The national curriculum storm

Twenty-five years after the 1987 storm damage
Twenty-five years after the 1987 storm damage

The year 1987 is a memory for a number of personal reasons and events of wider significance. The winds of educational change have blown through a number of times since. It is hard to imagine that we had discussions in the eighties along the lines of grudging acceptance that a national curriculum was a good idea and probably overdue. Now we have teachers convinced it is irrelevant because ‘academies don’t have to do it’.

The original NC did not flatten everything in its’ course any more than subsequent revisions prompted a further Michael Fish-type forecast of denial. Essentially, we have coped with these buffeting experiences.  The photograph shows silver birches growing through the decaying trunk: different species at first, but it’s a system. I say, well done to the teaching profession!

I am reminded by a valued teacher-colleague that crucially the curriculum is about putting stuff in front of learners in the next lesson, and the next, and the one after that. That is a pressure not easily relieved by time on reflective approaches to curriculum making. However, taking a longer term view is instructive and not just a luxury. This is where the Geographical Association has played a canny game of moving to the political tune of the day. But this has been based on participation with the decision-making processes over many years. It is rooted in political expediency and has a deep engagement with practitioners and the academic debates.

The draft geography programme of study does have some oddities and inconsistencies especially in trying to convey an incremental regional coverage. Ben Ballin puts it this way (on Linked In): “my immediate concern, however, is with over-prescription on the one hand, and glaring gaps on the other.” The key stage one and two list of content does look daunting if seen through the specialist’s lens of ‘everything about…’ As a vocabulary framework it looks different. For example, knowing about forests at key stage two might mean knowing that a bunch of trees are called, er, woodland and their conventional symbol on an OS map. And a bit more, of course, but not insurmountable. The transition and cross-phase work taking place again, for various reasons, may help all teachers in this respect.

I don’t doubt that each NC revision has been complicated by other education policies of the time. I will not go into that now. And I have not addressed the NC subjects of maths, English and science.

Curriculum planning and CPD

There is a need for planning, and there are specific needs for CPD. We know there will not be an additional government-funded programme: it will have to come from existing school budgets. The exisiting providers will operate in that market-place.

Quick points:
1. The school curriculum is much more than the national curriculum. (Always was. Have we got that now?)
2. ED Hirsch Jr‘s ‘cultural literacy’ has a sound concern about access into society’s wider expectations but it should not be taken to an extreme valuing of detached, memorised facts.
3. Just because the new NC emphasises core-knowledge, it doesn’t mean it has the only importance. (Let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot.)
4. During the time of the most over-stuffed National Curriculum there wasn’t a topic that couldn’t be covered in schools. (I know this as ‘the John Westaway question’.)
5. The attainment levels will have gone but the reasons they (and sub-levels) have been abused by SLTs will not go away. Unfortunately, some self-inflicted crude monitoring stick will replace them.
6. The history curriculum does seem to have a serious problem with the sequential approach. (Care for your colleagues.)
7. I wouldn’t have been upset to see citizenship education dropped as a compulsory subject at key stage 4. It’s job has been done. I don’t believe it has been largely ignored.
8. There is plenty of scope for sustainability and the global dimension.
9. I have a deep suspicion of the ten-year lobbyist activities of personal finance education. Also the scrubbing of ICT for computer coding. Bear these in mind before making demands for including another special case : there is a long queue of powerful bodies.

Conclusion:
I don’t sense a Cassandra moment on the national curriculum. We can work with it. Let’s aim for imaginative curriculum making with breadth and balance and avoid going over-board with a testing-mad core knowledge phase.

Know when to go with the wind. Learn how tacking enables you sail into the wind effectively.


Postscript 23 March 2013

I have added a few references since writing this post and seen many more. There has been an increased clamour for special interests and usually it is evident that a whole curriculum view is not being taken. However this online petition does give a measured and clear point of view from a primary perspective…
http://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/re-formulate-the-proposed-new-national-curriculum-primary

It might not change the mind of an intransigent SoS but the concluding statement will ring true for ever

More respect needs to be shown for the way the National Curriculum has evolved since 1988 and what has been learned through the enormous efforts and experience of teachers; children; researchers; educationalists and policy makers.

And this, from a letter from Ron Rooney in The Guardian, about respect teachers have for themselves…

We need a national curriculum that enables but does not prescribe. Teachers have to take ownership and responsibility for what they teach, to whom and when.

References and other reading

DfE: Consultation on reform of the National Curriculum in England (closing date 16 April 2013)
https://www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/departmentalinformation/consultations/a00221262/reform-national-curriculum

Geographical Association: National Curriculum changes
http://www.geography.org.uk/news/nationalcurriculumchanges/

Alan Parkinson (@GeoBlogs): New draft Geography curriculum for KS1-3
http://livinggeography.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/new-draft-geography-curriculum-for-ks1-3.html

David Rogers: I’m a teacher of children, not a Gove basher. Let’s get real: the new National Curriculum really isn’t the end of geography as we know it.
http://daviderogers.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/im-teacher-of-children-not-gove-basher.html

The Historical Association: Curriculum concerns
http://www.history.org.uk/news/news_1722.html

@MichaelT1979: The over-simplification of History teaching (& learning!)
http://michaelt1979.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/the-over-simplification-of-history-teaching-learning/

Added 5 March 2013: Pete Yeomans: Curriculum 2014 History Guerilla style
https://peteyeomans.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/curriculum-2014-history-guerrilla-style

Letter to The Observer: Plan for history curriculum is too focused on Britain
http://m.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2013/feb/16/history-curriculum-letters

Association of Citizenship Teaching: Survey on the DFE proposed Citizenship Programmes of Study
http://www.teachingcitizenship.org.uk/news_item?news_id=567

David Kerr: Citizenship Foundation
http://www.citizenshipfoundation.org.uk/main/resource.php?s442

Added 5 March 2013: Peter Twining: Why computing for the digitally-illiterate is dangerous
http://www.agent4change.net/policy/curriculum/1992-why-computing-for-the-digitally-illiterate-is-dangerous.html

Further mystery on ICT Added 7 March 2013 Bob Harrison: Whose draft ICT curriculum is it anyway?
http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/news/whose-draft-ict-curriculum-is-it-anyway

Added 8 March 2013 I avoided the vexed issue(s) of assessment but this post flags it.
Liz Moorse: Unpopular level descriptions are going. But what will replace them?
http://lizmoorse.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/unpopular-level-descriptions-are-going-but-what-will-replace-them/

Added 23 March 2013 It’s always interesting what the MFL-crowd think about curriculum change
The impact of the new National Curriculum on language teaching
http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6325313

6 Replies to “The national curriculum storm”

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  2. Hi Angus,

    I’m afraid I don’t understand why you think the job of citizenship has ‘largely been done’. Surely it’s only just started?

    For a start, at a time of increased public concern about the economy, it’s more important than ever that people leave school with an understanding of public finance, of the institutions that manipulate it and of the impact they have on us as people and citizens.

    Then there’s the Vicky Pryce jury case: evidence that knowledge of the justice system is patchy; yet this area of knowledge will now be missing entirely from the programme of study for key stage 4 citizenship.

    What is citizenship education – indeed education generally – for: teaching to an exam or preparing young people for professional, social, civic life? I’d say it’s the latter, and that key stage 4 is a crucial period of transition.

    1. Hi, Michael
      You might be right but I meant this comment in two different ways:
      1. NC ver1.0 lacked any political dimension and, at the time, pupils were largely passive in terms of school decision-making. In these two related aspects the school experience has improved in twenty years.
      2. The curriculum debate rarely allows for ‘let’s do less of x’ in order to ‘do more of y’. Citizenship education was an intervention to bring about changes. It did not succeed in creating a school subject because, like CDT, it has no body of knowledge. Like it or not, this is problematic in specifying ‘core knowledge’ as the NC. Unintended consequences.

      I am being pragmatic about the NC ver5.0 because the school curriculum-making needs to look beyond the knowledge specification. It will also build around the values and skills already deemed important for local circumstances. It will include the learning experiences we consider important for the classroom and beyond. Personally, I would expect this to include what might be regarded as effective citizenship education.

      My specific reference to personal finance is on observing pressure groups leverage every bit of power and influence they can buy (and they don’t see critical learning as you have expressed). They have masssive private resources, and received government funding, in trying to get it into citizenship (and maths) and had to make do with PSHE. With that gone, it turned its’ focus back on ctizenship. That’s cynical manipulation.

      Our exchange has demonstrated the debates about ‘what we do and why’ – I see it as a phase where the professional teacher community can grasp the current opportunity.

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