In the United Kingdom it is the National Curriculum and in the USA, Common Core. The commonality between the two is the level of control of the leading political party. But, what if there was another way to approach a national curriculum?
On 21st March 2015 the Times Educational Supplement ran an article with the headline “Nicky Morgan: Control of national curriculum content must stay in hands of elected politicians“. In the article Ms. Morgan was reported as saying that it was right for politicians to decide what was taught in the classroom because they were democratically accountable. She was responding to a request from the Association of School and College Leaders who were proposing an independent commission made up of teachers, parents, employers, academics and politicians, to have responsibility for setting the national curriculum which would then stand unaltered for at least five years.
What if we looked at the national curriculum in a different way? What if it returned to being a minimum entitlement on which schools were free to build. The key to this would be well trained teachers able to work together in schools to design a curriculum relevant to the needs of the children in their schools. We wouldn’t have to sacrifice standards nor accept poor quality teaching but we would have to move away from the ‘teaching by numbers’ approach that was the legacy of the previous administration. With a national curriculum regularly supplemented by non-statutory guidelines which for most schools became obligatory teachers were being told in minute detail what to teach, but also, how to teach. We had the three part lesson, the four part lesson, I believe even the five part lesson. Non-statutory guidance and expensive training sessions for all teachers clearly marked out how long should be spent on a whole class teaching input, where the time divide between guided and shared work should fall and how long should be spent on a plenary. It was non-statutory but the ‘teaching by numbers’ mentality affected the inspecting body too and feedback from observations often focussed on too much or too little time being spent on a particular part of a session. Feedback that was not about the session itself but rather about whether or not the session matched the diktats of the non-statutory guidance.
Now, in an effort to thin out the national curriculum politicians have in fact produced a statutory national curriculum document that is considerably longer than the previous statutory documentation. Much of the content that was previously in non-statutory supplements now makes it into the national curriculum. A quick glance also shows that the weight of curriculum is in fact in primary school. When children enter secondary school the national curriculum leaves behind the many pages of specific year group content and instead provides a few short paragraphs of what should be taught in secondary Key Stages. I am guessing that may be because of political meddling in exam boards.
I would propose a return to an end of Key Stage achievement expectation. The route taken to make that achievement could be planned by schools. This in turn might encourage a broader education that would benefit all of our students. It may even help with engagement in primary and with the some of the mental health issues that have now become a focus in our schools.
Who would set this minimum expected standard? I can’t see that politicians is a sensible solution. What we have undergone recently highlights the problems with political parties of power setting a curriculum. With a change of party comes a completely new ideologically driven curriculum. The notion of involving more than just the party of power in setting the curriculum is therefore a sensible approach. Allowing an expert body to set the minimum expectations for the end of Key Stage would answer the “what?” and then schools and teachers would be free to answer the “how?”. Inspections then would also need to consider whether the curriculum a school was employing was fit for purpose.
Unfortunately, as long as politicians think they are the best people to decided the “what?” and also drive the “how?” then the responsibility for standards should lie more firmly with the politicians than with the teachers and schools. In the current system where politicians are deciding every detail of the national curriculum it would certainly be interesting to hear back from an independent inspection body as to whether the curriculum being imposed is in fact fit for purpose.
Each Friday I try to give a little something back to the online education community. This week it is an ‘at a glance’ overview of the 2014 National Curriculum.
2014 National Curriculum – An overview
The above link is a PDF file of the primary National Curriculum for 2014. It covers from Year 1 – Year 6.
It gives a simple guide illustrating how the key stage content might be separated into year groups. With one page per year group it is easy to see how a school specific curriculum can be developed.
One of the challenges of the National Curriculum has always been making it relevant to a specific school. The best way to approach the National Curriculum is to consider it the minimal entitlement for all children. This then leaves specific local authorities or schools free to append what is relevant for their pupils. If the agreed minimum content is covered then schools have the flexibility to design curriculum that matches their pupils and supplements this national minimum requirement.
This Friday my Shareday Friday gift is a document that looks at what a school curriculum focused on the new National Curriculum may look like. It isn’t a one size fits all and this document can’t be lifted and dropped onto schools. Rather, it forms a discussion point for schools looking to personalise their curriculum and at the same time have a thorough coverage of the 2014 National Curriculum.
This document has come to me without copyright information and is shared with schools in good faith as a free tool for developing curriculum. If you are the author of this document and can confirm copyright please do contact me.
Yesterday the government published the new National Curriculum that will be statutory from September 2014 in state maintained primary schools.
There is certain to be much debate about the content of this new National Curriculum. I would encourage the public, but teachers also, to look and make up their own minds. The national press is already buzzing with ‘what is in’ and ‘what is out’. These are comments that colour this curriculum as extremely political. However, I think what we have here is more of what the National Curriculum was intended to be. What I see as ‘in’ is a bare bones curriculum that should provide a framework for schools to devise their own contextually relevant curriculum for their own children. What I see as ‘out’ is the guidance on how to teach. What we are left with is a national minimum entitlement and it is with this approach that I believe schools will be able to move forward most positively.
There are criticisms. We are told that this curriculum comes on the back of an intensive world tour studying the most effective jurisdictions. I don’t believe this as the curriculum we have does not reflect that of the most effective jurisdictions. Indeed, there is some debate as to whether it is the curriculum that drives the success or whether there are other cultural effects at play. Even last year, Chinese students in the UK outperformed other students in the UK by a statistically significant amount.
So, regardless of curriculum studied pupil success is in part due to ethnic background which strongly supports the suggestion of a cultural effect. Also, there is the ongoing debate as to the credibility of some measures used to compare educational systems internationally. One of the most comprehensive studies, that carried out by Pearson, ranks the UK as sixth in the world.
Back to the new curriculum. Publicly disputing the worth of the curriculum is certain to have a negative effect on the attainment of pupils. If teachers can’t present the curriculum positively then why should pupils commit to studying the curriculum? It is equivalent to the teacher that stands in front of the class and begins with “You’re not going to like today’s lesson but I have to teach it anyway!” We must be careful that teachers don’t deliver this message on a national scale as to do so will dampen the natural enthusiasm children have for learning.
At the school level we need to study this curriculum and use it as the framework for our own more detailed units of work. This isn’t about knowledge or skills. When the curriculum was heavily skills based the most effective schools still layered on interesting and relevant content for their pupils. Now the curriculum doesn’t directly reference pupil skills schools must begin from the given content and layer on the skills that makes this content relevant in a modern society. The same is true of teaching strategies. If the curriculum is being less prescriptive then schools should be active in encouraging the strategies that are most effective in their own context.
Thank you to Mr. Gove and his team for their important first steps with this new National Curriculum, but now the real work will begin in schools as the teachers develop this curriculum into a vibrant and engaging school experience for the children they teach each day.