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Panto time again

Phil Ramsden says genuine consultation is necessary to avoid making the changes a charade

Yes it's panto time again. Let's hope the days are long gone when the words "pantomime" and "national curriculum" appeared most often in the same sentence.

But like the pantomime season, national curriculum revision time could be coming around again. The Dearing timetable, published when the current revision was introduced in 1995, promised no change until at least 2000. But to plan for any change the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority must advise Education Secretary David Blunkett by April 1 this year about the need for any revision.

The QCA has been monitoring teachers' views on the revised national curriculum, and although it has detected concerns, it seems to believe teachers want no further change. My own experience over the past two years suggests many teachers, particularly at key stage 2, still believe they have too little time to teach as they would like and still feel under pressure to cover the programme of study. This view is mirrored in a recent survey by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (TES December 5, 1997) in which 80 per cent of primary teachers said the curriculum was overcrowded.

Paradoxically, many of these same teachers are wary of suggesting the Science Order is revised. This may be partly because they fear having to rewrite schemes of work they have only just completed over the past two years. But it is also because they are still suspicious that change will not necessarily mean improvement. They still see the QCA as the "they" who tell us what to teach, and don't really feel a part of its decision-making.

So science teachers must start talking about the changes needed to give them the necessary time to enhance science education. But I fear this dialogue will either be delayed or be less extensive and inclusive than it needs to be.

The issue of interpretation of programmes of study lies at the heart of worries about overcrowding in the science curriculum. The last revision of the Science Order set out to reduce the content. It also cut the number of words used to specify what remained. This deliberate brevity has caused many teachers problems in deciding on the depth of treatment of particular topics.

Some questions at the end of key stage tests, particularly at key stage 2, have also reinforced the view that an increased depth of treatment is required. The QCA believes the curriculum now has sufficient flexibility and that any perceived overloading is due to teachers reading more into the programmes of study than is there.

This view is contestable, partly on the grounds of messages teachers receive from the tests and partly on the grounds of what teachers judge to be necessary for proper progression, particularly to key stage 4.

Any revision of the Science Order must be carried out in a way that clarifies teaching and learning requirements so pupils have time to to carry out a wide range of investigational and other practical work.

It would be a tragedy if we allowed the next national curriculum revision opportunity to pass when we have a Science Order which, although an improvement on its predecessor, still constrains teachers and thereby limits the range and richness of pupils' science education.

If teachers are to have any confidence in the revision they must be made to feel fully involved in the consultations and developments. This has always been the key issue, and during the Dearing review the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, as it was then called, moved to increase consultation with teachers. This was a welcome step but more is required this time. It will not be enough to circulate schools with a list of proposals and ask teachers to complete a questionnaire. Resources must be devoted to enabling all teachers to meet in groups, to look in detail at the results of the QCA's monitoring of the national curriculum and to decide what changes they would really like to see. They then need continued involvement with the developing proposals in ways which value their views and give them a real feeling of ownership of the changes.

Phil Ramsden is a field officer for the Association for Science Education of which he was chair during the last Dearing review of the national curriculum. He was also an LEA science adviser. He writes here in a personal capacity

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