All spelt out;Books

13th October 1995 at 01:00
THE PRIMARY TEACHER'S GUIDE TO THE NEW NATIONAL CURRICULUM Edited by Kate Ashcroft and David Palacio Falmer Press pound;12.95 - 0 7507 0468 3.

Mary Jane Drummond would like to see less advice about the primary curriculum.

This is a brave book. Designed as a "quick and accessible overview", it is addressed to experienced teachers, beginning teachers and students in training. The editors and their colleagues speak directly to their audience, empathising with their feelings on being faced with yet more new material: "You may have put a great deal of effort into understanding and interpreting earlier versions . . . and be unenthusiastic about starting again". This book represents the authors' best efforts to be helpful: "We have tried to do much of the initial interpretation for you".

So far, so predictable. It was inevitable that when the flow of official documents dried to a dribble their place would be taken by other authors with curriculum expertise on tap. There is nothing particularly brave in putting together a series of chapters about each of the ten subjects in the new national curriculum, working outwards from the core to physical education, design and technology and information technology. There is a further section, Beyond the National Curriculum, which covers religious education, drama and the concept of "an inclusive curriculum" for pupils with special educational needs - welcome, but still no surprises.

The surprise comes in the introductory chapter by Kate Ashcroft and David Palacio. Here they state their conviction that teaching the new national curriculum is compatible with the reflective practitioner model. They assume that their readers will wish "to go beyond a factual interpretation," and they outline what the reflective response will look like. It will be characterised by open-mindedness, responsibility and commitment. It will involve an examination of values, principles and worthwhileness. Teachers who approach the new national curriculum in this way will be taking "an essentially moral stance," refusing to accept automatically any orthodoxy. Their position is that reflective action rests on a basis of systematic evaluation, and that the new national curriculum cannot be exempt from its scrutiny. I do call that brave.

But I don't believe a word of it. I wish I could be convinced that, at this very moment, in primary staff rooms across the land, teachers are refusing to implement the new national curriculum until they have systematically evaluated it. I wish I believed that reflective practice could be generated by calling for it, even with the clarity and conviction of Ashcroft and Palacio. But even if it could, the subsequent chapters of the book do rather give the game away.

Each chapter contains a number of enquiry tasks, set out in crisp little boxes, but the exhortations to think for yourself that come inside the boxes are belied by the text in which they are embedded. It is also extremely clear, detailed, precise and concise. Changes in content and structure from earlier documents are carefully noted, and there are innumerable helpful suggestions for classroom activities.

The chapter authors' expertise is never in doubt, and they are doing their best to share what they know. But they do not engage with the editors' themes of open mindedness, responsibility and commitment. The real problem is that the harder the chapters work at the task of explaining and interpreting the new materials, the less work there is for the reader to do. It is hard to be reflective, critical or enquiring when a friendly expert is giving you so much excellent advice.

I do believe that many teachers will buy this book. They will find it enormously useful in getting to know the new national curriculum documents. They will enjoy the serendipitous misprints (Kenneth Barker, Dr Pattern). They may even get excited by the idea of the reflective practitioner model. But that will be a different project entirely, using different muscles, exercising different powers and perceptions. Critical enquiry is incompatible with teaching to order. Socratic dialogue, like tangoing, takes two - you cannot do critical enquiry with a statute, even if it has been slimmed down and given a new suit of clothes. If teachers want to accept the editors' invitation to take "an essentially moral stance", I advise them not to start with the new national curriculum. I can think of lots of other places to start (and all of them are children).

Mary Jane Drummond is a tutor at the University of Cambridge Institute of Education.

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