The National Curriculum Framework: What are we going to do now?

The revised National Curriculum document has now been published. The consultation will take place over the summer and the expectation is that little will change as a result. So what should schools be doing to be ready for Implementation in September 2014?

 

Regrettably, the overall aims in the new National Curriculum Framework document remain unchanged from the original proposals (see previous post: http://wp.me/p2wig8-8o).

 

Bizarrely, unlike those high achieving jurisdictions so often referenced by Mr Gove when presenting the rationale behind the new curriculum, we do not appear to be concerned with engaging or inspiring young people nor in developing the skills and attitudes to make them effective lifelong learners.

 

Instead, according to Aim 3.1, from 2014 the NC will:

  • provide pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens
  • introduce pupils to the best that has been thought and said
  • help engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement

 

The only other aim (3.2) which is not really an aim at all, goes on to explain that it is up to teachers to develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills.

 

In contrast to these weak, input-focused ‘aims’, Messrs Cameron and Gove express complete confidence that the new curriculum will deliver outcomes. Mr Cameron says that this revolution in education is vital for the country’s prosperity. Mr Gove wants his own children ‘to have the sort of curriculum that children in other countries have, which are doing better than our own.’

 

So where is the substance behind this confidence?

Will a more rigorously knowledge-based curriculum really make our young people more competitive in the global economy?

Is the ‘skills gap’ highlighted by business, industry and universities really going to be bridged by the headline changes such as learning fractions earlier, chronological history, computer programming and a greater focus on Shakespeare?

With a large and growing proportion of schools (the Academies and Free Schools) exempted from the requirement to follow it, will the National Curriculum really deliver system-wide?

Will a greater emphasis on knowledge really improve our position in the PISA league tables, when OECD’s Andreas Schleicher himself says that PISA tests students’ ability to apply their learning, to think critically, to solve problems and to make judgements?

Is it really possible that, by any stretch of the imagination, the answer to all of these questions can be ‘yes’.

 

Ultimately, of course, the effectiveness of the curriculum will depend upon what happens in the nation’s classrooms. The focus of the curriculum document is clearly upon knowledge rather than the balance of knowledge along with skills, attitudes and competences found in 21st century curricula around the world. Hence it will be up to schools and teachers to ensure they do the right thing by their students from 2014.

 

The curriculum design challenge facing schools in the coming year will clearly be considerable. Mr Gove has continued to demonstrate his muddled thinking (and his belief that his role extends into classroom practice) with claims such as:

  • students should learn the basics and only then be allowed to focus on creativity (Has he never seen young children learning through creative play?)
  • only ‘desiccated’ rote learning is boring (Presumably he believes there is an alternative ‘moist’ form of rote learning)

Schools owe it to their young charges to see through the fog and design a curriculum which is both challenging and balanced. This is a complex task and one year is a very short time in which to achieve it ready for implementation in 2014. Mr Gove’s recognition of the quality of the teaching profession and of their hard work is good to hear but his confidence that this deadline can be met is yet another indicator of his naivety and inexperience.

 

The headline on the gov.uk website reads ‘Education reform: a world-class curriculum to drive up standards and fuel aspiration’. It is absolutely clear that schools will not have a curriculum which deserves this rating (see the Curriculum Foundation’s World Class Curriculum principles) simply by implementing the new framework. We all know that the curriculum is so much more than a jigsaw of subjects and schools will have to bring to bear considerable expertise if they are to meet both the deadline and appropriate quality standards.

 

For schools, a good starting point for the curriculum design process is with a vision and clear set of curriculum aims. With the tight timescale, a good time to make a start is now.

 

The Curriculum Foundation offers help with curriculum design to schools, school networks / chains and governments and can be contacted via admin@curriculumfoundation.org

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Reform of GCSEs: Rigour, Relevance and Righteousness

So we now have Mr. Gove’s announcement regarding the future of GCSEs. Some parts of his statement to the house were not contentious. Everyone wants the best for our young people and, of course, all of us would agree that:

 

‘Young people in this country deserve an education system that can compete with the best in the world, a system which sets – and achieves – high expectations.’

However, Gove’s record with respect to evidence-based policy development is well documented and hence there will inevitably be controversy with respect to his strategy. It is unfortunate (if that is not too charitable) that much of the ten week consultation period falls in the summer holiday as there is clearly a need for a national debate about his assertion that:

 

‘Today’s reforms are essential to achieve this goal.’

 

Rigour

 

Although he has tried to present his false starts on GCSE reform in a positive light, the Secretary of State has provided his critics with plenty of ammunition. One point on which he has been consistent however is in his use of the word ‘rigour’. He has said it repeatedly, claimed that he is its one true champion and lambasted the educational establishment for failing to ensure the current system has enough of it. Despite the frequency with which he has used the word, he has had little to say with respect to his definition of rigour.

 

The centerpiece of his strategy for a more rigorous future is that:

 

course work and controlled assessment will largely be replaced by linear, externally marked end-of-course exams’.

 

So, quite clearly Mr. Gove believes that for a GCSE course to be rigorous, it must involve remembering ‘stuff’ for up to two years for regurgitation in terminal examinations. Logically, this strategy should be effective in terms of his narrow definition of the word ‘rigour’. GCSEs will be more rigorous tests of memory.  

However, the word ‘rigour’ (dictionary definition: the use of high standards) can be applied to anything and, indeed, should be applied to everything schools do. Schools must ensure they take a rigorous approach to developing, for example, communication skills, self-confidence, problem-solving, creativity, evaluation skills, team work, skills relating to learning to learn, adaptability, behaviour, health and well being, sports skills, etc, etc. See previous blog: ‘Dumbing Down in the Name of Rigour’ http://wp.me/p2wig8-4s

 

Mr. Gove often expresses his respect for OECD education guru, Andreas Shleicher, who suggests that those set to be most successful in the global economy are the ‘versatilists’. He describes them thus:

They apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies, building relationships and assuming new roles. They are capable not only of constantly adapting, but also constantly learning and growing in a fast-changing world.’

Knowledge is obviously very important indeed but we must consider the contribution terminal examinations will make to the rigorous preparation students need for this fast-changing world.

We must challenge the long-held but misguided view that education is a series of sieves designed to ‘sort the sheep from the goats’ and identify those fit to attend a Russell Group University. If we are to make optimum use of the talents of our young people, we need a much richer and more authentic view of how we celebrate and affirm what all of them achieve.  

Relevance

Most serving teachers are too young to remember the pre-coursework era (before 1988) when the debate focused on:

  • the appropriateness as a preparation for life of two year courses of study followed by ‘big bang’ exams
  • the reliability of one-off, ‘hot day in June’ assessments for making judgements which could have such an impact on students’ life chances

Twenty five years later is perhaps long enough for these debates to have been forgotten and for the clock to be turned back without due consideration of the consequences.

Certainly the path of coursework /controlled assessment has not been a smooth one. The Ofqual document ‘Review of controlled assessment in GCSEs’ includes a good summary of the issues.

http://www.ofqual.gov.uk/files/2013-06-11-review-of-controlled-assessment-in-GCSEs.pdf

There has been much talk of terminal examinations providing a ‘more level playing field’ but there is a wealth of evidence relating to those who are disadvantaged by this system including, for example, girls, underprivileged students without adequate study facilities at home, those with special needs, summer-born children and hay-fever sufferers. It is hard to believe that, like most ‘pendulum swing’ changes, this will not be reversed when its true consequences become clear.

The issue of skill shortages which is regularly raised by business and industry leaders clearly will not be addressed by a return to terminal examinations and, of course, effectiveness of performance in the work-place is judged by a variety of appraisal systems, none of which resemble examinations.

As governments around the world recognise the need to broaden the curriculum (the right starting point) and then to adapt their assessment systems accordingly, it is a concern that changes in England are being driven by Mr. Gove’s conviction that examinations at 16 are not rigorous enough.

The ‘big picture’ has changed markedly since 1988, with young people now required to continue to study until the age of 18. From this wider perspective the Secretary of State may well, in the long term, come to be seen as somewhat blinkered.

 

Righteousness v The Right Thing

With Mr. Gove’s recent admission on the Andrew Marr programme that he doesn’t really listen to those who disagree with him, it is hard to imagine he will take notice of responses to the GCSE consultation. However, to his credit, he has been bold enough to swallow a little humble pie (even if it was with the rider that the world wasn’t yet quite ready for a man with such vision).

He suggested in his statement to the House that:

‘By making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race.’

In our responses to the consultation we all need to make the point that breadth, depth and balance are what we all want for our young people but that greater demand, fulfillment and stretch will not be achieved simply by putting all our eggs in the terminal exam basket.

 

Reform is needed but, as all politicians should know, rushed reform inevitably leads to bad policy. We need to urge Mr. Gove to take the time to get it right.

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National Curriculum Proposals: Curriculum Foundation Response

1 Do you have any comments on the proposed aims for the National Curriculum as a whole as set out in the framework document?

A curriculum that seeks to call itself world-class should begin with aims. The first and most important question a curriculum review should begin with is ‘What are we trying to achieve?’

In this review, there has been inadequate discussion over the proposed aims and underlying values of the National Curriculum. Unless there is clarity, and some democratic consensus, about what a curriculum is seeking to achieve it is impossible to properly consider how a curriculum should be organised. The way learning is designed (its form) should reflect what it is trying to achieve (its function).

In previous reviews undertaken by educational experts there has always been such a debate. Prior to the Secondary Review, a whole series of booklets was produced by QCA which captured the views of employers, parents, teachers, pupils and subject associations. One booklet, titled ‘1000 Words to Shape the Future’ received contributions from more than 56 different organisations including submissions from organisations as diverse as the Institute of Directors, Youth Justice Board, Amnesty International and the Girls’ School Association.

The current review has enjoyed no public debate and the proposed aims are not aims at all. They convey little sense of what education is for. This makes a rather poor contrast with the curriculum aims in Singapore, Finland and New Zealand which are often cited by Government as education systems worthy of emulation. Singapore’s curriculum aims demonstrate a breadth of expectation for pupils which is lacking in these proposals.  Pupils should learn, for example, to ‘appreciate the beauty of the world’, have a ‘zest for life’, be ‘confident’, ‘think independently and critically’, ‘communicate effectively’, ‘ask questions’, ‘use initiative’, ‘take calculated risks’ and develop into a ‘concerned citizen’. For further details see Singapore’s Desired Outcomes for Education at http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/desired-outcomes/3

Finland: Integration and cross-curricular themes at

http://www.oph.fi/download/47675_POPS_net_new_2.pdf

2. Do you agree that instead of detailed subject-level aims we should free teachers to shape their own curriculum aims based on the content in the programmes of study?

This is problematic for a number of reasons. In the absence of clearly articulated values, aims and purposes for the whole curriculum, the ‘content in the programmes of study’ does not provide any meaningful ethical framework. Teachers should have many freedoms, including elements of content and pedagogies, but these freedoms need to be exercised within a clear aims based framework. The proposed curriculum framework, and the abandonment of the concept of an entitlement for all children, fails to provide this structure.

There are also problems with the aims currently proposed within the individual subject programmes of study. These read as a summary list of contents rather than a broader rationale for what pupils will be expected to study. English for example glaringly omits the potential of the subject to develop creativity or inspire children to use their imagination.

3. Do you have any comments on the content set out in the draft programmes of study? 

Again – the evaluation of curriculum content should take place against a framework of agreed curriculum aims so that judgments can focus on the potential of the content to deliver those aims. The proposed overall aims (Q1) offer very little against which to make these judgements.

There is also a problem in the discrepancy between what is prescribed as content for the core subjects and History and other Foundation Subjects giving the impression of a two tiered curriculum.

The year by year approach in core subjects at KS1 will also create an inflexible approach to planning, teaching and learning. Andrew Pollard has commented in his IOE blog that this very detailed year-on-year model was one of the main issues which caused the Expert Panel as a whole to withdraw from the development of programmes of study, leaving only Tim Oates to work with Ministers and the DfE teams.

Comments on proposals for individual subject content:

English: We welcome the emphasis on reading for pleasure. However, there should be a clear oracy/speaking and listening strand within the English curriculum. Drama should also be reinstated, as both play a key role in enhancing children`s language skills and confidence. Synthetic phonics is now the statutory method for teaching reading. No-one disputes the importance of phonics in the teaching of reading but it is not the only thing young children need to learn about reading.

There is an over emphasis on technical aspects such as phonics and grammar. The Cambridge Primary Review emphasise that there is no evidence that learning grammatical terms and labeling words and phrases in sentences helps children to write better.

There is a great and puzzling primary/secondary imbalance and the degree of detail and excessive statutory appendices (over 20 pages) are more like a scheme of work than programme of study. The lack of reference to digital texts, multimodal texts, media, new technologies etc does not reflect what it means to be a reader in the twenty first century.

Maths : We are concerned that proposals for the maths curriculum focus too exclusively on content acquisition and there should be a greater emphasis on mathematical thinking, reasoning and problem solving. The movement of some content from later to earlier years is also problematic.

Science: We welcome the strand that ensures children will work scientifically including carrying out independent investigations at KS2.  We agree with the Cambridge Primary Review that expectations at KS1 are low and important topics such as electricity and light have been removed.

Art and design: We agree with the view stated by the ASCL that this POS is so cursory that teachers are at a loss to understand how this is an improvement. There should be an emphasis on progression in skills, on evaluating and developing work, investigating artists and crafts people from different cultures and working with digital media.

 

Music: There should be a greater emphasis on enjoying music and having fun with it, especially at Key Stage 1, and references to the inclusion of different cultures and traditions in music.  There needs to be a greater emphasis on creativity and imagination. Expectations at KS1 are low and there is a lack of any reference to music from different cultures and lack of any form of composition at KS1

 

Citizenship:  Current proposals are greatly inferior to the existing programme. Citizenship should begin in KS1 not wait until KS3 and focus on developing active citizenship and the notion of global citizenship not just information about UK law and governance.

 

Computing:  Very technical and content heavy, it almost completely removes all the practical ICT skills that students will need for adult life.

 

Design and technology: The draft PoS does not promote progression in children`s learning. It is a return to more of a craft-based, maintenance skills approach, which will not prepare students for the real world or provide the rigour and challenge for the 21st century.

 

Geography: There is too little emphasis on cultural understanding, sustainability and diversity. Also a curriculum that allows primary children to learn Mandarin at KS2 but only encounter China in Geography at KS3 simply illustrates that the proposed curriculum has not been scrutinised through the eyes of a learner. Learning about climate change in these Programmes of Study should be included. All references to sustainable development have been dropped. A further concern is that the primary geography Programmes of Study focus on the British Isles to a large degree.  There is no mention of Africa, the Caribbean or Indian sub-continent, for instance, although many pupils will have family connections with these areas which could increase their motivation to learn in this subject.  In addition, the existing curriculum has encouraged many primary schools to establish links with schools globally.The failure to include Africa, the Caribbean or Asia seriously jeopardise these important links.

 

History: A high-quality history education equips pupils to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgment. We agree with the concerns made by many organisations including the Historical Association and Cambridge Primary Review that this proposed curriculum pays little attention to child development and does not reflect age-appropriate topics. The subject content of KS1 with concepts such as “civilization, parliament, democracy ‘ is inappropriate and unachievable for children of this age. The world history strand has been removed from primary schools and the amount of content to cover at KS2 and 3 is unworkable. It will lead to superficial learning and is likely to turn students away from history. It is a real departure from the current syllabus, which shows an interest in parts of the world beyond Britain and introduces children to critical thinking.

 

In Key Stages 2 and 3, pupils are expected to grasp a huge swathe of the history of Britain. The pressure to cover so much content, with no time to go back to revisit and reinforce, as well as some of the actual content (e.g. Wycliffe’s Bible for 8-9 year olds) will be likely to turn off some pupils from the subject and lead to less interest in historical study at later stages of education, as they will believe it is not relevant to them, their lives and their communities,

 

No rationale has been given for replacing the current exciting National Curriculum primary history units, such as those on the Victorian world and World War 2 Home front, which Ofsted has highlighted as good practice.

 

Languages: The study of at least one foreign language is a welcome addition to the Key Stage 2. Less welcome is the prescribed list of seven languages for primary schools to choose from (French, Spanish, Italian, German, Mandarin, Latin and Ancient Greek) rather than the ability to provide an introduction to language families or teach community languages as is current practice in some primaries. There is a notable omission of reference to intercultural understanding and the range of languages proposed is limiting.

 

Physical education: The focus on team games, rather than developing a good understanding of healthy living is a major shortcoming. The PoS are so brief they are meaningless. Entitlement to high quality PE, dance and sports provision should be an entitlement for all children. This Programme of Study seems to be little more than a list of activities, with scant reference to inclusion or encouragement of enjoying and achieving in PE.

 

4. Does the content set out in the draft programmes of study represent a sufficiently ambitious level of challenge for pupils at each key stage? 

A complete answer to this question clearly requires an analysis of the proposed programmes of study for all subjects. Most content, particularly when it is presented as a list of topics, could potentially be taught to a broad range of levels, and hence the degree of challenge depends on the teacher’s ability to differentiate. It is far too simplistic to suggest that teaching certain topics at a young age represents an ambitious level of challenge.

The decision to present the content of the proposed History programme of study in chronological order clearly runs counter to providing appropriate challenge at different key stages. A chronological list of events, none of which is intrinsically more challenging than any other, cannot possibly represent a hierarchy in terms of level of challenge.

Generally proposals for core subjects are more ambitious than for non-core subjects which lack ambition particularly in some subjects such as Science and Music where the expectations for KS1 are lower than the current National Curriculum.

5. Do you have any comments on the proposed wording of the attainment targets?

 

The assessment requirements should have been published at the same time as the National Curriculum draft framework.  It is difficult to comment on proposed programmes of study without knowing how children`s progress and attainment are to be assessed.

 

6. Do you agree that the draft programmes of study provide effective progression between the key stages?

The draft programme of study do not provide clear routes for effective progression particularly from the four overarching principles and seven areas of learning and development of the EYFS.

7. Do you agree that we should change the subject information and communication technology to computing to reflect the content of the new programmes of study?

ICT and computing would more accurately reflect the practice schools should be aiming for in primary schools. Focusing too heavily on programming will fail to provide learners of all ages with the every day ICT skills necessary in the 21st century and risk disengagement with this important area of study.

8. Does the new National Curriculum embody an expectation of higher standards for all children?

The proposed new National Curriculum clearly does NOT embody an expectation of higher standards for ALL children, if it will not be statutory for children attending Academies and Free Schools. Higher expectation should encompass higher levels of learning (understanding, applying, evaluating and creating) in addition to the memorisation of knowledge.

9. What impact positive or negative will our proposals have on the protected characteristic groups?

There are likely to be negative effects for pupils for whom English is not their first language due to the emphasis on technical aspects of English at the expense of meaning making. The exclusion of community languages such as Polish (now the second language of the UK) Bengali, Gujarati and Urdu will also be detrimental. There is likely to be a negative impact on minority groups as the curriculum has a decreased focus on inclusion and as it excludes world history and geography relating to parts of the world significant to many communities.

10. To what extent will the new National Curriculum make clear to parents what their children should be learning at each stage of their education.

We support the proposal that the National Curriculum should be made clear to parents and welcome the fact that the new curriculum proposals show KS1, 2 and 3 in the same document. However, the proposals focus on what children know rather than what they can do. This will mislead parents into thinking that learning is nothing more than memorisation of established knowledge.

11. What key factors will affect schools ability to implement the new National Curriculum successfully from September 2014?

Key factors affecting schools ability to implement the new curriculum successfully will be insufficient time, support and effective CPD. These proposals are being rushed through without sufficient time for revision, trialing and piloting by schools as occurred in previous reviews.  Schools will need to be supported to undertake whole school  curriculum development as well as making individual subject changes if they are to develop a vibrant, relevant curriculum that will inspire and challenge their pupils.

12. Who is best placed to support schools and or develop resources that schools will need to teach the new National Curriculum?

Building confidence of head teachers and teachers to develop their curriculum as a whole should be the main goal of non statutory guidance and CPD. Organisations such as the Curriculum Foundation are already working with schools around the country to make this happen.

13. Do you agree that we should amend the legislation to disapply the National Curriculum programmes of study, attainment targets and statutory arrangements, as set out in section 12 of the consultation document?

We should not disapply any programmes of study which could affect entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum

 

General comments

We have serious concerns about the impact that these reforms could have on education in the future if they go ahead.  We agree with the findings of the Cambridge Primary Review that Overall, we find the proposals in many respects educationally unsound and evidentially questionable. They are based on a flawed critique of existing arrangements and an overly selective response to international data.’

Learning and understanding – the current proposals favour ‘essential knowledge’ over concepts, skills and attitudes. This will not achieve the Government’s aim of raising standards and are likely to increase rote learning, at the expense of understanding and critical thinking. Governments around the world are recognizing the need to move in the opposite direction, developing concepts, skills and attitudes in addition to essential knowledge.

Relevance – the proposals do not take sufficient account of what is known about how children learn, or allow sufficiently for individual differences. Some of the programmes of study are not age appropriate, risking a sense of failure and disengagement amongst some pupils.

The programmes of study lack relevance to the needs of primary-aged children in the 21st century, and will not adequately prepare them for the future. The prescriptive approach that is set out for the primary curriculum is excessively detailed and overly-focused on core subjects and History. This increased over prescription may lead to a loss of breadth and balance in the curriculum and make cross curricular links hard to forge.

We therefore call on the government to

  • Listen to teachers and academic experts – particularly as to what can realistically be expected of children at particular ages. If the pitch of the programmes of study are inappropriate, then there is a real risk of encouraging failure, which could have long term consequences in disengaging pupils from learning;
  • Delay the proposed statutory implementation of the new National Curriculum in September 2014, to give time for proper review and revision of  the current drafts, in light of the many representations and responses made during the consultation period;
  • Allow for further debate on the content of the National Curriculum as proposals for assessment and accountability are developed;
  • Given the importance of achieving consensus and legitimacy over the aims of the National Curriculum, develop clear statements that promote positive attitudes to learning in consultation with all the relevant stakeholders.

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NC Consultation Question 5: Do you have any comments on the proposed wording of the attainment targets?

There is no need for time-consuming research into the proposed wording of the attainment targets across the range of National Curriculum subjects as the wording is exactly the same for all subjects.

It reads:

 

By the end of each key stage, pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study.

 

Unfortunately the focus is the wording of the question although there are fundamental philosophical issues behind this change which need to be thoroughly explored. It is to be hoped that responses relating to these issues will be fully taken into account.

 

The rationale behind this minimalist approach to attainment targets is set out in the consultation document. In summary:

  • Legally ATs are required to set standards at end of each KS
  • Currently this is done with levels at KS1, 2 & 3 and grade C at KS4
  • The Government wants the focus of teaching to be ‘subject content’ rather than ‘abstract level descriptions’
  •  The single statement of attainment above will, the document states, ‘encourage all pupils to reach demanding standards’
  • The ‘apply’ and ‘understand’ aspects of the AT do not get a mention in the stated aspirations that parents ‘will be given clear information on what their children should know’ and that teachers ‘will be able to report on how every pupil is progressing in acquiring this knowledge’.

There is obviously a mismatch between this last statement and the wording of the attainment target but, with its narrow focus on the wording, there is a danger that this mismatch is could be considered outside the scope of the question.

There are many other important and pertinent issues, although they too might be deemed to be beyond the scope of the question. These include:

  • whether it is right that NC levels should no longer exist
  • the extent to which a single statement of attainment will contribute to higher standards
  • how feasible it is for teachers to report on pupil progress in terms of the extent to which they have met expectation in terms of what they know and how well they can apply and understand ‘the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study’
  • the extent to which parents are likely to gain a better understanding of their children’s progress from an exhaustive list of what has been learned (and not learned!) across the full range of subjects rather than from levels as at present
  • the extent to which the switch in emphasis towards memorisation of knowledge (the bottom level of Bloom’s taxonomy) is likely to lead to a real rise in standards…….see Dumbing Down in the Name of Rigour

 

Ideally these issues should be explored in parallel with accountability with which they are entwined. The secondary accountability consultation closes at the end of the month but, unfortunately the primary consultation is yet to be released.

 

If the purpose of the consultation is really to ensure the views and experience of respondents are fully exploited for the benefit of learners, comments relating to these wider issues will influence the revision of the document.

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Question 4: Does the content set out in the draft programmes of study represent a sufficiently ambitious level of challenge for pupils at each key stage?

NC consultation deadline only 1 week away. Need to encourage enormous public & professional response.

Question 4: Does the content set out in the draft programmes of study represent a sufficiently ambitious level of challenge for pupils at each key stage?.

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Question 4: Does the content set out in the draft programmes of study represent a sufficiently ambitious level of challenge for pupils at each key stage?

The following is an attempt to provide some helpful suggestions regarding responses to a flawed question. It would be uncharitable to conclude that these flaws result from conspiracy and cock-up is more likely to be the explanation. The natural reaction to a flawed question is to ignore it but, with the danger of a shortage of responses being taken for acquiescence, it is vital these issues are addressed.

A complete answer to this question clearly requires an analysis of the proposed programmes of study for all subjects. Many respondents will inevitably feel they are not qualified to comment on subjects beyond their own area of specialism but it is important that this should not reduce the incentive to tackle this section of the consultation. Multiple responses relating to the level of challenge in each individual subject will be essential if the consultation is to produce the necessary volume of feedback.

The phrasing of the question requires responses focused on the specific issue of content and the extent to which the content in the programmes of study is sufficiently challenging at each key stage. The text in the inclusion section of the consultation document itself demonstrates the flawed thinking behind this question and indeed behind the proposals.

It suggests, quite rightly if somewhat clumsily, that teachers….. ‘should plan stretching work for pupils whose attainment is significantly above the expected standard. They have an even greater obligation to plan lessons for pupils who have low levels of prior attainment or come from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

Most content, particularly when it is presented as a list of topics, could potentially be taught to a broad range of levels, through from early years to higher degree standard, and hence the degree of challenge depends on the teacher’s ability to differentiate. It is far too simplistic to suggest that teaching topics at a young age represents an ambitious level of challenge.

The decision to present the content of the proposed History programme of study in chronological order clearly runs counter to providing appropriate challenge at different key stages. A chronological list of events, none of which is intrinsically more challenging than any other, cannot possibly represent a hierarchy in terms of level of challenge.

The contrasting approach to core and foundation subjects further highlights muddled thinking. The rationale for the proposals suggests that the solution to higher standards in the core subjects is more detail and prescription whereas giving teachers greater autonomy and reducing programmes of study to a minimum is, apparently, the solution to better outcomes in foundation subjects. The challenge flag has been nailed to two separate masts.

Because of this marked contrast between core and foundation subjects in terms of the level of detail in the draft programmes, this question is unlikely to produce responses worthy of meaningful statistical analysis at the macro level. Responses will inevitably be polarised. However, if responses are appropriately categorised before analysis, this issue could be overcome. A similar approach will be necessary for a suitably nuanced analysis of the content of the primary proposals as opposed to Key Stage 3 where much less detail is included.

Since the question asks about content at each key stage, respondents will inevitably structure their comments accordingly. However, content is not set out consistently by key stage across the whole curriculum as there have been changes in core subjects.

With Key Stage 2 divided into upper and lower halves, there is effectively an additional key stage in English, Maths and Science and respondents may wish to consider the degree of challenge for years 3 & 4 and for years 5 & 6 separately.

Furthermore, in core subjects there is a year by year approach in the proposed programmes of study (for Years 1-6 in Maths and Science and Years 1 & 2 in English). Earlier guidance which suggested teachers should use their discretion with respect to how closely they adhere to year on year content is not included in the consultation documents.

Question 4 is the place for any comments on the appropriateness of the proposed content with respect to the degree of challenge for particular age groups and sub-key stages. There are no other questions in the consultation which invite comments on these aspects of the proposals.

So this question presents us with both an important opportunity to comment on the appropriateness of proposed content to learners at different ages and stages and with a serious dilemma. A failure to confront the shortcomings in the thinking behind the question would allow analysts to conclude that respondents accept it. Equally, a failure to address the specific issues of content / challenge relating to individual subjects and key stages will be a missed opportunity to influence the content for the benefit of learners.

Individual respondents will therefore have to consider where the balance of their consultation comments should lie. Tempting though it might be, the response to reject is inaction.

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National Curriculum Consultation: Questions 3: Do you have any comments on the content set out in the draft programmes of study? Post 3.1: Why consultation responses must dig deeper than the content in the proposed programmes of study

There has been a torrent of comment in the press and digital media since the draft programmes of study were published, certainly enough to present a challenge to anyone trying to keep abreast of it all. The comment has covered the whole spectrum from individual subjects by Year Group or Key Stage through to the curriculum as a whole.  

Curriculum Aims

One of the difficulties for those wishing to respond to the consultation is the absence of curriculum aims (see previous posts relating to Questions 1 and 2). Logically the evaluation of curriculum content should take place against a framework of curriculum aims so that judgements can focus on the potential of the content to deliver those aims.

The proposed overall aims (Q1) offer very little against which to make these judgements, referring to:

  • introducing pupils to ‘the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens’
  • introducing pupils to ‘the best that has been thought and said’
  • helping to ‘engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement’

The perverse thinking behind the NC proposals is highlighted by the ‘cart before the horse’ / ‘what’ before the ‘why’ approach in Question 2. Remarkably, this asks whether teachers should frame their own aims based on the content!

Other criteria for evaluating content

So, without carefully considered aims for the curriculum, what criteria should be used to evaluate the proposed content?

One obvious course of action is to cross-check the proposals against the existing National Curriculum. However, if the new curriculum is to be an improvement on the old, there should be differences and, if teachers are to be given greater freedom, there should be a significant reduction in the quantity of prescribed content.

Another possible approach is to compare the proposals with the curricula of successful jurisdictions around the world although, with so many nations engaged in curriculum review, the international picture is constantly evolving.

Both of these approaches are, to some extent, deficit models. The dissection of the curriculum is carried out to discover what is missing rather than what is needed. Content is then included for its own sake, according to its own perceived merits, rather than for its contribution to the curriculum as a whole. The consequence is a process of ‘curriculum inflation’ which has long been recognised, with the addition of more content very rarely being counter-balanced by any redundant topics being removed.

This process undeniably results in a comprehensive (in some respects), content-heavy curriculum, but it is certainly not what our young people need if they are to develop twenty-first century knowledge, understanding, skills and abilities.

Indeed, a striking feature of the criticism of the current proposals relates to their match not just with the current National Curriculum, but with curricula of decades long gone.

Looking Forward

It is interesting to compare the outcomes of this backward-looking approach to those emerging from analyses which take account of the impact of modern technologies on life now and in the future. For example, in their book ‘21st Century Skills’ Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel [1]conclude that:

‘Our historic shift to a 21st century Knowledge Age ….. has forever tilted the balance of what is needed and valued in our work, our learning, and our life. In the 21st century, lifelong learning is here to stay.’

The National Curriculum proposals certainly do not reflect this historic shift and there is clearly a danger that, with so much traditional content to consider and without future-focused aims, consultation responses will not provide an appropriately forward-looking steer.

Comments on Content

Hence the National Curriculum consultation questions relating to content are flawed. If the consultation is to lead to the curriculum our young people need and deserve, responses will have to go beyond comment upon the minutiae of the proposed programmes of study.

When answering the questions, respondents will have to bear in mind not just the core knowledge referred to in the aims but, more importantly, the big picture of the over-arching purpose of the National Curriculum in an era of globalisation.

If the premise that the curriculum should focus purely on knowledge is accepted and comments are restricted to the content in the proposed programmes of study, there is a risk that the National Curriculum will seriously disadvantage our young people.

(Further posts will follow relating to specific elements of the content of the draft programmes of study)


[1] 21st Century Skills – Learning for Life in our Times; Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel; 2009; Jossey Bass

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