A Clean Slate: Here's the chance the next generation deserves

28th January 2011 at 00:00
Comment: The national curriculum review must see subjects as more than 'bags' of content, says curriculum guru Mick Waters. And this time teachers must get involved

Last week's announcement of a systematic and comprehensive review of our national curriculum offers the most wonderful opportunity. For the members of the review's expert panel, and the advisory committee of headteachers and others designated to support them, the world really is their oyster. They get the chance to start again in defining what it is that the nation wants its young people to learn.

It is pity that the announcement of the review was coupled with denigrating comments about the current curriculum. What needs to remain constant is our commitment to helping young people understand the value of their education, to see it as something never-ending, door-opening and threshold-crossing.

Since the national curriculum was devised in the late 1980s, there has never been a wholesale review. The efforts of Dearing, Tomlinson and Rose were all part of a piecemeal attempt to retain the best and get rid of the rest. This time the slate is being wiped clean.

What might be different?

Over-prescription is apparently out in order to allow teachers freedom. Facts are in, competitive team sport is in and political fads are out. There is reference to a "slimmed down" curriculum - the profession has argued for that for years.

There is talk of a focus on essentials. The danger, though, is they will fill all the time. Kings and queens are important, but perhaps pupils could also study emperors, tsars and pharaohs. There is talk of back to basics; some of us have been back to basics so many times that we are on elastic.

More important is the fundamental shift in the purpose of the curriculum, away from defining an entitlement for all children.

The new curriculum will be a statutory requirement for maintained schools, but only a benchmark for others, including the academies whose heads are on the advisory committee. Given that the Government is trying to persuade schools to leave behind their maintained status, we could be seeing the development of a national curriculum that few will teach. The notion that a government should develop something that it then "releases" their schools from does not augur well for their belief in the learning they will promote. It is both paradoxical and odd.

The review offers an opportunity to raise standards. At present these are articulated through attainment targets, and successive reviews of phases of the curriculum were instructed to make no change for fear of being accused of lowering expectations and standards.

The expert group is invited to reframe standards and to consider whether attainment targets and programmes of study are the best way to set out the national expectation. Few other countries use a twin-track approach, and many, such as New Zealand, set out an "outcomes-led" approach, which is very economically written - two sides of A4 holding the expectations for each year group.

The first phase of the review will determine what is to be learned in just four subject disciplines and which of the other disciplines should be included within those defined and specified in the second phase. But the recent decisions about the English Baccalaureate prejudice this aspect. Its requirement for five areas of study pushes some subject disciplines up the list alongside the givens. A big danger is that some disciplines will find themselves relegated to the "extra" curriculum element of a school's offer, and the arts, for example, will further lose importance.

Successful curricula around the world see subjects as more than bags of content, and those most successful in international test comparisons use broad categories for these disciplines. Singapore, for example, sets out its curriculum in five areas.

The remit asks the advisory committee to consider how assessment might deliver attainment and progression and ensure accountability. This will be a difficult one to balance. Teachers do need to be free to construct a broad and enriching curriculum and there must indeed be public accountability. Care will need to be taken to ensure that the assessment does not become the driver. So while the notion of a wide curriculum until 16 is a good one, the use of an English Bac means that the curriculum will be specified by the testing arrangements, rather than by what we as a nation want our children to learn.

There is much emphasis in the remit and Government statements about comparisons with the best in the world. Yet the pattern, in Singapore, Scandinavia, Hong Kong, Scotland and countless others, is to move away from a previous emphasis on facts and knowledge and entwine knowledge, skills and the development of personal qualities as three key elements of learning.

As we scour the planet for examples of good curriculum practice, let's also remember that there is a lot of it about in England. The advisory committee will no doubt be planning to engage colleagues across the country from all sorts of schools to build a groundswell and enthusiasm for proposals.

The developments of the detailed programmes for learning that followed the Tomlinson and Rose reviews involved many thousands of teachers in schools, subject associations, employers and other interest groups in helping to bring the text of the national curriculum to life.

What is missing and what matters?

A key word almost absent from the remit and from the white paper is "skills". In countries that are successful in the international tests, skills lie at the heart of the curriculum. Such skills are usually those that enhance the learning of the subject disciplines, but are also those that equip a young person for "the opportunities, responsibilities, and experiences of life" (the original intention of our national curriculum).

Singapore has "life skills" and "knowledge skills" that underpin all areas of the curriculum, and New Zealand and Scotland use the term "key competencies".

Two other words that are notably absent are "future" and "childhood". Most people know the future is going to be different. They see the importance of preparing children for it while also recognising that the most precious gift we can give our children is a good childhood, where all children experience some "must dos".

They recognise that employers and business will need skills for the future, while also realising that without being able to read and write and manage numbers most people will not survive. They see that the learning experience has to matter to the learner, and that the world has moved on from the passive childhood era of post-war Britain.

Children in England are growing up in a world where opportunity is greater than ever. They are also facing challenges more complex than ever. Their schooling is but part of their upbringing and the curriculum they experience will for some be a supplement to what they gain in their home and community.

Too many young people still live in abject poverty of experience, ambition and spirit. Some of the children in our schools have seen things that adults would rather not.

We have some children who are carers, some neglected and some groomed. They all deserve a chance to succeed. Is this the task of their schools or is it possible to produce a national curriculum that helps every youngster to flourish?

Children grow at different rates and growth spurts occur at different times. The experts will need to be careful about defining expectations in too limited a timeframe and should surely steer clear of year-by-year, subject-by-subject text books.

A school's curriculum has always been bigger than the national curriculum. The best schools offer a vibrant, challenging, well-structured learning experience, and somewhere within it the expectations of the national curriculum are met.

They design learning for their pupils and cross-check against the national expectations to see they have done right by the pupils in a national context. These schools get on and do things - whether dance, drama, cooking or experimenting - and use them as vehicles to teach amazing English and mathematics while bringing purpose to the learning.

Subjects matter, for their knowledge base, their discipline and the appreciation of their impact on our world. Mathematics is about proof, art about observation and appreciation, science about hypothesis and testing, history about evidence, design and technology about fitness for purpose. A true historian shares the excitement of the discovery of the Staffordshire hoard, the geographer is excited by ash clouds, the true mathematician brings alive the work of Turing.

The best educated, however, are not limited by subjects, but possess that critical skill of making vital connections between disciplines.

So what should we do now?

Firstly, get involved. Calls for evidence usually elicit responses from organisations; schools and individual teachers rarely contribute. We have a straight-talking education secretary who will appreciate straight-talking contributions. Forget the platitudes - just say what you think.

Beyond that, it is a case of doing as well as we can within the current framework. Nothing will be changed by statute until 2013. In the end, the curriculum is the one that pupils in schools meet day in, day out.

As a profession we owe it to children to offer them learning that will give them the knowledge and skills to manage their own lives, leave them with a desire to go on learning, and allow them to look back years later and reflect that it was worth it. For the nation's next generation the world really is their oyster. We have to help them learn how to open it.

Mick Waters is professor of education at Wolverhampton University and president of the Curriculum Foundation.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today