Anglesey graves send message we should heed today

10th April 2009 at 01:00

If you work in a secondary school, you will know that the traditional curriculum doesn't work for everyone. On a wet Tuesday afternoon with Year 10, your patience can be sorely tested.

As society changes, what we teach must change too. This can be hard because there's often a mismatch between what teachers can offer and what pupils need. But no one benefits when we peddle the same old ideas leading towards the same old places.

The world is changing and it's our job to prepare pupils for this through the 14-19 learning pathways. Once change is accepted, everything else will slip into place. So here are my 10 principles for the success of the new curriculum:

1) Remember schools exist for our communities. Our young people and their needs come first. We can't maintain a tired old system for the benefit of teachers trapped in the past and reluctant to change, otherwise another generation will be wasted.

2) Choices must reflect pupils' true aspirations. Too many youngsters - especially boys - have chosen subjects on the basis of how much writing is involved. Something is very wrong here. We have to present options that give them real choices for their futures. Teachers might have academic priorities, but do all our pupils have to share them?

3) Remove ego and say goodbye to competition. Teachers must stop manipulating the curriculum, in particular the options process. It has always gone on, teachers slowly and secretly building a comfortable little option group while someone else gets the pupils they don't want. Behind closed classroom doors, it's all too easy for teachers to sabotage the new curriculum, telling their select group: "That course isn't for the likes of you ... ". But we have to put the needs of the pupils first, even if that means they will choose to follow a new course taught elsewhere. We must be wary of promoting the myth of GCSE supremacy just to suit ourselves.

4) Pathways must be properly inclusive. The new curriculum must be for everyone or it is doomed to failure. If posh schools sustain an academic curriculum and the rest of us don't, we will return to the bad old days of a two-tier system. What sort of future are we designing where the wealthy study an academic tradition and the rest of us cut hair and wire plugs? Social divisions will be cast in stone if some schools are reluctant to embrace the new. Learning pathways must have the same value as academic qualifications.

5) Hold on to our heritage. In the push towards practical skills, we must not abandon our literary and historical traditions, otherwise these things will become elitist and divisive. Maintaining a balance between the academic and the practical is a real challenge, but it is vitally important that some features are preserved. Education must not exist merely to serve the needs of the workplace.

6) Don't let academic credibility get in the way. Pupils have an expectation that subjects in the new curriculum will be practical. Yet, in our desire to retain academic credibility, we are burdening students with portfolios and excessive coursework. Everyone wants the level 2 candidates, but let's not forget about the level 1s, otherwise they will soon feel more marginalised than they do already.

7) Be prepared to share good practice.

We must not under-estimate the skills that we have or the experience that we have to impart. The 14-16 age group is a difficult one to teach. While we might do it naturally, it does require specific skills. New deliverers will have training requirements. We have to be ready to share our skills with them because they have something important to offer our pupils.

8) Educate parents too. This is a new world and it isn't theirs. It isn't ours either. It belongs to their children. It might lead them into entirely new areas, demanding new skills. The traditional areas of employment are fast disappearing. Parents need help in understanding this.

9) Informed preparation and guidance are vital. If we are investing in off-site learning opportunities, I don't want Jordan telling me after three weeks that the course is "crap" and that she "don't want to do catering no more".

10) Embrace points rather than GCSE grades. We need to do this as soon as possible, otherwise some schools will be penalised. You can't score terribly well in the five A-Cs game if your pupils don't actually sit five GCSEs.

Teaching is a terrible job if all we do is prepare children for work. At Llandegfan on Anglesey lie the graves of young boys from The Clio, a ship that was anchored off Bangor. The vessel was a floating orphanage designed to train its young crew for a future at sea. It was a tough place and boys frequently died. This was a vocational programme, but it was not a place we'd want to send children - all choices closed down, a "pathway" from which there could be no escape. Even in death their gravestones are decorated with anchors. These days, we should be plotting a course towards something more flexible.

Geoff Brookes, Deputy head of Cefn Hengoed School, Swansea.

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