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Slimline camel in sight of an oasis

A change is as good as a rest" is one cliche that should never be uttered in the presence of teachers. Manic laughter inevitably ensues. After seven years of continual curriculum revolution, Sir Ron Dearing's promise of five years of stability is perhaps the one thing that is keeping some innovation-weary staff on an even keel. As Gerald Haigh points out (see page 12), the new science Order is the eighth version - including consultative papers - that schools have seen.

Be that as it may, the primary purpose of this National Curriculum Update is not to lament such nonsenses or to report new skirmishes on the curriculum battlegrounds. There are other arenas within The TES for that. What we aim to do here is provide practical advice on how to implement the new Orders. We also offer a guide to the new assessment system (page 4) that is to replace the much-reviled tick-lists and make some suggestions on how to use the "free time" that Sir Ron Dearing's slimming exercise is expected to create.

There is no question that the slimming operation was a logistical triumph - to review and prune the entire curriculum and then amend the decisions in the light of the 58,000 responses to the consultative documents within such a short timescale was an almost heroic undertaking. There is also no doubt that the net result is a less prescriptive and more flexible curriculum that will restore to teachers some of the professional discretion they have lost.

Professor Ted Wragg (page 20) may therefore be right to predict that teachers will lose their "permanently hunted expression". Some schools will doubtless revel in the new freedom and put the extra time to the good uses - primary foreign language classes, local history and geography projects, health education and citizenship - that Professor Wragg suggests. Others may, however, find that the promised freedom proves illusory. After all, Parkinson's Law on the inevitability of work expanding to fill the time available applies to schools as well as offices. And, improbable though it may seem, many schools will continue to teach the existing overstuffed curriculum or a plump approximation, having grown accustomed to the heavier timetable.

Adjusting to level descriptions may take time too and there is undoubtedly a need for the additional guidance that SCAA intends to issue in the summer. Given the widening range of vocational and academic options at key stage 4, secondaries will also need the type of help with whole-curriculum planning that SCAA is offering primary staff in a document that is being sent to schools next week.

It is also true, of course, that some dissenting teachers feel they have had quite enough advice already and see little to praise in the new Orders. As one disenchanted historian said in a recent letter to The TES: "If you slim down the camel that a SCAA committee created while trying to design a horse you get a thin camel rather than a horse." Many teachers are also dubious about the wisdom of offering short courses in design and technology and modern foreign languages at key stage 4. But as Jenifer Alison explains (page 15), a vocational approach may help to sell the short language courses to reluctant learners.

Other service-wide problems, such as underfunding and excessively large classes look more intractable, however. Two of our features on the new Orders describe how schools have devised stimulating lessons that require little more than Liquorice Allsorts and Smarties (maths), and elastic bands, washing-up liquid bottles and milk crates (PE). But knowledge does not always come so cheap and there is little doubt that lack of resources is impeding the drive to raise standards.

Nevertheless, this is still a time of relative optimism. There will be more rancour over key stage 3 tests and budget cuts this spring, but the general outlook is fairer than it has been for many years. The post-Dearing era has begun.

David Budge

Editor, National Curriculum Update

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