Creative intervention

1st April 2005 at 01:00
Do not underestimate the role an outsider can play in transforming the curriculum, writes Joe Hallgarten

In 1999, the last time our national curriculum was reviewed, ministers were swamped by the usual submissions from various interest groups. All followed a similar argument. Although, yes, the curriculum was content-heavy and needed slimming down, all children still deserved an "entitlement" to the bee in their particular bonnet.

Such pleas came from organisations as diverse as the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Campaign for Real Ale, and most memorably, the Anarchist Party, demanding that anarchy in the curriculum should be made compulsory.

Since then, the Government has taken a pragmatic approach to curriculum change, encouraging schools to explore the vast flexibilities which already exist within the national curriculum framework for the creative use of time, space, staffing and other resources.

In response, many schools are experimenting again with curriculum reorganisation. The Royal Society of Arts' Opening Minds project originally took a competency-based approach to key stage 3 with a small group of schools, but the approach is now being used by hundreds of schools at all key stages. Many primaries are returning to cross-curricular learning.

In truth, however, very few schools are pushing their existing freedoms to the absolute limit, enthusiasm dampened by various fears, some of them justified.

Calls for more radical thinking about curriculum content and structure will never disappear, and appear to be growing. The Conservative Party has called for the curriculum to be halved; employers consistently demand that school-leavers should have more flexible, transferable skills; the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority Futures Project launched in February, is calling for new thinking about learning; and pupils themselves have commented on the paucity of their current curriculum diet. Even the 14-19 white paper, for all its compromises, still gives a "permission to proceed" towards learner-focused curricula and assessment.

For the personalisation agenda to mean anything, it must at least challenge, if not necessarily change, orthodoxies about curriculum content and structure.

Whatever innovations emerge, rigour is key to success. In all areas of life, the more radical your innovation, the more you need to understand the traditions you are breaking with. So the further you deviate from centuries-old curriculum structures, the better your subject knowledge needs to be. Radical changes to the curriculum, and the breaking down of classic subject boundaries, requires a very deep understanding of those subject boundaries, the reasons for them, and the knowledge held within them. It then requires disciplined evaluation.

In the past, the opposite has sometimes been the case. Learning in the 1970s, and teaching in the 1990s, I have been both the victim and perpetrator of some disastrous "integrated days".

This is an opportune moment to open up a wider debate. Next Wednesday, Creative Partnerships and the RSA are holding a "How special are subjects?"

conference to explore the role of subject specialisms within teaching and learning. Do they enable learning? Do they encourage creativity? Or are they just the way the curriculum has always been structured? Are there in fact better ways to structure the curriculum and thereby improve teaching and learning? And are some subjects more specialist than others?

What role does Creative Partnerships play? Now working in over 500 schools, most of our thousands of projects encourage schools to work across curriculum boundaries. Most of our projects inject the arts into other curriculum areas. Some pair two or more subjects with a single artist. And a few go further still, using their partners from the cultural sector to play a far greater role in broader curriculum development and whole-school change to put creativity at the heart of learning.

As one of our headteachers said about his school's partner: "Robert is a little like the irritant that oysters use to produce pearls. He asks awkward but highly relevant questions which staff enjoy seeking answers to rather than feeling threatened. Every school should benefit from a Robert.

The creative contribution is of outstanding value to us."

It is unlikely that every school will want to employ an "irritant in residence", but curriculum development may not need to start with those experts who caused such content overload in the first place. Teachers need to lead this new era of innovation, but "outsiders", whether from the cultural sector, parental body or wider community, have a key role to play in ensuring that young people get the curriculum they deserve.

Joe Hallgarten is education director at Creative Partnerships To find out more about How special are subjects? a conference organised by Creative Partnerships and the RSA in association with The TES, contact lesley.james@rsa.org.uk

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