From the Editor - Compelling reasons for feeling underwhelmed

23rd September 2011 at 01:00

As you read this, a small team of experts is toiling away to create the perfect national curriculum. The atmosphere will be thick with erudition, high-mindedness and low bitching.

Part King James Bible, part Santa's workshop and a lot of I'm a Celebrity . Get Me Out of Here! Just as early biblical gatekeepers decided that Zebulun and Gad couldn't be gospel writers because they sounded like DJs, so our contemporary bouncers are deciding who and what is in or out. Mary Tudor? Marginal. Calculus? Vital. Moliere? Euro federalist. It's a shame it's not televised.

All this winnowing is a consequence of the Government's determination to pare back the national curriculum to its bare essentials (pages 30-35). Why? Partly because it believes that a prescriptive timetable turns teachers into little more than technicians delivering state-approved lessons. And partly because it thinks that teachers won't perform to their full potential if ministers write the script. Or put another way, it doesn't have the answers and was hoping you might.

Regardless of the curriculum's eventual composition, the thrust of its overhaul seems pretty sound. Most teachers, if asked, would say that the state should trust them to teach without micro-management. And almost all would believe that they know more about inspiring their pupils than a bunch of Whitehall bureaucrats. So why doesn't the national curriculum review feel like a Eureka moment? Why does it feel as if we've pulled into South Mimms service station rather than skipped along the yellow brick road?

It must in part be because there is something inherently contradictory about being directed to be free. However sincere the Government, the fact that it has set up a committee to decide what curriculum "freedom" is like is a tad underwhelming. It's a bit like Ming the Merciless throwing a party: "Subjects will make merry on pain of death." Partial prescription is still prescription.

There again, would some teachers know what to do with freedom if they had it? For more than a decade, as our cover story points out, thousands of primary teachers all over the country have used an obscure village in India - Chembakolli - to teach pupils about geography.

It wasn't a compulsory part of the curriculum, no arm of government directed teachers to study it. Its prominence came about by chance simply because it was included in a pack of resources suggested by a quango. Two decades, an official review and the abolition of aforesaid quango later, and half of all primaries are still banging on about the same village. It hardly suggests a desire to be free.

Is that, however, surprising? How can teachers and schools find their curriculum mojo if they are judged solely by exam scores? Historically, attempts to reduce the subject menu to the basics have led schools to concentrate ever more religiously on them to maximise exam success.

A slim curriculum has produced a very thin education. Any tinkering with the curriculum that does not take into account the quality of teaching, inspection, qualification and all the rest won't work. A national curriculum can be a component of success; it cannot be its engine. So when those experts finally emerge with their review, emblazoned across its cover should be this warning: "Not to be used as a driver's manual, let alone a bible."


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