. The explanatory knowledge of the sciences would represent an example of it. Powerful knowledge, therefore, offers an antidote to the problematic concept of a canon.

This issue, however, concerns the scope of powerful knowledge. Young has been less than clear. The sciences are self-evident but White asks the question; how do you account for subjects such as geography? Do they possess powerful knowledge?

What about sociology and computing? Both generate knowledge about the social and digital worlds or business, which does the same in the financial world? Why not engineering, which generates the principles of mechanical and electrical design or the health sciences? All subjects universities consider academic; should they be in the canon? White finds no answers to his questions, saying:

Is the heartland of powerful knowledge, then, in mathematics and science? PK is a poor vehicle for discussing – and justifying – the curriculum as a whole. The aims of education go wider than acquiring academic concepts and the knowledge that comes with them.

And yet I disagree with White to an extent; powerful knowledge should represent the antithesis of the narrowly defined canonical curriculum advocated by Nick Gibb. The problem with a canonical approach to curriculum is that knowledge becomes traduced to the facts of things, scripted lessons and multiple choice questions. As Young describes:

(…) many who endorse the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum are seduced by the good intentions of ED Hirsch and his lists of ‘what every child should know’ (Hirsch, 2004). They interpret this as meaning ‘get the content right and all will be okay’ and, as a result, the vital and difficult role of teachers in what David Lambert calls ‘curriculum making’ (Roberts, 2014) gets lost and teachers become little more than transmitters of knowledge.

Knowledge and the politics of a Hogwart’s curriculum

Young also identifies a problematic trend in a growing number of knowledge-led schools; rather than being places of learning, the adherents of sacred knowledge insist on silence and deferential behaviour in cloistered school corridors:

(…) the forms of discipline and pedagogy found in growing numbers of free schools and academies adopting a knowledge-led curriculum. They are well described by George Duoblys, himself a teacher in one of these schools.

The sacred is demanding of those who worship at its alter, possibly because that type of knowledge needs a certain type of student. Despite these criticisms, Young is unable to escape the knowledge of the powerful. When the Government, or institutions such as Ofsted, suggests that the curriculum is:

(…) best found in public schools like Eton, Winchester and St Paul’s (to name three at random), which enable most pupils to gain high grades in 11 or 12 GCSE subjects.

Young does not contradict it; on the contrary, he suggests that public schools deliver a highly resourced traditional curriculum, which state schools do not have the resources to match. Research does not appear to vindicate him. Many state schools perform equally as well as private schools. Young rescues knowledge from the powerful but seems only too keen to give it back again:

 (…) a mistake sometimes made by ‘progressive’ educationists, in particular, is to equate this with the conservatism of using education to preserve privileges (such as those of the fee-paying public schools). What this fails to recognise, according to Young, is that the elite (except in unique cases such as Summerhill) never endorse a child-centred approach for their children.

Again, you wonder at the purpose, or relevance, of such an argument. The elite by definition is not the norm nor is their pedagogical approach the reason their students succeed.

A radical progressive approach to the curriculum

Powerful knowledge could afford students epistemic access to the knowledge, which drives social practices; however, it would require a radical overhaul of the current curriculum. Each subject has its own epistemic practices, which precludes the kind of one fits all pedagogic approach currently adopted by many educational institutions.

Critics of the current curriculum,  such as Angela Rayner the shadow education secretary, identify an old-fashioned snobbery in its construction:

Rayner’s eldest son did a level 3 in motor mechanics. “I don’t see an out of work brickie at the moment, and the sparkies are doing really well,” she says. “I think technical education and vocational skills and having a trade mean something. It’s not grubby manual people, it’s like really valuable skills and yet there’s too much snobbery around it still.

Another critic, former Conservative education secretary Lord Baker questioned the utility of the current curriculum in the Times newspaper suggesting that:

Employers are looking for students who have had the following experiences: working in teams, problem-solving, fixing things, making things with their hands and designing things on computers.

A curriculum should not be considered solely in terms of its utility to employers; however, if it does not reflect the work of academics, the professions or any recognisable explanatory body of knowledge it is more pointless than powerful. It seems to me that the contradictions inherent to Michael Young’s advocation of powerful knowledge are not implicit to the concept itself. Advocating subjects on the basis that they are taught in public schools seems bizarre particularly when subjects such as engineering are taught in Universities and have a long tradition of scholarly activity. Subjects that could contribute to solving the UK’s well-publicised productivity gap.


The point of the sacred is to construct “the word” such that you are either with us or against us. Traditionalist educators have lobbied hard for a return to the pre-eminence of knowledge, rightly so; however, they have constructed a narrative so limited in its explanatory power that it has become little more than a Harry Potter style 1930s public school curriculum but with increasingly scripted sessions and multiple choice question (MCQ) led assessments. In engaging with that discourse, Michael Young has somewhat undermined his own conceptualisation of powerful knowledge.

Knowledge does not reside within a highly politicised academic canon; it constructs the ecological landscape of the social world just as the hills and highways constitute the physical world. It is surely not beyond our ability to differentiate between the discourse of the everyday, which is less worthy of study and the powerful knowledge that informs it. A broader subject-based curriculum that narrows towards specialisation would better meet the diverse needs of young people, communities and the economy.


I have linked to Michael Fordham’s blog (see link: “scripted sessions”) to demonstrate that it is currently a topic of discussion. I do not intend to infer that Michael has a viewpoint either way on the issue other than those outlined in his blog, which is worth a read.

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