A third way beckons;Platform;Opinion

15th January 1999 at 00:00
The literacy and numeracy hours are not the curriculum-equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall says David Bell. He argues for a middle course between the current centralisation and the free-for-all of the Eighties.

BELIEVING that there was little further progress to be made in human society, Francis Fukuyama wrote about the end of history when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. In people's minds, something akin to this seems to have happened in primary education with the arrival of the literacy and numeracy hours signalling the end of debate about the curriculum.

However, Fukuyama found that the post-Cold War world was more complex than he had anticipated. Might the same be said about the primary curriculum as the new strategies take root?

It needs to be said at the outset that the literacy and numeracy strategies are an important step forward. For too long, primary teachers have been battered from pillar to post as they sought to cope with the changing fashions, particularly in the teaching of reading.

Nobody should pretend that the national strategies are the last word. But they do represent enough of our distilled knowledge about what works to require them to be implemented over an extended period of time. After all, let us not kid ourselves that what has gone before has been an overwhelming success.

The debate about the restructuring of the national curriculum has entered a crucial phase as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority draws up its formal proposals for consultation. There is a difficult balance to strike. On the one hand, the QCA does not want to be accused of generating more upheavals in the curriculum. Yet, this is a golden opportunity to rectify some of the mistakes of the past 10 years.

Who among us can forget the debacle of the earliest versions of the national curriculum as all the subject specialists fought over the time available? Giving in to them all became the fundamental flaw in the curriculum that has been around to haunt us ever since. The various versions we have had since 1988 have all been based on shaky foundations, leaving us now with a shell of the original with little in the way of underpinning rationale.

If we begin on the basis that literacy and numeracy should be at the heart of the curriculum, we are then left with a choice of ways forward. The wrong way is to discuss the minutiae of the content of what is left and pretend that only minor changes are needed. Without a bolder vision, we are destined to have another bout of curriculum incrementalism.

Rather, we should attempt to bring coherence to the whole national curriculum by identifying the key skills that we are seeking to develop from the moment children enter school to the time when they leave. At the moment, we seem to have a serious absence of joined-up thinking, as there is a desire to promote key skills from the age of 16, with hardly any discussion about how such skills could and should be developed in primary schools.

Advocating a skills-based approach fell out of favour in the early Eighties, as it became associated with a "progressive" view of the curriculum. In particular, the zealots argued that it was possible to devise such a curriculum with content as a mere afterthought.

This was a flawed approach for a number of reasons. It assumed that a curriculum was either skills or knowledge when, in its true sense, it has to be both. It also was not much use to the hard-pressed teacher.

Worst of all, it was politically naive in that it fuelled the suspicion that theorists were contemptuous of the role the curriculum had to play in transmitting important knowledge from one generation to another - a decision which has to be influenced by underpinning cultural and moral values.

So the task now for the QCA is to think big and small at the same time. It must have an overview of the skills that pupils need to develop throughout all the key stages of curriculum. Yet, at the same time, it needs to identify a core of content, which can be taught in the school time available to teachers.

We also need to think about the extent to which there is room for local discretion in the national curriculum. Clearly, there can be no compromising on the body of knowledge and skills that makes up the essential core. But beyond that there is room for debate over whether every child in every school really needs to know exactly the same facts so far as the rest of the curriculum is concerned.

Nobody wants to return to the situation pre-1988 where there was an unacceptable level of variation in what was taught from school to school. Yet, it would be hard to pretend that the rigid prescription of the national curriculum has been a rip-roaring success. Whisper it, but might there even be a third way between centralist planning and unfettered local discretion?

David Bell, a former primary headteacher, is director of education and libraries with Newcastle City Council

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