Teaching facts 'no longer valued'
Some teenagers believe Winston Churchill is a dog from a TV advert while others struggle to understand the difference between France and Paris, a former teacher has claimed.
Katharine Birbalsingh raised concerns that teaching knowledge such as facts and figures is disappearing from classrooms as it is considered "old-fashioned".
Her comments come a year after she grabbed the headlines at the 2010 Conservative Party conference with a damning speech on the state of England's schools.
Delivering the Sir John Cass's Foundation Lecture at Cass Business School in London on Wednesday evening, Miss Birbalsingh said: "We no longer value the importance of teaching knowledge for children to do something with. The problem is that we underestimate the knowledge that we have and use everyday. Try to read any article in the newspaper and you'll find that there is an assumption of background knowledge.
"Recently, I read an article about Carla Bruni. To understand just the title and subtitle, one would have to know who she was: that she is married to Nicolas Sarkozy, that he is the president of France, and what being a president means. Indeed you would have to know what France is - is it a city? Is it a country? Is it in Europe?
"You may laugh, but I have, as a teacher, had conversations with 14-year-olds where they simply don't understand the difference between France and Paris. For them, it is all the same. I can't tell you the number of times I've had conversations with kids about Winston Churchill where they think he's 'that dog' off the insurance advert from TV."
The public do not realise how little some children know, Miss Birbalsingh claimed, adding: "What we also forget is that the very thing that got us to where we are now was the kind of education that we had - our teachers teaching us knowledge, so that we know the difference between Paris and France, even if it sometimes meant being bored in lessons and learning the discipline to struggle through."
Miss Birbalsingh also said: "In the last 30 years, the concept of teaching knowledge in our classrooms has nearly disappeared altogether. Teaching historical facts or lists of vocab which rely on memory skills is considered old-fashioned.
"Instead, we think it better to inspire children to be creative through group discussion and project work. But background knowledge is absolutely essential to enable children to absorb new ideas."
Miss Birbalsingh left St Michael's and All Angels Church of England Academy in south London, where she was a deputy head teacher, a few weeks after her speech to the Tory Party conference. She is currently attempting to set up a free school in Lambeth, south London.