Is that it? New secondary curriculum fails to dazzle

9th November 2012 at 00:00
Subject leaders brand draft proposals 'dull' and 'predictable'

Subject leaders have roundly panned the government's draft proposals for a new secondary curriculum, labelling the revised programmes of study as "dull", "depressing" and, in parts, "insufficiently thought through".

The damning verdict came after TES was leaked a copy of the draft curriculum for English, maths and science, and will come as a significant blow to education secretary Michael Gove, who hoped the changes would be seen as empowering teachers.

At just 30 pages long, the draft document confirms ministers' intentions to give teachers "extreme" freedom over what is taught, providing them only with short lists of topics that are expected to be covered in key stages 3 and 4.

But far from inspiring teachers, the leading subject associations have attacked the plans, branding them as unfit for pupils in the 21st century. The changes are due to be introduced in 2014.

Ian McNeilly, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, was particularly outspoken about the draft curriculum, calling it "depressingly predictable".

"It's fantastic that Mr Gove has acknowledged that English as a subject needs to move into a different century. Unfortunately for all concerned, he has chosen the 19th rather than the 21st," he said.

Mr McNeilly added that few advocate the teaching of "high-quality" literature more than English teachers, but warned that a love of reading was best encouraged through appropriate and engaging texts rather than through a "relentless diet of canonical works and being able to recognise an ode".

He also criticised the lack of any mention of modern-day communications in the programmes of study, which instead stipulate the writing of personal letters.

"I'm really glad Mr Gove had a good time at school, and I am glad they (the Conservatives) want to spread privilege, but this is not the best way of doing it because it is not a reflection of the world, English as a subject or of children in the 21st century," Mr McNeilly said.

The response from the science teaching community was equally blunt, with the Association for Science Education describing the biology, chemistry and physics curricula as a "dull list of topics".

Annette Smith, the association's chief executive, said there was little evidence of progression from one key stage to the next and questioned why it had taken a year to produce the new curriculum.

"It's not a curriculum," Ms Smith said. "It is a list, but not a national curriculum. If all the national curriculum is going to be is a list of knowledge, if that was the intention all along, then why did we have to wait so long for it?"

The changes to the curriculum are part of wider reforms that also include scrapping GCSEs and replacing them with O level-style English Baccalaureate Certificates.

It had been suggested that the secondary curriculum might also be dropped, but by keeping it to the bare bones ministers will be able to avoid drafting the legislation that would be needed to abolish it completely.

Professor Mary James, who was part of the government's national curriculum expert panel, was broadly supportive of the slimmed-down curriculum, saying that she hoped teachers would "rise to the challenge" to develop relevant lessons.

But she described the decision to copy its aims from those set out in the draft primary curriculum published before the summer as a "mistake".

"The fact that, in this draft, the primary aims are simply borrowed suggests that insufficient thought has been given to these," Professor James said.

"They should not be mere decoration. Any choice of curriculum content should be driven by a clear view of what purposes (educational, cultural, social, economic) the curriculum is expected to serve."

The Department for Education did not wish to comment.

Need-to-know basis

A glimpse of what the draft secondary curriculum includes.

In English, pupils should be able to:

- recognise particular forms of poetry, such as sonnets or odes;

- write personal and business letters using the correct form.

In maths, pupils should know:

- statistics and probability;

- set theory;

- vectors and matrices.

In science, pupils should be taught about:

- prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells;

- the position of elements in the periodic table in relation to atomic value;

- the origins of the universe and how stars evolve.

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