Primary Education News

3 Apr '13

News The new curriculum will not work without backing from teachers

The government should ditch the ideology and make the curriculum something that both inspires the profession and lasts long enough to succeed

Let's start with the good stuff in the new national curriculum. There is some, but don't tell anyone I said that: these days in education only extreme positions flourish.

One: there's nothing wrong with facts. A basic level of knowledge about the world is useful – and aids our ability to seek out new knowledge. It is not, at least it needn't be, dull. It is important to learn how to learn but this needn't be a content free activity. I'd rather people learnt something, then reflected on how they learnt it, rather than have learning to learn as the goal.

Maybe we disagree on what knowledge is important, but I suspect this is actually a minority of topics. I understand the contention that the mainstream study of history, for example, neglects marginalised groups but we're reasonably clear that some things actually did happen. The laws of physics apply to hegemonists and subalterns alike; two plus two still equals four whatever your background. To acknowledge grey areas is not to abandon all hope of common ground.

Furthermore, basic skills such as times tables and grammar are not opposed to creativity; they are the foundation upon which it is built. Cognitive science highlights the limits to human attention (as do wet Friday afternoons); it is easier to direct a problem-solving strategy in maths, for example, if you're not worrying about what six times seven is. The constructivist theory of learning is right; but the constructivist prescription for teaching, in terms of priority for self-directed projects, does not necessarily follow.

Two: the published curriculum is dry. Good. I don't trust this government's idea of fun in any case. I trust teachers to make the curriculum exciting and relevant to the students they teach. What I ask of the government is space to do so.

After many years of prescription we have come to assume something can only be important if government tells us to do it. We are like prisoners abandoned in a cell for so long that they no longer need to lock the door. Rattle the cage and we might discover that the door swings open and the warders have left.

It may help to distinguish between the product of an education, the curriculum in the school and the national curriculum. Each is smaller than the last. I want children to leave school confident, curious and resilient. I don't want to see a national attainment target for those characteristics; that just trivialises them. They are a product of the ethos in the school, not an hour's topic in week three.

Similarly, the school curriculum is bigger than the national curriculum, which should be a minimum entitlement which underpins the creativity that teachers bring to learning.

So, although there are real faults in the published curriculum, my concern is not so much with the content or vision as with the way it has been created and how it seems it will be implemented. The enthusiasm and excitement of the profession has been sacrificed to create political capital. And that is a high price to pay.

When the classroom door is shut, a teacher has real discretion. Sacrificing their passion and enthusiasm would not only damage a curriculum, but suck the soul out of its delivery. Some may say that the profession could not have been persuaded but, in the spirit of evidence-based education, I would have liked to have seen an attempt. The message about the opportunity for curriculum design and innovation could have been powerful. Unfortunately, such arguments don't generate headlines about the enemies of promise refusing to teach multiplication.

Lack of engagement is a problem. The second problem is that the government hasn't yet fulfilled its promise to create space for innovation at the primary level. This is evident in the proposed history programme. Now, to side-step the obvious, I have no problem with a chronological and narrative approach to history. It is engaging and useful. The skills of historical analysis are best built on a foundation of knowledge about what we think happened. Great, but chronology and narrative provide no context or foundation if they don't sink in. Children of nine and 10 are more than capable of understanding abstract concepts like the nation state or the divine right of kings, but these concepts need to be brought alive; young children need to touch and feel history. This takes time. Four thousand years of history, delivered in under two hundred hours, will provide no benefit if they are forgotten in the blink of any eye.

Academic historians get to define the field of history and the 'powerful knowledge' within it. We listen with respect to their views. It would be appropriate if they also listened with respect when capable and ambitious teachers tell them how young children learn.

History is the most obvious example but there are other instances where the government has specified the 'what' so extensively and so tightly that it has constrained or dictated the 'how'. This is not yet a curriculum that frees up great teachers unless they choose to abandon it entirely, and that makes a mockery of the concept of a national curriculum altogether.

How can this situation be turned around?

First, raise the game on communication, to really sink home the message that the national curriculum is the bare minimum and the school curriculum is much greater. This needs to be aligned with the messages from assessment and inspection.

Second, listen to the consultation and recognise the profession's input. This would be helped if every criticism was not seen as evidence of a Marxist plot.

Third, take implementation seriously: a review of the capability of teachers to deliver; guidance for headteachers and access to best practice; space for training and curriculum design.

The curriculum should be democratic but apolitical. The design of the curriculum cannot be left in the hands of any one individual or group. The alternative is a constant lurch from one extreme to another. Teachers cannot hit a moving target and schools cannot produce the high quality resources that make it work. Let's ditch ideology and work together to make the curriculum something that inspires the profession to new and greater heights and which endures long enough to succeed.

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