Beyond the rude shock

Ten years ago this summer, the Department of Education and Science published a blueprint for a national curriculum. The document was a rude shock to the educational world generally and curriculum specialists in particular.

The national curriculum resolutely, even proudly, faced backwards. A 10-subject curriculum, plus religious education, for both primary and secondary schools. Subject by subject, the precise formulation that had been decreed for the schools of l904. The very European predisposition to legislate for knowledge content (lost in the UK after 1944) was grafted on, circa 1987, to the North American obsession with testing. And the outcome? One of the most virulent strains of centrally legislated curriculum to be found anywhere in the world.

Consultation, in the politics of the late 1980s, was a sham. The last people to be called on were those who knew about whole curriculum planning. A few subject specialists, yes. But curriculum researchers and strategists, followers of people such as Lawrence Stenhouse or Malcolm Skilbeck, had no influence. There was no place for school-based development or teacher-based action research, the word "innovation" disappeared from the lexicon.

The result is well catalogued: numerous false starts in formulating a curriculum that would work in practice; huge sums of money lost on abortive testing schemes, and the suppression of most of the new initiatives launched through the Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative and the best of the Schools Council projects. In 1997, the debate about skills, relevance and vocationalism is still precisely where it was in the early 1980s.

This month sees the launch of the British Curriculum Foundation, a wholly independent forum that aims to rekindle some of that spirit of adventure repressed in more than a decade of highly dirigible and centralised control.

The aims of the foundation are: * to explore new and radical ideas about the organisation of teaching and learning, questioning where necessary some of the orthodoxies that now so powerfully control practice; * to bring teachers, academics and curriculum developers (an almost extinct breed) together in planning for curriculum change; * to critically scrutinise government, and government agency, intervention in curriculum; and * to review experience elsewhere in the world in a more analytical way than crude ideas about comparison and cultural borrowing allow.

The foundation already has significant funds from annual subscribers (more than 200 schools are members) and is taking on responsibility for the ongoing publication of the successful Curriculum Journal, a triennial review covering all aspects of curriculum but focusing on UK developments in particular.

To launch the foundation, four pamphlets have been commissioned by experts in the areas of curriculum policy and practice: In The Curriculum, The Minister, His Boss and Her Hairdresser: The Rise and Fall of Kenneth Baker's Plan, Michael Barber provides a fascinating insight into the chaotic policymaking process that characterised the designing and redesigning of the national curriculum. He suggests that there are still important issues to resolve in the lead up to the new curriculum for 2000.

Caroline Gipps, a long-standing critic of government assessment policy, in Assessment in Primary Schools: Past, Present and Future, argues the case for consistent teacher assessment as the complement to standardised tests. She welcomes the introduction of baseline assessment but warns against value-added league tables at age seven based on data collected from five-year-olds.

Richard Daugherty, former chair of the Curriculum Council for Wales, in A School Curriculum for a Future Wales, points to progress that has been made in establishing a distinctive curriculum with all children learning the Welsh language as well as something of the art, music, geography and history of Wales. Yet he sees this as being achieved against a background of London-based thinking with its faith in market forces and school league tables.

My own pamphlet, A Curriculum Beyond the Bell Curve, questions the psychometric traditions of the curve of distribution (20 per cent high ability, 20 per cent low, and the "average", the remainder, in between) that has dominated the structures of schooling in the 20th century. Changing ideas about the nature of intelligence and changing expectations about the distribution of knowledge and skills needed by the workforce of the 21st century are intertwining to challenge these culturally engrained concepts.

A key aim of the foundation is to give a voice to teachers in the destination of curriculum reform. A voice, however, less strident and more measured, respecting evidence and duly critical of quick-fix solutions. It is inconceivable that the curriculum introduced in 1987, however revised, will be adequate for the first decades of the new century. The British Curriculum Foundation wants to find the creativity, the imaginative ideas to map out this future.

Subscribers to the British Curriculum Foundation receive the pamphlets free. Copies at Pounds 4.95 each available from The British Curriculum Foundation, School of Education, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA.

Bob Moon is professor of education and director of the Centre for Research in Teacher Education at the Open University.

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