No need to be caged by the curriculum

21st October 2011 at 01:00
We can offer pupils a rounded education, argues John Dunford

There is a delightful irony in the Government reviewing the national curriculum while simultaneously encouraging schools to convert to academy status, thus exempting them from having to follow it. Given that so many schools are likely to have become academies by the next general election, does the review really matter?

Yes, it does, because it creates a climate to which the teaching profession will respond. For 23 years, teachers have felt constrained by a national curriculum that was always stronger on detail than on co-ordination, with each subject group creating its ideal curriculum and the whole adding up to more than 100 per cent of a teaching week.

Although this was slimmed down, it has remained overcrowded and over-prescriptive, creating a culture in which all teachers under the age of 44 have spent their whole careers looking up to the Government to be told what, and increasingly how, to teach.

Even more than the national curriculum itself, teachers felt they had to follow the QCA schemes of work. Thus key stage 2 geography included Chembakolli in a majority of primary schools (see "Cry freedom", TES, 23 September). For secondary teachers, constraints imposed by the accountability regime and the rising floor standards have led to a heavy focus on examination syllabuses.

Michael Gove has stated clearly that he wants to increase the space in the school curriculum. So let's take him at his word and recognise that the national curriculum is not the same as the school curriculum.

Teachers have to stop looking upwards for government instruction and start looking outwards for ideas to introduce into their schools in their local context.

Many schools are already engaged with projects such as the RSA's Opening Minds, with its competency-based curriculum, or the Paul Hamlyn Foundation's Learning Futures, where the focus is on engagement as a precondition of learning. Other projects in the Whole Education partnership include Apps for Good, a course in which young people learn to create imaginative mobile apps that change their world.

The changes in national tests at 11 and in the inspection system do not suggest that greater curriculum flexibility is yet sufficiently embedded in the government psyche. Inspectors will not be giving credit to schools that give children a rounded education.

The Singapore curriculum aims to produce "a holistic education, focused on both academic and non-academic areas ... to develop the skills and values that they will need for life". Hong Kong includes the explicit teaching of learning and thinking skills as a key element of the curriculum.

The new national curriculum in England will not have this breadth, so the big challenge for schools is to treat it as a subset of the whole-school curriculum and to use projects that have proved successful elsewhere to do the basics well but to develop skills and personal qualities. In short, to give all young people a "whole education".

Dr John Dunford is chair of Whole Education and of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors.

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