A course for the people shaped by the people
The words "new" and "curriculum" have a tendency to bring teachers out in a cold sweat - especially this year, as everyone struggles to cope with the many changes that have been rushed through to education in England. However, the focus of one particular proposed curriculum is not on qualifications but on enabling adult learners to take greater control of their lives.
The document in question is the Citizens' Curriculum. Dreamed up by adult education body Niace, this genteel-sounding course of study will focus on life skills to help learners play a full part in society.
Crucially, unlike curricula for school pupils, which are set in stone and signed in blood, this one encourages students to shape it themselves so that it best suits their needs.
"It is not a formal spiral-bound volume," says Alex Stevenson, head of English for speakers of other languages (Esol) at Niace. "It's about suggesting the kinds of things that would be useful to adults but leaving it open for negotiation."
As well as literacy and numeracy, the Citizens' Curriculum will cover four key areas: financial, digital, civic and health.
The financial strand aims to help individuals to manage their budgets and deal with the benefits system. Health lessons will teach adults to look after their physical and mental well-being by educating them about diet, exercise and stress. As in life, the two strands are interlinked: for example, how to buy nutritional food on a budget has a bearing on financial learning.
Digital literacy is a vital part of everyday tasks but 8.4 million people are not yet online in the UK. Increasingly, we communicate, access information and apply for jobs via the internet. Adults who are not computer literate are falling behind and this needs to be rectified. Niace envisages the civic strand as a broad one. Research by the body highlights the role played by museums and libraries in fostering civic engagement through informal learning opportunities, such as being part of a reading circle. Civics in this context could involve being an "active spectator". This may not sound essential but feeling part of a community can enhance an individual's sense of identity.
Not all elements would be compulsory. If someone knew how to use a computer, they would not be forced to do a digital literacy course just to "fulfil" each part of the curriculum, which has been designed to focus on disadvantaged learners and those below level 1 in ability.
Niace has so far trialled the curriculum with two sets of people: one group of recent migrants and another of ex-offenders and adults in recovery from addiction.
Organisers first of all spoke to both groups to understand their needs. The migrant learners were given Esol resources as well as information on accessing local services such as how to register to vote. Unlike other Esol courses, the materials were tailored specifically to the local area.
The ex-offenders and adults in recovery were found to need provision in areas such as health and social care, as well as CV writing and civic engagement to help them to participate in society.
"We were constantly talking to the learners and they were always represented in what to offer next," Stevenson explains. "They wanted to learn how to run a cafe so they were given opportunities to do that."
Running a cafe may be a fairly standard part of vocational training but the fact that it happened in response to learners' needs is not. And this is where the Citizens' Curriculum differs from other courses of study, which embed sometimes pointless qualifications in order to access funding.
Niace also wants the freedom to combine elements of formal and non-formal learning activities. So rather than sitting in a classroom and talking about citizenship, students taking a civic capability module would go out into the community and do things. The focus would be less on the qualification and more on spending time with learners to discover their needs.
"We don't want the Citizens' Curriculum to be another tick box or another column added to the scheme of work," Stevenson says. "We want it to be aligned with learners' needs and interests rather than aligned with a qualification."
Niace believes this will result in more engaged learners. "Research shows that people are more motivated when they have control of what they are learning," Stevenson says. "As a result they are more confident and better able to take control of their own circumstances and have a positive impact on their lives."
So what would it mean in practice? Currently, qualifications in the post-compulsory sector lack flexibility. I teach English to adults and am often instructed to deliver "employability" units that may or may not be relevant to the class, simply because they carry funding. If the Citizens' Curriculum was in common usage it would force a review of the funding system.
The curriculum's flexibility and focus on learners would require time and research during enrolment. This is something that short-staffed, poorly funded, busy training providers might find difficult. However, a course that allows teachers time to engage with their students without the pressure of looming exams sounds appealing for both parties.
Over the next few months Niace will build on the positive results from the initial trials by running more wide-ranging pilots. It will accompany these with a more formal evaluation to see if its approach can be supported by evidence.
"We don't think there's enough flexibility in the system to meet the diverse range of adult learners' needs," Stevenson says. "We hope the Citizens' Curriculum could help to offer that."
Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London