For the past three years, schools have heard a recurring message from government agencies: It's OK to innovate. In fact, it's good to innovate.
Former chief inspector David Bell showed how a rich curriculum boosted not only children's enthusiasm but test results as well. Excellence and Enjoyment, the manifesto of the primary national strategy, launched three years ago, pressed the same point. Its then director, Kevan Collins, urged schools to personalise the curriculum, shaping it to the local community and the passions of teachers and pupils.
These pronouncements were welcomed in schools. Some accepted the challenge to change, often because it was what they already believed in. Heads popped above the parapet, admitting that actually, they had always taught through cross-curricular projects, or through the arts, but had thought it best to keep quiet.
A great deal of scepticism remained, though. Many teachers and heads still did not believe they had "permission" to try a different approach to subjects in key stage 3, for example, or to teach literacy without a dedicated "hour".
But they seem to believe Mick Waters, the new director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. His organisation is setting up networks, debates, consultations and projects involving action research by both teachers and pupils to encourage radical ways to organise teaching and learning. Is it his personal charisma? (He has been described as the Mick Jagger of education.) Is it that the zeitgeist in schools has finally caught up with the message? Or that the message is subtly different?
Despite being responsible for England's testing regime, and therefore a bastion of "standards", the QCA, through its futures and innovation programme, has shone the spotlight on inspiration and relevance. Officials point to schools that have made pupils excited about learning and which are helping them develop skills to face the future. It's not that a rich curriculum is the formula for better results, but that higher scores are one of many byproducts of a curriculum that engages children with what matters.
The vast majority of requests from schools to the Department for Education and Skills for permission to innovate are unnecessary. For instance, many primary schools don't realise that, while the content of the English curriculum is mandatory, teaching it through a literacy hour is not.
So is cynicism in schools banished? Of course not. Teacher unions say there have been too many mixed messages from above. "How can you encourage risk-taking on the one hand and insist on meeting targets on the other?"
asks John Bangs of the NUT. The result, he says, is that disparity between schools could increase. "Only the confident schools will actually come up with flexible timetables and the integrated day. It's the unconfident ones that feel they have to stick to rigid timetables." He is enthusiastic about the QCA futures programme but believes a full-scale review of the curriculum and assessment is needed.
To date, the QCA has been given a remit to review key stage 3; the result is likely to be a slimmer set of requirements beginning in 2008. But schools can already take much more ownership, says Mike Rumble, curriculum adviser on the futures team. "People always refer to 'the national curriculum'. What we would like people to think of is 'our curriculum, that contains the statutory one'."
The QCA is trying to gain schools' trust by asking open questions about the future. Is the curriculum doing the job it was designed to do? Has it adapted to reflect changes in society and technology? Has it responded to new understanding about how we learn? How can a one-size-fits-all model evolve to support personalisation and localisation? How do we overcome the risk-averse culture that stifles energy and innovation?
The debate was kicked off with a set of think pieces from 15 leading educationists such as Tim Brighouse, the chief adviser for London schools, and learning-to-learn guru Guy Claxton. Professor Brighouse urges a fundamental curriculum rethink, while Cary Bazalgette of the British Film Institute says more account should be taken of how much children learn from film and television.
More recently some 150 organisations were invited to contribute 1,000 words to help shape the future; some of their comments appear in this supplement.
Meanwhile, Ofsted is undertaking an audit of curriculum innovation in schools.
According to Gareth Mills, director of the futures programme, the QCA's various networks have produced "a broad consensus on the need to do more to promote learning skills, life skills and the personal qualities needed to flourish in a 21st century knowledge-based economy. Many call for an increased emphasis on creativity and enterprise."
Through organisations such as the National College for School Leadership and the National Primary Headteachers' Association, networks of schools are being built up to discuss, develop and share expertise. The QCA will be looking for examples of successful curriculum innovation in order to build an evidence base to inform its advice to government on how the curriculum might change to meet future needs.
Its experts are looking at many aspects, such as how to develop a taste for lifelong learning, assessment that measures what we value, and how to localise the curriculum. For instance, the Gloucester City Curriculum uses the city and its surroundings as a resource.
One of QCA's challenges will be to bring ministers with them on their quest. With a new Secretary of State now at Sanctuary Buildings, there is all to play for.
Visit www.qca.org.ukfutures to read the views and ideas circulating; to conribute your own, go to www.qca.org.ukfuturesforum
What is the curriculum?
* "Its purpose is to equip young people with skills, understanding and personal attributes needed to lead fulfilling lives. It also seeks to introduce young people to the big ideas that have shaped our society and the wider world.If young people are to flourish it must be responsive to the changes in society and the economy, and changes in the nature of schooling itself."
Gareth Mills Head of QCA's futures and innovation programme
* "The curriculum is everything that's within or within the control of a school. It's not just what is taught but how it gets taught as well. It's how you relate to other people and how you deal with confrontation. It's everything that a young person experiences."
Mike Rumble Curriculum adviser, QCAfutures and innovation programme
FIVE FORCES FOR CHANGE
* Society and the nature of work. We need to develop citizens who are flexible, resilient, willing and able to manage their own learning throughout life.
* New technology. We need to think less of school as a building and more as a service.
* New understanding about learning. Intelligence is multi-dimensional and an individual's capacity for learning is linked to their emotional well-being.
* The need for greater personalisation and innovation. We need innovation and flexibility while guaranteeing high-quality outcomes.
* The increasing global dimension to life and work. A 21st-century curriculum must enable young people to consider their roles and responsibilities as members of a global society.
join the debate
* If this supplement gets you thinking, and you have questions for QCA specialists, visit our special online clinic about Rethinking Curriculum Practice. It will take place on WednesdayMay 24 from 3.30-5pm. It features Mike Rumble, QCA futures team adviser for e-learning, and a team of subject advisers. You'll find more details at www.tes.co.ukclinics.