New look at learning

17th March 2000 at 00:00
Curriculum 2000 is less of a straitjacket that its predecessor, argues Ted Wragg, who was involved in its development.

There are two principal views of the millennium. One is that it marked a great turning point in our history, the birth of a new age, the solution to all our problems, the momentous starting point of an exciting journey into an uncertain future. The other is that it was the day after December 31, 1999.

The same two perspectives apply to Curriculum 2000, scheduled to start in September. It can either be seen as a fresh challenge, with more opportunity for teachers to develop their own ideas and new subjects such as citizenship, or as a slightly thinned out version of what we have had for the past decade.

As a member of the board of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, I was closely involved in the process of developing a new curriculum for the millennium. From the beginning there was strong pressure from many teachers to make few changes. The reason for this conservatism was simple: people felt disorientated after the many somersaults and pirouettes of the previous few years.

The science curriculum for 1991 illustrates the problem perfectly. It began the year with 17 attainment targets. In May, five were proposed. By September the number was down to four. Like the 10 green bottles, they seemed to be irrevocably falling away. And that was just one subject in one particular year.

Once a decision has been taken to make relatively little change, much else follows logically. Given the anxiety about undue complexity, the curriculum either had to stay roughly the same or be simplified in some way.

In practice it has been made simpler, though citizenship has been added as a requirement for secondary and an optional subject for primary schools from 2002. The numeracy and literacy hours, introductions since the Dearing revision of 1995, have been incorporated.

As the new millennium dawned, it was probably right not to impose a radical reconception on a punch drunk profession. Yet the challenges facing young people in the 21st century are formidable. As I pointed out in my book The Cubic Curriculum, many will change their job several times and have to retrain. Portfolio working - the stitching together of two or more part-time jobs - has become commonplace. Unskilled employment has diminished vastly; millions of factory jobs have gone for ever.

These large-scale social changes have highlighted a number of important issues. No one is going to get rid of a fork lift truck and hire 10 unskilled workers with big biceps in its place. Most of the new jobs being created are in services such as hospitality: serving and looking after people during their work and leisure.

Work with people requires social skills and the ability to communicate, so employers look for a GCSE in English. At present about two-thirds of girls achieve this, but fewer than half of boys. If the huge gap in GCSE English between boys and girls persists, boys will find it increasingly difficult to obtain employment in a peole-oriented economy.

It would be wrong to assume that a policy of little change in the curriculum represents a timid response to the many challenges of the new millennium. First of all, teachers can develop more of their own ideas and indeed those of their pupils. Back in 1988 the Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, said that the curriculum should be a framework not a straitjacket. Unfortunately it turned out differently.

Curriculum 2000 is much more a light touch than that suffocating first version. About two-thirds of teachers now are over 40, so most can recall the principles of curriculum design, since they at one time had to create the whole thing. We shall soon discover if experienced teachers can recapture that sense of ownership and excitement that drove many in the past, and whether newcomers have become too dependent on someone else's syllabus or work scheme to devise their own approaches.

Another challenge is the new subject, citizenship. Some secondary schools are wondering where they will find the time, but their programme often contains something already that could be called citizenship, and flexibility is a key element of imaginative curriculum planning. Why paralyse the school with an unchanging weekly straitjacket?

Many schools have begun to release themselves from the tyranny of an inflexible timetable. Whole days, or blocks of time, can be freed up, while still offering a degree of familiarity and stability for much of the year.

There has been tension among right-wingers over the curriculum. The authoritarian right wants every river, date, spelling or scientific fact to be fixed by the Government. The free marketeers prefer no central prescription, so schools can compete for customers on the attractiveness of their curriculum. In 1988 Lord Joseph stayed up late in the House of Lords opposing a national curriculum.

It may be that a 2005 or later version of the national curriculum is much more radical. In The Cubic Curriculum I pointed out the importance of cross-curricular matters such as language, thought, creativity. Some signs are already appearing, like the interest in teaching thinking, helping children to think mathematically and scientifically. Creativity has been the subject of a national committee of enquiry.

Should we start to teach a foreign language to primary children? Voluntary guidelines for this will soon be appearing. There are still many unresolved issues and the day debate stops about a curriculum for the future is the day the human race will have become extinct.

* Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, is giving 'The TES' lecture, New Millennium, New Curriculum, KS1-4, on Friday, March 24, 10.30am, C1


Thursday: Keith Hellawell, the Government's drug co-ordinator, on schools' response to drug issues. 2.30pm, room C1

Friday: Carol Adams, of the GTC, on a professional voice for teachers 12 noon, room C1

Saturday: Niel McLean, of BECTA, on putting teachers at the heart of IT changes 10.30am, room C2

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