Change the rhythm and reap the reward;Opinion

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
BRIBERY and corruption are my intent; one giant bag of doughnuts for Nick Tate, of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and two for Education Secretary David Blunkett, but with three strings attached. It is all to do with forthcoming changes to the national curriculum.

First, schools need two time-tables and the curriculum should be designed with that in mind. Why do we always assume that English follows maths before history and so on with metronomic boredom all year? Thirty weeks of this comforting drip-feed is surely enough: let the eight-week balance be devoted to a focus both on "enterprises", that involve teams of pupils in planning, designing, making and evaluating with opportunities for outside visits, and on "immersion", accelerated learning opportunities in one of the various subject disciplines.

The consequences are predictable - and all positive. The change of rhythm and experience will refresh all learners, teachers and pupils alike; pupils turned off for seven out of eight periods of the normal timetable will engage, with appropriate guidance, either on a totally new experience or on something they thoroughly enjoy, or perhaps overcome barriers to learning created by being with the wrong teacher at the wrong time.

A transformation in confidence arises from accelerated achievement and the sweet taste of success. Team work, whether among pupils or teachers, has a more fertile context in which to blossom. Finally, it releases time for "modular" experiences, and is therefore a good way of accommodating the pressure to fit things in as well as making room for different sorts of learning time, and it reduces teachers' stress.

My second demand concerns assessment. Let us have a "just in time" exam system so that learners are assessed when they are ready to pass the test. Our present arrangements provide double trouble. For those unready to do well, the public humiliation of failure reinforces their sense of incompetence, while for those who can succeed early, the wait until 16-plus for GCSE is dangerously de-motivating.

In 1996, three primary pupils gained a higher-grade GCSE in maths: this year, 30 will. It could be more. Surely, a prerequisite of a system designed to bring success to the many rather than the few should break the lock step between age and exams? Most youngsters can succeed in something sooner than 16-plus and each success fills them with confidence. All schools should have that as their goal. The challenge then is to make the curriculum differentiated according to need. Two sorts of timetables will help.

My third wish would change the scale of the national curriculum and how it relates to the school, the home and the community curricula. The national curriculum should be no more than a schematic framework: guidance, yes, from Tate and Blunkett, but only to the extent that the documents could fit under a closed door. And it should cover home and community as much as school.

Children are in school for only nine minutes of every waking hour between birth and 16. The other 51 are in the home and community. Thinking of the 51 gives us a chance to reassess the curriculum. Children learn not merely by what they are taught, but from the experiences they have. Visits to places of worship or historical interest, sport, arts, local democracy, wealth creation and higher education are all part of the curriculum.

So, too, are the jobs they are expected to do in home or school at various ages, whether daily, weekly, termly or less often. They contribute to the growth of their emotional intelligence as well as providing vivid experiences which have a long-lasting effect on their attitudes and values. Now a homeschool agreement that outlined all that and expected the home to play its part would be a real step forward.

I had a fourth wish, but it concerns inspection of the curriculum and I am still saving for a lorry load of doughnuts.

Professor Tim Brighouse is Birmingham's chief education officer

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