As autumn drifts into winter we are presumably nearing the point at which the ‘full public consultation on the revised drafts which will start towards the end of this year’ should have begun. This was promised when the new national curriculum primary proposals were first unveiled, although the DfE website now suggests it will be early next year. So, before the consultation gets underway, we examine the ‘new National Curriculum’ starting point.
Do you remember a jokey television advertisement for a drink called “Red Rock Cider”? It ended with the punch line, delivered deadpan to camera by ‘Naked Gun’ actor, Leslie Nielsen, “Red Rock Cider. It’s not red, and it has no rocks in it”.
It is hard to escape that advertisement coming to mind when you think of Michael Gove’s new national curriculum. In fact, Gove has taken it one step further, so perhaps the tagline should be:
The New National Curriculum. It’s not new. It’s not national. And it’s not
even a curriculum.
It’s not new
It’s not new because it appears to have sprung from a ‘folk memory’ of some idealised version of what went on in schools in the 1950s. It is consistent with the view that things were somehow much better then, and if only pupils would stand up when teachers entered a room, then things would be much better now. It ignores the fact that after some decades of this approach, the adult literacy programme in the late 1970’s had to deal with over two million illiterate adults in England.
It does not seem to take account of changes in technology or society since then, or the rapidly increasing knowledge base. As the sum total of human knowledge is said to be doubling every five years, the curriculum cannot stand still. The world we are preparing young people for is very different now. People used to come out of school and into traditional jobs in industries such as manufacturing, mining, construction or agriculture, and then do that job in pretty much the same way for the rest of their lives. The Michael Gove version of learning may well have prepared young people adequately for such a static world (apart from not teaching two million of them to read and write). In those days, one set of knowledge would last a lifetime.
However, the world is now very different place. If young people are lucky enough to get a job at all, they are likely to change that job frequently during their lifetime. They need to be equipped not only with a set of knowledge, but with a set of skills that will enable them to apply that knowledge in new situations and to continuously refresh their knowledge set. They need a curriculum that will enable them to become lifelong learners, flexible, adaptable and resilient in a changing situation. They need a curriculum that enables them to think critically, solve problems and work together in teams. These are the skills that employers demand. And, interestingly, the application of knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving are the skills that are tested by PISA.
And, of course, education is not just to prepare young people for employment. But it is not just employment that has changed over the last fifty years; social life is very different too. Who would have thought, fifty years ago, that young people’s main form of social intercourse would be through a hand-held electronic device?
It’s not national
It’s not national because it is not going to apply to all schools. Academies and free schools are to be exempted, and now that over half of secondary schools are academies, the national curriculum is no longer national. Perhaps we should coin a new name that better describes a curriculum that applies only to those state schools that have not opted to change their status.
People who subscribe to the conspiracy view of history suggest that Michael Gove has come up with such an odd, narrow and unappealing set of learning deliberately to encourage more schools to opt for academy status. We could end up with a national curriculum that applies to only a small minority of schools – or to none at all!
And it’s not even a curriculum
There is a difference between a curriculum and a syllabus. And there is a further difference between a syllabus and a scheme of work. The Michael Gove ‘programmes of study’ are much closer to a syllabus or a scheme of work. They do not constitute a curriculum.
Since its inception in 1989, the English national curriculum has set a broad framework of learning, and has left schools to devise their own schemes of work to turn this framework into learning experiences for their pupils. Examination Boards have been responsible for turning the framework into syllabuses leading to qualifications.
The new programmes of study have gone way beyond this, and contain a level of detail that has never been prescribed before in this country. Which is odd when schools were promised more freedom and flexibility.
In going into such a level of detail, the programmes of study miss the essential feature of a curriculum, which is to provide a structure of how learning fits together. There is no structure here showing how aims are to be achieved, how knowledge will be set in a conceptual context, or how the different parts will come together to produce deeper understanding.
It’s not new, it’s not national, and it’s not even a curriculum. Red Rock Cider may not have been red, and may have lacked rocks – but it least it was cider!