National Curriculum review at risk of political hijack
12 Jun 2012
The draft review of the primary National Curriculum has much to commend it, especially if you can see past the smokescreen of political spin about it being a 'back-to-basics' approach and a 'return to rigour' and a reversal of decades of dumbing down.
The radical nature of the reform has also been overblown, as much of what is proposed is not so different from the existing curriculum.
The report of the expert panel, on which it is largely based, was thoughtful and balanced, stressing the need to give teachers the freedom to innovate and adapt teaching to their own pupils' needs, whilst also emphasising some of the key elements of knowledge that all pupils should master.
Most of this has survived the political process it has been through over the past few months since the panel reported. But, sadly, not all of it.
The biggest danger is that - as with previous versions of the National Curriculum - there will still be too many compulsory requirements and that the core elements will, in practice, drive out the broader elements of the curriculum because it is these that will be the focus of inspectors' judgements, statutory testing, and performance tables.
On this score, it was very interesting to note that one of the expert panel, Professor Andrew Pollard, has already expressed his concerns about the political hijacking of the original report.
Writing on the Institute of Education's blog, he wrote:
'But the approach is fatally flawed without parallel consideration of the needs of learners. Primary teachers consider the overall experiences of each child, and try to provide a broad and balanced curriculum as is required by law. The skill and expertise of the teacher lies in building on each pupil’s existing understanding and capabilities, and in matching tasks to extend attainment. To do these things, they need scope to exercise professional judgement.
However, on the basis of the new National Curriculum proposals, they are to be faced by extremely detailed year-on-year specifications in mathematics, science and most of English. This is to be complemented by punitive inspection arrangements and tough new tests at 11. The new curriculum will preserve statutory breadth, we are told but, whilst teaching of a foreign language is to be added, provision for the arts, humanities and physical education is uncertain at this point. The constraining effects on the primary curriculum as a whole are likely to be profound and the preservation of breadth, balance and quality of experience will test even the most committed of teachers.'
The big issue that remains to be clarified is what will happen to assessment at primary school level, since we know that assessment very often drives the curriculum and teaching. The expert panel wants to do away with all the current National Curriculum Levels and seemed to prefer a system which simply measures whether or not a child has mastered what is needed to be able to move on to the next stage of education. As they put it in their report:
'In plain language, all assessment and other processes should bring people back to the content of
the curriculum (and the extent to which it has been taught and learned), instead of focusing
on abstracted and arbitrary expressions of the curriculum such as ‘levels’. We believe that it
is vital for all assessment, up to the point of public examinations, to be focused on which
specific elements of the curriculum an individual has deeply understood and which they have
not. As the research on feedback shows, summary reporting in the form of grades or levels
is too general to unlock parental support for learning, for effective targeting of learning
support, or for genuine recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of schools’
As they say, this would mean radical change to performance tables which instead of being based on the percentage of pupils achieving at each level (2, 3, 4, 5 etc) would mean schools would simply be judged on the proportion of children who are ready to progress to the next stage.
This seems an excellent idea not least because it would encourage schools to focus on the whole range of pupils, trying to ensure no-one is left behind. However, in his letter to the panel (published with the new draft curriculum yesterday) the Education secretary, Michael Gove, seems to be resisting this. He says that he believes 'it is critical that ... we provide for a focus on progress Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required'.
It would be a shame if, having presided over the production of such a good and balanced report, Mr Gove lets his wishes to retain current school performance tables and measures get in the way of progress.