Cry freedom

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
The Government wants to slim down the national curriculum to the essentials. But if it dictates the agenda, how will it be less prescriptive? And will teachers know what to do with increased freedom if they get it, asks William Stewart

Say the word "Chembakolli" anywhere in England and you will divide people into two distinct camps. As far as most are concerned you may as well be referring to a rare breed of sheepdog. But for a substantial minority, you will conjure up images of elephants, tea plantations, village huts and beautiful, forested hills.

They will be among the millions of pupils and teachers who have worked in English primary schools during the past two decades. Chembakolli is a village in south India built in 1990 following land rights protests by the aboriginal Adivasi people. That unusual genesis apart, there is nothing remarkable about the tiny settlement. It is not connected to any notable natural geographical phenomena and it has had no significant impact on India's national consciousness, let alone the world stage. Yet the influence of this 150-household village on England's schools system has been enormous.

The dominance of Hitler and the Tudors in history lessons is well documented. But the prominence given to Chembakolli in key stage 2 geography classes cannot be far behind. At a conservative estimate, five million people - one in 10 of England's population - will have studied in detail the customs, education, family life, economy and health service of a village which most people have never heard of.

In many ways, the story of Chembakolli is the story of how the national curriculum has been taught. Today the Government is in the process of what it hopes will be a radical change to that curriculum. It stems from a belief that the existing arrangements were designed to be "teacher-proof", and treated teachers as people who could not be trusted. Instead of professionals, the argument goes, they were seen as technicians responsible for "delivering" highly specified materials set out by the state.

Ministers believe the national curriculum has been "over-prescriptive, included material that is not essential, and has specified teaching method rather than content". Now they want to rectify that with a new, "slimmed- down" replacement that will "allow teachers the freedom to use their professionalism". They are aiming for a national curriculum that sets out "only the essential knowledge", giving teachers "greater control over what is taught in schools and how it is taught". But is it really possible for teacher freedom and a national curriculum to co-exist? Do teachers really want that freedom and, if they get it, will they know what to do with it?

The Government's review will reform a model first introduced in 1988. The man behind it could justifiably be described as the most influential education secretary since the war. From the diminution of local education authority power to greater school autonomy, national testing, league tables and academies - then introduced as city technology colleges - it was Kenneth, now Lord, Baker who got there first.

But introducing the national curriculum was probably his biggest and most ambitious task of all. Today, the 76-year-old recalls that his department decided to act because it found that the quality of a school was broadly dependent on the quality of its curriculum. Teachers were not completely free to decide what was taught in schools back then (see box, right). But local education authorities were and their approaches varied widely.

"There was a huge and inconsistent variety of curriculums across the country," Lord Baker remembers. "There were all sorts of extraordinary things - like peace studies in Bradford - when they should have been doing the history of our country and the history of our constitution or geography.

"Very generic things were being brought in. But what you have really got to do with the education system is impart a great deal of knowledge to people who don't have it."

That emphasis on specific knowledge as opposed to generic statements is not the only aspect of the original Baker blueprint echoed in the current review. A key theme from ministers today is that there should be a distinction between the national curriculum and a teacher-determined wider school curriculum.

TES understands that at one stage the review team was considering the idea of stipulating that only a certain percentage of the school timetable should be spent on the national curriculum. A 5050 split, as advocated by the Core Knowledge Foundation in the US, was on the table. In the end it was decided that would be too prescriptive. But the fact it was considered at all demonstrates the determination to cut the statutory curriculum down to size.

To some, used to the national curriculum as the be-all and end-all of what is taught in schools, any idea that it should leave space for a separate school curriculum will be a new one. But look at the Education Reform Act 1988, which says every state school should have a curriculum that "includes" the national curriculum, and it is clear the distinction was there right from the beginning.

As Tim Oates, head of the current national curriculum review, acknowledges: "It (the review) is about reinstating many of the original purposes and intentions behind the original legislation, which contained some very carefully stated distinctions. It is not a radical break from that at all."

Those distinctions were lost in practice due to the sheer size of the first national curriculum. Lord Baker vividly remembers the problems he encountered in achieving a consensus on what to include. "There was great difficulty in setting it up because everybody had different views as to what should be taught," he said. "I thought maths would be an easy one. But no! Feudal armies marched over the maths curriculum - some wanting calculators to be used, some not, some wanting tables to be learnt by heart, some saying it was totally irrelevant. Great passions were engaged."

Similar passions were provoked over other subjects. Everyone had something they felt must be included. The result was a bloated, overbearing national curriculum simply too big to allow schools the space for anything else to be taught.

So why should it be different this time round? Because this time, the review will be going out of its way to strip it down to "only the essential knowledge".

Or at least that is the plan. The problem, of course, is the same as it was in 1988. How do you decide what is essential enough to be included? There were howls of protest earlier this year when Mr Oates suggested climate change should be left out of the science national curriculum. But they will be nothing to the controversy likely to ensue when it comes to deciding exactly what is "essential" in much more subjective areas such as English literature or history, assuming it is included as a compulsory subject.

Mr Oates's answer is that these "difficult" decisions should not be taken by just the Government or the review team, but reached through a consensus of society as a whole. "The consultation is extremely important," he said. "The result has to emerge from a discussion."

But even if it is possible to create a smaller, "essential" national curriculum that everyone can agree on, the Government's strategy could quickly encounter another obstacle. At its centre is the idea that a slimmer curriculum will mean better-educated pupils. It is not just about ensuring that the core knowledge is covered. It is also about ensuring it is taught in the most engaging way.

Ministers do not want to give teachers more freedom just to be nice to them. The belief is that teaching will not operate to its full potential if it is constrained by top-down policy. Lord Baker's 1988 reforms, outside the curriculum, brought new levels of autonomy for school leaders. Now the stated intention is to do the same for teachers and their pedagogy.

As last year's schools white paper proclaimed, "teachers, not bureaucrats or ministers, know best how to teach". It added that "in order to bring the curriculum to life, teachers need the space to create lessons which engage their pupils". But what if, when given that space, teachers choose not to use it? What if, instead of devising their own tailor-made lessons, they use off-the-shelf ones recommended by bureaucrats?

Chembakolli has never been mentioned in the statutory national curriculum. There was never a requirement for pupils to be taught about the village. Yet for the past two decades it has featured in Year 3 or 4 geography classes in more than half of England's primary schools.

Its rise to prominence came about by chance in 1991, when Steve Brace, then education officer at the charity Action Aid, noticed the national curriculum called for primary pupils to study a place in the developing world. A colleague had just returned with a set of photos of Chembakolli and Mr Brace thought they would make an excellent resource. The resulting pack was quickly picked up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and developed as a scheme of work. And then, as Mr Brace says, it "captured the imagination of a generation of teachers".

According to Marni Craze from Action Aid, the pack was used for years by a consistent 70 per cent of primaries. A former primary teacher herself, Ms Craze says it benefited from coming out at a time when "QCA schemes of work were like the Bible".

Schools have now spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds on Chembakolli resources, with profits going to Action Aid, its Indian partner charity Accord, and the village itself. Deals have been struck with Cambridge University Press and other educational publishers.

Then, in 2003, the QCA issued new guidance encouraging schools to think more imaginatively about how teachers taught the national curriculum. Ofsted had also heavily criticised primary teachers for their reliance on commercially produced worksheets in geography. Ms Craze said these signals prompted a drop in the use of the Chembakolli pack, but that even today half of all primaries give lessons based around the village.

A trawl of local newspaper websites backs her up, with numerous articles revealing that it still features in lessons everywhere from Warrington to Wiltshire, Blackpool to Bath, and Sheerness to Somerset. Gap-year students have started turning up in Chembakolli, keen to visit the place they studied as eight-year-olds. And the resources recently came full circle as Mr Brace's own children studied them at their Enfield primary in north London.

This tiny Indian village has become an English educational phenomenon. There is nothing to suggest that it has not been an effective way for millions of pupils to learn essential aspects of geography. But the fact that more than two-thirds of schools focused on a single settlement when a study of countless other places in the developing world could have done the same job raises important questions for the current national curriculum review.

The aim is to get away from a "transmission" model that treats teachers as technicians. There is a belief that the profession will improve further if it is allowed to develop its own lessons instead of delivering QCA schemes of work.

But there was nothing to stop teachers doing that anyway. The schemes of work were there to use as resources only if teachers wanted to. There was never anything statutory or compulsory about them, yet a large majority of schools did adopt the schemes and usage only dropped when signals were sent out from Ofsted and the QCA.

John Bangs, a Cambridge University senior research associate, argues that this was because teachers were reacting to the "enormous pressure of the high-stakes accountability systems" that accompany the national curriculum. He thinks they saw QCA schemes of work as insurance against condemnation by Ofsted.

That accountability regime is not about to relax. So if teachers are so scared of getting caught out that they reach for the nearest officially endorsed resource, what hope is there of them making best use of the freedom the Government believes its reformed curriculum will offer?

It is possible that greater curriculum freedoms will actually create a divide between high-performing schools and the rest, as the senior civil servant chairing the advisory committee overseeing the current review has already acknowledged. Speaking in 2009, Jon Coles, now Department for Education director general for education standards, said: "Good and outstanding schools in the system are tending to take much more advantage of the flexibility (in the curriculum) that is out there than other schools."

Optimists might point out that the runaway success of Chembakolli may not be entirely typical. Primary teachers may have been particularly reliant on other people's ideas in geography because of their relative unfamiliarity with the subject. There is also the possibility that pressure on teachers could be relaxed by the extra space created by a slimmed-down national curriculum, leaving them in a better position to be creative. But Mr Bangs views the idea that significant teaching time can be created outside the national curriculum as a mirage. And, as he points out, we have been here before.

By 1993, a Warwick University study on teacher workload found that delivering the national curriculum in the time available had become a "nightmare". Lord Dearing's review later the same year responded by recommending that the curriculum should be reduced to take up just 80 per cent of the week, allowing the remaining time to be used at schools' discretion. It was a nice idea. But Leicester University research found that by 1997 the Dearing discretionary time had largely evaporated thanks to the demands of the national curriculum.

Could history be about to repeat itself? "The slimmer a national curriculum is, the more emphasis and importance the Government will be seen to have put on what is there," says Mr Bangs. He believes schools are likely to respond accordingly and that, once again, a new national curriculum will fill the whole timetable.

There is a recognition within the review team that this is a danger. Ofsted inspections are seen as the key to preventing it, although, of course, schools previously deemed "outstanding" will no longer receive regular visits from the watchdog. But the "essential" knowledge set out by the new, slimmer national curriculum is likely to be prescriptive in what it does cover, fuelling the risks highlighted by Mr Bangs.

Perhaps the most ambitious aim of all for the current review is that it should be the last one. Tim Oates has written that to achieve stability and avoid the need for "constant updating", the national curriculum first needs to take the "right form". His team has set itself the daunting task of deciding which literature, history, scientific theory and other knowledge is "essential", and getting it so "right" that the curriculum will not need to be changed again.

But it doesn't end there. The review team must then ensure it is tightly drawn enough to leave genuine space and time beyond the national curriculum. If that space is there, the real test will be how teachers and schools decide to use it. Will they use their flair as the Government hopes, or feel they are under too much pressure to do anything other than stick to the essentials and adopt ready-made solutions?

Ministers are understood to be in a quandary over the crucial decision of whether to produce new accompanying schemes of work. There is a temptation to provide them to help schools that may struggle with their new autonomy. But ministers are also worried that doing so may stifle the creativity of teachers who could become too reliant on them, taking the curriculum reforms back to square one.

The review team believes that some kind of intermediary material or resources will be needed to help teachers implement the national curriculum. The ideal is that this support should come from within the profession through teachers sharing best practice and the resources they devise.

But there is, it is acknowledged, a "real risk" that teachers are not ready to take up the challenge. So a middle way may involve talking to publishers and ensuring that what they produce is in line with the new national curriculum. That seemingly small step could be hugely significant. Chembakolli demonstrates the enormous influence that this national curriculum supporting material can have on the detail of what is taught in our schools. Some may now wonder whether it is right to place it in private hands.

History suggests that it will take more than a national curriculum review to persuade the entire profession to spread its pedagogic wings. Ofsted, teacher-training providers and government will also have to play their part.

Chembakolli illustrates the likely outcome if they don't. In the past a few QCA officers have had huge effective power over what is taught in England's schools without direct accountability, thanks to the dominance of official schemes of work. If they now disappear and teachers are not equipped to cope without them, that power could quickly shift to a place where there is no accountability at all.


The introduction of the national curriculum in 1988 was not the start of restrictions on teachers' classroom freedom.

The first issue of TES in September 1910 looked at the curriculum in England's village schools and warned: "In the highly organised system under which they work there is but little - too little - scope for a teacher's individuality.

"Minutely drawn timetables must be adhered to; the requirements of `Codes' issued by the Education Department of Whitehall must be scrupulously observed; originality, or any divergence from the beaten track, is discouraged, if not actually repressed by the Board's inspectors; endless forms and returns must be filled up.

"An atmosphere of official red tape and mechanical routine seems to envelop the school and cramp the teacher."

The system set up under the Education Act 1944 in some ways continued that tradition by allowing local education authorities to run their own curriculum schemes. But depending on the authority, many teachers were able to exercise considerable influence over the curriculum for five to 14-year-olds.

Central Government concerns about its lack of control boiled over in 1976 with the famous Ruskin College speech, when Labour prime minister James Callaghan asserted the right of ministers to have a say over what went on in schools. He suggested a "basic curriculum with universal standards".

A series of government circulars followed, asking local authorities about the curriculum in their areas, calling on them to publish their own policies and check how consistent they were with the government's "recommended approach", and finally to report on their progress towards this goal.

Experts have since argued the circulars had the desired effect and brought local authorities into line. But in 1985 the Thatcher government decided to take its control over schools a step further and set in train the process that would lead to England's first national curriculum three years later.

LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS: In 1976, amid student demonstrations over cuts to education budgets, Labour prime minister James Callaghan made a controversial speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, asserting the right of ministers to have a say in what was taught in schools.


What was life like for teachers before the national curriculum?

Children emerged from primary school able to write relatively lengthy pieces of work without needing a frame to tell them how to do it. They also fetched up at secondary knowing far more - despite not having the national curriculum crammed chock-full of stuff for teachers to teach them - than they have done since. The national curriculum asks primary teachers to cram a quart into a pint pot and results in most of it being spilled on the ground and left there.


Plenty of teachers of English, myself included, manage to help children learn to write at length while observing the constraints of the national curriculum.


Very variable in what you could expect children entering Year 7 to actually have been taught subject-wise, but one thing you could reasonably expect was a better standard of basic literacy and numeracy than I'm seeing now.


Before the national curriculum one could use one's own judgment, common sense, intelligence and creativity, rather than being constrained by its narrow and hide-bound parameters and the shedloads of paperwork it generates.


I loved the fact you could completely change what you were doing if something else grabbed the children's attention. I remember a child bringing in a home-made kite and it sparking off a four-week topic about kites - designing, shopping for the items, making and flying them, along with all related activities. Wonderful.


I imagine it was a much more enjoyable job.



What would happen if the national curriculum was axed?

Lord Baker, who introduced the national curriculum in 1988: "I think there would be chaos. If you let every school do exactly what they wanted, then some would succeed and some would fail."

John Bangs, a Cambridge University senior research associate and former head of education at the NUT: "It would have very little effect. The international evidence is that a national curriculum is not essential for high standards."

Tim Oates, head of the current national curriculum review: "The international evidence is that high-performing jurisdictions tend to have a central statement of the national curriculum. It (abolition) opens up the opportunity for teachers to move entirely to what pupils would preferentially select, which very often wouldn't be in their long-term best interests."

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