Liberated from the straitjacket

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Outgoing National Primary Trust chief Peter Frost calls for creative local interpretations of the national curriculum

There are glimmers of hope that primary teachers can once again aspire to the role of professional pioneers. But the course of pioneering is far from smooth.

Central government is becoming mildly schizophrenic about direction and policy. One minute, targets are in, then they're out; testing suppresses innovation, then it is staunchly defended. Central control continues, while at the same time local creativity is brokered by the excellent innovations unit at the Department for Education and Skills.

Now there are worrying signs that, despite the well-known drawbacks of the targets and testing regime, things are to get worse. After throwing everything available around in a frenzied attempt to hit targets last year and failing, the Government is showing signs that this year the drive will be even more frenetic, presumably with similar results. There seems to be a lack of learning curve here.

The future has to be in professional pioneering. That means real teachers in classrooms taking risks, doing action research, networking and disseminating good practice. That can be fired by a strong commitment to rigorous school self-review and self-determination. Government can suppress or enable the pioneering.

Currently, fear of inspection suppresses, national testing limits standards and a one-size-fits-all curriculum flattens aspirations. However, all these initiatives have served their purpose and there is little doubt that the general direction of reform is well-intentioned, if flawed.

The commendable primary strategy document, Excellence and Enjoyment, without doubt underlines the progress, while signposting urgent future needs. The upgrading of the strategies to tackle the tough but critical question of igniting the curriculum and applying it to real life is important. The commitment to the early years in the Children Bill is absolutely right.

How do these initiatives stack up in supporting professional pioneering? The DfES is rightly undergoing major surgery and it is helpful that the innovations unit, which encourages new ideas, has been expanding while others will shrink.

New semi-independent bodies such as the National College for School Leadership, if left to get on with it, can become flagships for reform and excellence that are owned by the profession.

The college's "networked learning communities" offer a potential testbed for innovation and research. The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth can work with the profession to navigate the choppy waters of differentiation, while upping the debate about children's "personal pathways" of learning.

However, these bodies must remain as independent as possible. If government tries to micro-manage their activities, credibility could easily be lost.

There are profound dangers in browbeating these organisations to adopt short-term government targets reasserted with an election in mind rather than the future quality of the system. It is hard for teachers to be pioneers in such a climate.

Teacher training is key in supporting the development of professional pioneers. Serious doubts have been expressed about the attributes of some new teachers. While they are good technicians, are they trained to be creative, innovative and risk-takers?

Aspiring teachers need to have the confidence to have a go and need a strong, evolving belief system that fires good practice and builds skills.

Perhaps the Teacher Training Agency needs to scrutinise that issue, instead of thinking that recruitment is the only key to success.

The right sorts of assessment and evaluation are essential to professional pioneering. Currently the system is squeezing the last drop from the targets and testing regime. Teaching to the test does not improve skills.

However, expecting schools to develop a rigorous and accountable system of self-review does. Ofsted can still be the ultimate moderator but in league with school peers.

Perhaps Ofsted has become too self-important. The inspection reports under the new framework reflect a growing belief that subjective observation and sampling the odd lesson can generate hard data. Perhaps being involved more in the detail of self-evaluation will help to propagate a less arrogant and more collaborative approach. Maybe we need one arm of inspectors for self-review and one for research and guidance.

There are strong arguments forreplacing national tests with sampling at ages seven and 11. This would show trends and provide snapshots, without the negatives. Schools would then be able to use standardised tests for reporting locally and for diagnostic purposes.

The curriculum is in a mess. This is unlikely to be corrected from the centre at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority or the DfES.

Excellence and Enjoyment does provide invaluable direction, but its philosophy requires a long-term strategic approach.

Currently, the strategy's team is working hard on that very job. They are, however, handling a poisoned chalice. Unless the profession feels a sense of ownership, progress may be limited.

It is in the permeation of real-life application, creativity, choice, decision making, problem solving that the curriculum becomes exciting and compelling. Teachers now need help with active learning strategies, fertile starting points and differentiation, and in developing an exciting curriculum that is not always safe and clean.

Do most children really feel challenged by the current school diet? I doubt it.

A professional pioneer would welcome the chance to partner central government in thrashing out a dynamic national curriculum for the 21st century.

I hope that reflection over the next two years will identify a tilt towards releasing local energy and integrity. An infrastructure that gently guides pioneering, rather than capping and flattening it, will stimulate powerful and exciting professional practice.

Are you listening Mr Clarke?

Any thoughts? Write to

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