The Changing curriculum - Changes will bring new clarity to core subjects

Part 4 - Key stage 3. The curriculum will give teachers much more freedom, but some claim it risks undermining pupils' understanding of subjects, reports Warwick Mansell

The changes being made to the national curriculum will be some of the biggest since it was introduced as a statutory framework of subjects 20 years ago.

But for secondary teachers, the changes to key stage 3 are just one in a long list of reforms coming their way over the next year or so.

With new A-levels being introduced this year, the development of functional skills tests, the arrival of 14-19 diplomas pointing towards a radical new approach to teaching, as well as new GCSEs starting next year, it is perhaps understandable that the new KS3 curriculum may not be some schools' top priority.

One teacher told The TES that they knew many secondaries were not introducing the revised curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds this year, when they were supposed to, because they had not been given adequate preparation time.

The KS3 changes are being phased in, with changes introduced in Year 7 this September, spreading to Year 8 the following year and Year 9 for 2010.

Central to the new approach has been a drive to strip down prescribed subject content. The programme of study for science, for example, has been slashed from 18 pages to less than five.

The new curriculum should remove duplication of content between subjects, the Government has said, while handing schools the flexibility to plan teaching which emphasises the links between different areas of knowledge.

Cross-curricular attributes such as thinking skills are also assuming more prominence. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority guidance says pupils should be taught about identity and cultural diversity, healthy lifestyles, enterprise, sustainable development, creativity and a series of other themes.

Meanwhile, ministers say schools will have more time for catch-up work with pupils struggling with English and maths.

But reports of how the curriculum is being received in schools suggest that life in the classroom may not change dramatically.

Teachers were struggling to focus on the KS3 changes when so much else was altering, says Jill Duffy, managing director for secondary and vocational publishing at Pearson, Britain's biggest educational publisher. It has a team of about 60 consultants visiting schools and talking to teachers. Many had only started to get interested in new resources the company offers in the past term, Ms Duffy says.

"For teachers, I think it's either GCSE or A-level change that takes precedence over KS3 change," she says. "The focus on KS3 has not been as great as it could have been."

There were, however, differences between subjects, she adds. "In some subjects, like science, there is lots of interest and teachers are very up to speed on what the changes are going to be.

"In maths, they are more laid back about things. They don't think it's going to be a big change at all."

Teachers' subject associations concur. David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, says: "School priorities are probably on A- levels and GCSEs, and perhaps KS3 does not get the attention it deserves."

However, he is enthusiastic about the concept of the new curriculum. In geography, it gives more emphasis to issues such as global warming and sustainable development.

"There's a lot more flexibility, and a lot more opportunity to, I think, reinvent geography as a 21st century subject," he says. "There's a massive chance for geography teachers to help children get to grips with some of these big issues."

While many schools welcome the new flexibility, subject associations have been worried about a move towards cross-curricular teaching, which appears to be encouraged by the new curriculum.

Professor Lambert says: "There's quite a risk that the new flexibilities being introduced could be mishandled. The new KS3 curriculum is encouraging new ways of organising learning, and heads are interpreting that in terms of doing away with subjects. I worry that the net result will be that we will not be teaching knowledge and understanding. That's a hell of a risk.

"It's tied up with this idea that, in our information society, information is ubiquitous, and what kids need are methods to search and select from that information.

"I accept that we have moved beyond the idea that school simply teaches you all the knowledge you need in life. But there still remains a need to organise knowledge and think about how you put that in front of kids and get them to engage with it."

John Bangs, the National Union of Teachers' head of education, says it was unfortunate that an idea had developed that there should be a dichotomy between skills and subject knowledge. "They are both important," he says.

He thought schools were "rolling" with the changes, introducing them gradually, and that the QCA documents had been broadly accepted.

Some teachers, however, are concerned that the reforms could be rushed. One expressed frustration that the new framework for schools on teaching English, maths, science and information technology, produced by the Secondary National Strategy, was only published in May.

In a letter to The TES, Alexandra Ballard, head of science at The Castle School in Bristol, wrote: "The changes to the KS3 science curriculum are far-reaching and necessary. However, the rush to implement will, I believe, seriously damage the impact of the new curriculum.

"Many heads of department that I have spoken to have felt that the timescale was too short and have decided to carry on with what they are doing at the moment."

Mrs Ballard was also concerned that details about how the new curriculum would be assessed will not be published until next year, leaving teachers short of information on how to structure learning.

The introduction of the new curriculum may leave some KS3 classes unchanged. But teachers could have to make greater adjustments to their lessons in two years time, when KS3 Sats may be replaced by single-level tests.

In evidence to a Parliamentary inquiry into the curriculum this year, Ofsted said maths teachers paid little attention to the statutory curriculum, gearing their teaching more to the content of tests and GCSEs and their old lesson plans.

As ever, it may be assessment that drives the curriculum, rather than the other way round. secondaryframework Taste of the future, pages 20-21

Aims of KS3

The official main aims of the new key stage 3 curriculum are to:

- raise attainment, particularly in English, mathematics, science and information technology;

- ensure entitlement for all learners to a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum that offers continuity and coherence and secures high standards;

- induct learners into the essential knowledge, skills and discourse of subject disciplines and to develop specialisms appropriate to aptitude;

- prepare young people for the world of employment and further and higher education;

- acknowledge, promote and pass on the core knowledge and skills valued by society;

- encourage learners to take responsibility for their own health and safety, and appreciate the benefits and risks of their choices;

- make learners more aware of, and engaged with, their local, national and international communities; and

- contribute to community cohesion.

Fundamentals, minus the wishy-washy

Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, believes one of the most impressive aspects of the new guidance has been the QCA's attempt to define the curriculum's over-riding purposes.

"If that was done at all when the national curriculum came in, I think it got sidetracked into debates about the content of particular subjects," he says. "Moving back to the fundamentals is a good move."

Dr Bell says it is important that the new curriculum is interpreted as helping teachers build links between different disciplines, but without returning to what was too often the "wishy-washy" approach of the 1960s and 1970s. "In those days, it was sometimes felt that you needed a link between, say, history and science, but you did that without going into the detail of the knowledge underpinning that link. That was a mistake."

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