The curriculum: where are we now?

Thoughts on curriculum and pedagogy 1

The curriculum: where are we now?

The National Curriculum feels like an experiment that is coming to an end. More an albatross than a carrier pigeon to the governments that nurtured it, it has failed to deliver on its original purpose of bringing enlightenment and world-class standards to our nation’s schools. The new curriculum is even worse, a sad and pathetic beast, half-made, unloved and lacking the wingspan for genuine flight: A sort of dodo made by a mad-scientist, stumbling into existence and soon to become extinct.

As if to underline its lack of appeal, Michael Gove has released Academies and Free Schools from its gawky inelegance and Stephen Twigg has promised to put a bullet in the back of its pathetic skull should he become Secretary of State after the next election. Poor thing.

But should we lament its passing? And what will come next? A sort of curriculum wacky races of private companies vying to win dwindling school funds? Who knows, and should we care?

This blog is an attempt to say why we should. It will examine what went wrong with the National Curriculum project and will argue that far from signaling the end of curriculum in schools, this could be the start of a golden age… or not.

A brief note

Before I start I have to say most of my experience over twenty years has been in primary schools. As a consequence the analysis of problems and solutions discussed in this blog will focus mainly on KS1 & KS2. I don’t want to pretend I know much about KS3 when I don’t, however, from my reading of various secondary school teachers’ blogs, I understand there have been long-standing problems with the KS3 curriculum. Whether what I write has any relevance or not to those issues I will leave to those who are far better qualified to decide than me.

The Curriculum as a lever

When we are eventually freed from the shackles of the National Curriculum what will this mean? Well, for one thing, it won’t involve much freedom. It is already clear the government, whether blue and yellow or red, has no intention of stopping their constant interference and leaving schools alone. The death of the curriculum merely signals the end of a process which has seen a switch in emphasis from curriculum leverage to summative-assessment leverage, backed up by pressure from Ofsted.

Successive governments have lost faith in the curriculum as an agent for change and have fallen in love with the long lists of numbers that give them the kind of information they need to force schools to do their bidding. As a consequence, the inspection service has transformed into a sort of grey-suited event horizon, twisting and distorting many schools’ teaching and learning practices into odd and unintended shapes and inevitably having a significant affect on decisions over curriculum design.

Any team of teachers and school-leaders sitting down to start on this process and not taking into account the requirements of SATs at the end of each key stage or the latest Ofsted inspections procedures is making a big mistake.

Which all sounds very depressing, but it need not be, we all know the function of a curriculum is more than to service the requirements of SATs. To illustrate this let’s take a look at the stated aims of both the current curriculum and the new:

Curriculum 2000 dedicates three pages to values, aims and purposes. These are the two main aims:

Aim 1: The school curriculum should aim to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn and to achieve.

Aim 2: The school curriculum should aim to promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and prepare all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life.

It also includes other ‘minor’ aims such as, “develop an enjoyment of learning”; “providing rich and varied contexts”; “enable pupils to think creatively and critically”.

The new curriculum also has two aims:

3.1The National Curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

3.2 …The National Curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons.

Notably, both stress the importance of making learning interesting and enjoyable: “rich and varied” and “exciting and stimulating”. In fact the new curriculum puts even more emphasis on this aspect than curriculum 2000. Neither one state that schools should aim to provide “a dull and monotonous learning experience where children are drilled to pass tests.”

This is important. Despite the caricatures, the government is not calling for schools to be run in the Victorian manner: The Gradgrind cliché of the unimaginative. In fact, despite the discernible switch in emphasis from skills and creativity to core knowledge acquisition (which we will return to later), there is no change in the importance of making learning interesting or in the freedom of schools to use different pedagogical approaches as they see necessary (with one notable exception, which again we will come back to).

A new opportunity

Whether the new curriculum survives or disappears after the next election, there is no reason to think schools will become dreary factories of rote learning. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, the death of the national curriculum may herald the start of an exciting new age of innovation and experimentation in curriculum design, where schools feel liberated to explore and collaborate, sharing ideas and planning. This is both an issue of curriculum design and pedagogy, it is a mistake to think that one can exist without the other. Their interdependence has significant implications and is a matter for future blogs.

Whatever happens we must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The issues of why the national curriculum never really worked are complex and run deep, it might even be argued that the problem was never in fact with the curriculum but with the way it was interpreted and taught in schools.

I know this sounds harsh, but it is not meant as an attack on teachers or school leaders or as a reflection on their good intentions or their bloody hard work – I’m not one who thinks the failure of our system is a result of people being lazy or stupid – but rather it is a comment on the result of unforeseen and unintended outcomes, which have each in their own way bent and twisted the curriculum out of shape.

I intended to examine each of these in my next blog.

– Topic as an approach to curriculum design

– Pedagogy – teaching skills & knowledge as separate entities

– Expertise and resources

– Scaffolding and differentiation

– SEN provision

– Teaching of thinking skills and SEAL as separate from content

– Delivery as a metaphor for teaching the curriculum

– SATs tests




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