RE: The Curriculum
As you will experience in your career, education policies tend to go around in cycles and by the time you retire, you will have experienced two or more cycles of re-visiting old policy. The curriculum plays a key role in schools. The National Curriculum was introduced as a nationwide curriculum for primary and secondary state schools following the Education Reform Act 1988. Notwithstanding its name, it does not apply to independent schools, which may set their own curricula, and academies, while publicly funded, also have a significant degree of autonomy in deviating from the National Curriculum. So why do we refer to it as a ‘National’ Curriculum? This is a question for which I’m unable to offer an answer.
The purpose of the National Curriculum was to standardise the content taught across schools to in turn enable assessment, which fed into the compilation of league tables for each school. The supposed outcome was to allow a free market and choice for parents and carers to choose schools based on a limited and not necessarily robust data set.
Whilst at first only certain subjects were included in the National Curriculum, in subsequent years the curriculum grew to fill the entire teaching time of most state schools. As in many aspects of education, change is inevitable. In 2014, the National Curriculum was revised to contain less prescriptive programmes of study and the removal of levels. You could hear the joy and happiness from staff rooms across the country.
Education both influences and reflects the values of our society. It is therefore important to recognise a set of common aims, values and purposes that underpin the curriculum and the work of schools. With the freedoms granted to Free Schools and Academies, there is the opportunity and also the risk of losing sight of the aims, values and purposes of the curriculum. It is worthwhile considering what these aims and values mean to you and for your school.
I’d hope you’ll find yourself working in conjunction with your peers in planning a curriculum, co-constructing ideas using the talents and experiences from peers and youngsters in your classrooms to ignite fires and provide youngsters with a true thirst for learning: learning which will prepare them for adulthood. My experiences from writing a curriculum may be told by the ghost of Christmas past: using my limited knowledge and experience as a young teacher, being given the task to plan schemes of work in isolation over the summer vacation, with little idea and opportunity to discuss with my peers. You can imagine that initially these plans were dull, limited and did not allow for sound progression. I do hope that in the future, you’ll be afforded the opportunity to work with others in devising a world-class curriculum.
The curriculum model for schools can be a key driver to aid teaching and learning as well as being a barrier. Two-week timetables, suspended days, extended days, double periods, single-period days, setting, banding, alternative pathways, stage not age and vertical arrangements have led to creative approaches to deliver the school’s curriculum to meet the needs of individual pupils. The rationale for selecting the method needs careful consideration for pupils and staff. What should the guiding principles be for this selection? I once heard a pupil saying ‘I spend more time walking to lessons than I do in actually learning in lessons’. One thing that is certain is that no one model is ideal and no one model would suit the needs of all our pupils and our schools.
The present curriculum in schools has been impacted by the narrow focus on league tables, which has led to ‘game play’ by schools, which in turn has constrained the curriculum offer in schools to secure C grade passes. Pathways supporting the Ebacc subjects (English, mathematics, sciences, modern foreign languages, history and geography) have in some schools led to an increase in the study of modern foreign languages and humanities, where prior to the Ebacc, some of these subjects were in decline. The focus on one particular area, however, has led to the demise of the performing arts and non-Ebacc subjects. In turn, schools have reduced staffing in some of these areas and so have universities and other training providers. The constant meddling and inference by politicians has led to only the brave pursuing what is right for their pupils in their schools when designing the curriculum.
From the perspective of classroom teachers, there is some excitement about the abolition of levels and the opportunity to shape your subject with a less prescriptive National Curriculum. Whilst we do not know what is on the horizon, it is difficult to future-proof the curriculum in schools and we must do what is best for ALL of our youngsters in what is a rapidly evolving world.
There is no agreed list of principles to help support the design of a curriculum in schools, but we do need to question these in a time of higher autonomy and also higher accountability. A few questions to support the discussion:
· How can we develop successful learners through the curriculum?
· What does an excellent curriculum consist of?
· What should a broad and balanced curriculum look line in practice for Key Stage 3 pupils and how does it differ for pupils in Key Stage 4?
· Is it appropriate to achieve mastery in the core subjects over a broad curriculum particularly for those who are below age-required expectations?
· What role does a vocational / technical pathway play in the curriculum and what age should pupils be allowed to specialise?
The future for the curriculum at present offers a ray of sunlight. Progress and attainment measures allow schools to offer more breadth and depth; however, as teachers, we must be aware that we need to do what is best for our pupils in our specific contexts to prepare them for a changing world. I do hope in the future we as teachers are allowed to just get on with just teaching the pupils.
As the baton transfers from one political party to another, I hope for the sake of our education system we don’t see the radical shake-up and the throwing out of the baby with the bath water. For decades the British education system has been the envy of the world, yet politicians fail to recognise this. We are urged to follow in the footsteps of education systems in : Singapore, Finland, and the rest, but I’ve found these countries don’t constantly change at the pace as we’ve done over the years. What we need is for teachers to make decisions at grass roots and take control of what is best for our pupils, our schools and our community.
School teachers, leaders, and other stakeholders need to provide parents and pupils with a wider range of data, allowing them to make more informed choices from a curriculum free from political interference.
I wish you all the best. Hold firm the values that led you to joining the best profession in the world.