Monthly Archives: June 2012

Curriculum Consultation … Some Clarity (Primary and Secondary)

Primary consultation

The Department’s National Curriculum Review Update has caused some confusion with respect to the consultation on the primary English, maths and science documents. See:

Scanning down to the end of the section headed ‘Draft National Curriculum documents for primary English, mathematics and science published’ one finds the alarming message that the consultation will run for one month until 11th July.

However, a more careful read through reveals that this refers to consultation on the draft regulations for ICT disapplication.

We are told that the English, maths and science draft documents are ‘a starting point for discussion with key stakeholders at this stage, but there will be a full public consultation on the revised drafts which will start towards the end of this year‘.

It remains to be seen who the key stakeholders are and when ‘towards the end of this year’ will turn out to be.

With the Secretary of State’s declared vision of the curriculum as simply a set of subjects, it seems probable that the consultation will have a subject rather than a ‘big picture’ focus. It is obviously vital to do all we can to ensure the outcome is a curriculum through which young people optimise their potential and learn the knowledge, skills, understanding and aptitudes they need both in terms of key subjects and their personal development.

Hence the Curriculum Foundation is encouraging all stakeholders in education (i.e. everyone) to post comments related to both draft subject documents and the whole curriculum overview. When the time comes we intend to have gathered a wealth of information and opinion for people to draw upon when responding to the full consultation.

Links to the draft subject documents:




Please add your comments below re these drafts and all other aspects of the wider curriculum.

Colleagues are currently working on responses to the subject drafts and these will appear on the blog shortly.

Secondary consultation

The Department’s original message was that the primary consultation would take place simultaneously with that on the secondary National Curriculum. Now the announcement has been made that there will be no such thing in future, it remains to be seen what consultation there will be, if any, with respect to the future of secondary education.

Since the GCSE / O level / CSE leak, Mr Gove has made clear his opinion that he can make this change without legislation, and hence without the support of the Lib Dems.

The debate over the future of GCSEs has completely overshadowed the dramatic announcement concerning the abolition of the secondary curriculum. This major change may well require primary legislation and a public consultation on whether there should be a national curriculum for secondary would certainly seem appropriate.

Of course, no phase of education exists in isolation and comments on the primary proposals are encouraged from colleagues of all phases.

Watch this space for posts relating to a host of wider curriculum issues and to primary, secondary and early years.



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Throwing the Baby Away …….. A Two-tier Examination System!

So the longest day begins with the news that GCSEs and the secondary National Curriculum are to go.

 As Mr Gove’s education reforms have unfolded over the past couple of years many observers have respectfully questioned the extent to which they are based upon genuine research evidence rather than rose-tinted nostalgia for times past.

 Today’s policy leak on GCSEs / O levels provides a strong indication of where the balance lies.

 Perhaps the most striking feature of Mr Gove’s stewardship of education is the sweeping nature of his reforms.

 He didn’t like Local Authorities so the schools are taken away and the money is re-directed to Academies and Free Schools.

 He thought some students were insufficiently challenged by the curriculum so a complete curriculum review was ordered.

 He didn’t like the modular approach and re-sits so these have been replaced with terminal exams.

 He felt schools and teachers were not being sufficiently challenged so the Ofsted ‘satisfactory’ grade was removed and the inspection notice period was reduced.

 This radical approach has earned him considerable esteem from members of his own party and sections of the popular press and even led to descriptions of him as ‘a big beast’ and ‘the only true Tory’. Consequently there have been suggestions that he has strong prime minister potential. With such approbation from those who matter most to him, he obviously has little incentive to moderate his approach.

 There are two particular drawbacks to major policy change made in haste:

  • ·      the background research is often inadequate or even willfully misinterpreted to support the change
  • ·      the implications of the policy are not fully thought through and planned for

 In 1984, faced with the intractable problem of unmotivated young people ‘studying’ for CSE awards of little value, Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government decided the cause of social mobility would be best served by offering every learner the opportunity to reach the highest grades and GCSE was born.

 There are not many teachers left in schools today who were pupils in pre-GCSE days and few who have taught CSEs and O levels, so most practitioners cannot speak from experience. Those long enough in the tooth can recall two very different curricula from fourteen and, indeed, from much earlier. For most students, their fate was determined when grouping decisions were made in the first or second year of secondary school, if not by the outcome of the 11 plus exam. The lesson of history should have alerted us to the danger that, with a two-tier system, the upper tier comes to be seen as the one that matters. Now that we are to have no secondary National Curriculum, the ‘second tier’ curriculum could easily come to be regarded as less important.

 Supporters of reversion to a two-tier system are, perhaps understandably, those who, like Mr Gove, were themselves successful O level candidates. However, as Andreas Schleicher, the Head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at the OECD and the man responsible for the production of the PISA tables points out, the top 20% of our students do as well as the top 20% anywhere in the world. Hence PISA tables, often quoted as supporting evidence by Mr. Gove, provide no grounds for a narrow focus on greater rigour at the top of the ability range.

 Hence a return to the old pre-sixteen divide is a prime example of a policy change which is not supported by evidence and which is likely to have dire consequences in terms of its overall impact. Indeed, with the school leaving age about to rise to eighteen, it is difficult to justify such high profile and costly examinations at sixteen at all. A more carefully planned strategy would surely not invest so much resource in gauging learners’ performance two years before they complete their formal education. With such an ill-conceived and clumsily handled proposal, it is hard to escape the thought that the reason for the change has a lot to do with Mr. Gove’s political ambition.

 The act of dramatically throwing away the bathwater can create the impression of a determined and effective man of action. It may take time for this illusion to be shattered with the discovery that the spectacular rush of water obscured the loss of the baby.

 Unfortunately, this has already happened with the policy changes listed above (shortage of funds to meet demand for primary school places, a mismanaged and finally aborted National Curriculum review, a focus on memorisation rather than real learning, a teaching force with morale at a seriously low ebb).

 We all know that GCSEs are not perfect and there is room for improvement. However, the outcry from the public, education professionals and politicians across all parties has been such that Mr. Gove can be in no doubt about the strength of opposition to a return to a two-tier exam system. Making this change in a cavalier fashion would have serious consequences for our young people and our nation.

This time we need to ensure the water remains in the bath.


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Three Wheels on my Wagon

Three Wheels on my Wagon

‘Hello Children, everywhere’.  So began Junior Choice, formerly Children’s Favourites, a radio programme that ran on the BBC between 1954 and 1982. Among the many tunes etched on my memory from these times is the song ‘Three Wheels on my Wagon’, a hit for the New Christy Minstrels.

The lyric tells of a group of western pioneers being pursued by native American Cherokees. As they flee, the wheelsfall off their wagon one by one, until it finally stops rolling along. The pioneers, we presume, reach an untimely end.

I don’t know why, but the tune popped into my head last week when I read about the controversial new National Curriculum proposals for primary schools.

During the week, three of the four expert advisors, appointed by Mr Gove, publicly disassociated themselves from the new proposals.  Professors Andrew Pollard, Mary James and Dylan Wiliam all expressed serious reservations about the ‘crude’ and ‘fatally flawed’ approach taken by the fourth advisor, Tim Oates and his team of civil servants. Mr Oates, the only member of the panel never to have taught in a primary or secondary school, was left alone to defend the work. With three of the four wheels off the Gove curriculum bandwagon perhaps it is only a matter of time before this poorly conceived curriculum model reaches a sticky end.

So why have three of the four experts spoken out?  Firstly, Dylan Wiliam was concerned about the selective use of international evidence, supposedly the cornerstone of the review. He is reported as saying the principle of learning from the best education systems in the world has been ‘lost’ during the creation of the proposed programmes of study for English, Maths and Science. Pollard and James say in their letter of resignation ‘…we are concerned with the directions which the Department (foe Education) now appears to be taking. Some of these directions fly in the face of evidence from the UK and internationally and, in our judgment cannot be justified educationally.”

Here at the Curriculum Foundation we agree. We know, for example, that the review team spent months mechanistically poring over the curricula of high performing jurisdictions to establish the age when things such as the addition of fractions are usually taught, as though this was the great challenge of curriculum reform.

At the same time it appears that they failed to take account of important initiatives such as ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ from Singapore (link ).This is an initiative that “is about shifting the focus from quantity to quality in education. More quality in terms of classroom interaction, opportunities for expression, the learning of life-long skills and the building of character through innovative and effective teaching approaches and strategies. Less quantity in terms of rote-learning, repetitive tests, and following prescribed answers and set formulae.” This seems to have had little influence on thinking in the DfE.

For many educationalists, alarms bell started to ring when, at the outset of the review, the letter inviting us to participate stated that:

‘This Government believes that recent changes to the National Curriculum, such as the inclusion of skills development and the promotion of generic dispositions, have distorted the core function of the national curriculum and diluted the importance of subject knowledge.’

Such a statement sits uneasily with the research evidence. Good teachers know that high quality learning is not a battle between competing aspects of the curriculum but a skilful orchestration of many.

At the Curriculum Foundation we are invited to work with Ministries and organisations around the world. When we work in Korea, China, Morocco, Pakistan, the Middle East, Spain or Lithuania we are working alongside education systems and personnel seeking to go beyond the constraints of textbooks to allow imaginative teachers to design rich, authentic learning experiences that will inspire and motivate children, as well as equip them with knowledge, (yes knowledge!), skills and attitudes to allow them to flourish in the future.

Unesco’s International Bureau of Education captures things succinctly when it says:

 “In the past, the curriculum was designed merely from the perspective of its cultural transmission functions, with its structure consequently reflecting discrete areas of knowledge. Given the complexity of today’s ever-changing world, contemporary approaches to curriculum development far exceed the traditional understanding of curricula as merely plans of study or lists of prescribed content.”

Lists of prescribed content, lists of spellings… now turn to page 37 and do exercise 2b.

Like nostalgic memories from a bygone era or a half-remembered song on the wireless, Mr Oates’s curriculum (which reads more like a national textbook than a curriculum) is radically out of step with international trends in curriculum design.

Hello Children, everywhere. You deserve better.


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The ‘Year by Year’ Approach

Michael Gove sets out in his letter to Tim Oates his desire to ‘ensure that the necessary knowledge has been mastered before moving on to more stretching content, and indeed to wider curricular choices’.

He goes on to explain his belief that ‘it is particularly important for us to lay out the content that each child should be expected to master in mathematics, science and the grammar of the English language every year’.

With the release of the resignation letter Mary James and Andrew Pollard sent to Michael Gove in October, some of the Expert Panel’s misgivings about the year-by-year structure have been made public. They describe this as far too prescriptive and showing a lack of trust in teachers’ professional judgement.

On a simple level, the year-by-year approach is very appealing. Theoretically, if we could get every young person to the same demanding level of expectation every year, these incremental steps would ultimately lead to high levels of achievement for all.

However, education professionals and, indeed, those with any experience of children know that it is not that simple. Children develop at different rates. Some fly from an early age and would be frustrated if restricted by age-related expectation. Others struggle to keep up with their peers and make steady if slower progress when taught appropriately.

Nations around the world with a year-by-year curriculum structure have to grapple with implications such as what to do about those who do not make the grade. Should they be held back and made to repeat the year? If so, how many repetitions should be permitted? How can repeat year students be motivated in a more junior cohort? How is a high drop-out rate to be avoided?

Particular problems in jurisdictions with such systems are:

  • some young people do not leave school until long after the standard school leaving age (sometimes into their twenties)
  • some complete their education without ever having any experience of success 
  • others simply give up and do not complete at all

We clearly need a curriculum which will stretch every learner and ensure all make the maximum possible progress. A great danger of the year-by-year approach is that, like league tables based on attainment thresholds, it will provide a strong incentive to schools to focus attention on those at the middle of the ability range. Governments around the world are recognising the need to adopt a curriculum which will maximise the potential of every learner to participate in the global economy. The international evidence does not provide a basis for a decision to shift to central government prescription of annual mastery of content.

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Andrew Pollard’s reaction to the proposed primary curriculum

The Expert Panel was a group of experts, greatly respected by education professionals.

As a member of the Expert Panel, Andrew Pollard is able to give a unique perspective on the process which has led to the primary proposals.

How much account has been taken of the views of the panel, of the public consultation, of real international research evidence and of American academic, E.D.Hirsch?

As Andrew writes ‘Education must be seen as “the product of interaction between knowledge and individual development”. The proposals suggest the balance has been skewed strongly towards the former. 

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June 15, 2012 · 11:57 am

Memorisation and Real Learning

Memorisation and Learning.

There is a big difference between memorisation and real learning. The Secretary of State’s new curriculum proposals suggest he has not understood this.

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Memorisation and Learning

It is disappointing to find such a narrow focus on knowledge and content in the Secretary of State’s proposals for our new curriculum. Teachers, well-versed as they are in Bloom’s Taxonomy, are well aware that memorisation lies at the bottom of the pyramid and that challenging young people to be truly successful is not synonymous with filling empty vessels with more knowledge. Indeed, those who become the most knowledgeable are those who develop the greatest confidence at the higher levels.

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