Neither broad nor balanced

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Critics tell Commons select committee that national curriculum has failed to deliver its main goal
Critics tell Commons select committee that national curriculum has failed to deliver its main goal

Pupils are being denied access to a broad and balanced curriculum in many schools, according to the leader of the biggest review of primary education for 40 years.

Professor Robin Alexander said schools were suffering from "curriculum overload", while test results were of questionable reliability.

His independent review body is one of 45 organisations putting its views to an inquiry on the primary and secondary curriculum being conducted by the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families select committee.

When the national curriculum was launched 20 years ago, it said that all pupils had the right to a broad and balanced education. But many submissions to the Parliamentary inquiry question whether this has been achieved. There is also debate about whether schools should emphasise breadth of coverage or focus on core subjects.

Employers' groups say the focus should be on core subjects, such as English, maths and ICT, plus employability skills. Other organisations worry about the narrowing of the curriculum and, conversely, the way it has tried to cover too much.

Professor Alexander said his own inquiry revealed that the curriculum was widely viewed as so overcrowded that it was "logistically non-viable" and had "incoherent" goals. His review, which will conclude next year, has conducted 93 hearings with witnesses and taken 550 written submissions.

His group's submission said: "The integrity of the curriculum has been severely compromised by the perceived burden of testing and test preparation and the requirements of the national literacy, numeracy and primary strategies, particularly in Years 5 and 6.

"These have been ring-fenced while the rest of the curriculum has had, in effect, to take its chances."

This view was backed by Ofsted's submission. It cited a 2006 finding that test-driven teaching was narrowing some pupils' experiences in English and maths. "More recent evidence suggests the continuance of these trends," it said. "For example, in Year 6 mathematics, there are fewer opportunities for practical work. Similarly, in some secondary schools, routine exercises and preparation for tests impair the development of understanding as well as enjoyment of mathematics, particularly, but not exclusively, in Year 9." Ofsted said national strategies led some schools to focus on literacy and numeracy, "sometimes at the expense of other subjects".

The Edge Foundation, a charity encouraging vocational education, said the curriculum was not fit for purpose because it over-emphasised the academic, rather than experience-based learning.

Ministers have denied that many schools engage in extensive test preparation. In its evidence, the Government said the best schools taught a broad curriculum.



Phonics experts are calling for a radical slimming down of the national curriculum. Chris Jolly, whose company created the popular Jolly Phonics scheme, said the curriculum should be scrapped altogether and replaced with information and advice.

His submission to the Commons inquiry recommends an end to the national literacy and numeracy strategies. "In its place should come a programme of informative and research documents aimed at giving teachers the information to make decisions for themselves," he said.

Elizabeth Nonweiler, of the Reading Reform Foundation which campaigns for changes to literacy teaching, said a national curriculum should be retained, but should consist of broad principles rather than detail.

She said the existing curriculum led to contradictions, as some local authority advisers used the forthcoming early years foundation stage curriculum to pressure reception teachers to abandon all direct teaching. Others used the Government's free 'Letters and Sounds' phonics guidance to press teachers to teach reading earlier.



PHOEBE: "Just before the Sats, I got very ill. Throughout the preparation time I got worse and worse. I think that most of the illness was brought on by worry.

SAM: "I think the month before the Sats was boring because we hardly did anything else but do the practice tests."

DANIELLE: "As soon as we were told that Sats were coming up, I felt worried and stressed. I didn't even want to come to school because all the stress was making me ill."

BEN: "During the Sats week it was nerve-wracking and annoying. Just one test after another, just to test the school."

EVAN: "When we did the maths practice tests, they made me cry because they were so hard and it made me feel like I wasn't good at maths."

BASIRAT: "My opinion about Sats is that us children would revise and revise for Sats and would have sleepless nights. After the Sats, most of the things that we would revise we would forget."

ADETOLD: "They're stressful, tiresome, tedious, hard, long, horrible and frustrating and some countries don't have Sats - so why do we have to?"

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