Now's the time to think about curriculum change

6th November 2009 at 00:00
In the wake of the Rose and Alexander reports, an expert advises primaries to consider what's right for them

The proposals to change the primary curriculum that have come out of the Rose Review raise many questions for schools. Are the changes worth the trouble? Is the proposed curriculum dramatically different? Do we need wholesale change? What if there's a change of government? What about the Alexander Report?

For many schools, the revised curriculum will not mean having to do things very differently at all. Indeed, the proposals reflect the best work that schools are already doing. The main benefit of the review is that it will mean schools will look again at their learning offer and refine their work.

It is a shame that political parties dismiss the deep analysis carried out by Robin Alexander's team rather than using it to refine the new curriculum before it is implemented. Good schools will consider the Alexander Report and amend their practice as necessary, but some aspects only governments can change.

The key change offered by the proposed new curriculum is the emphasis on the whole child - building skills for learning and life into every area. If children can grasp the basics of numeracy, literacy and ICT, manage and organise themselves, work with others and start to develop the so-called "soft skills" early, the range and content of other education will be accessible. Not only that: children will have started to develop the roots of lifelong education.

Within these "essentials for learning and life" are four key skills that run through the areas of education: investigation, analysis, evaluation and communication. The job of promoting progression will be more straightforward for teachers if they focus on these four threads.

And the areas of learning? They have to be more than "carrying crates" for the existing subjects, and each must hold the promise of helping children to understand the way the world has been shaped over time so that they might create a better future.

The big flaw in the curriculum revision is that attainment targets have not been changed to match the proposed areas of learning. Does this mean the new programmes are expected to attain the same things as before? What would be the point of that? Are we not trying to raise standards?

Without new attainment targets setting clear goals for the new curriculum, it is in danger of being eyewash. Why are there no new targets? Is it because the assessment edifice is seen as too important to change? Are we protecting the data at the expense of our children's learning?

Over the coming months there will be a series of challenges that heads, teachers and other staff will need to think about.

Remember that the timetable is not the curriculum.

Just because the new curriculum comes from London, packaged in areas of learning, it does not mean that it has to be taught in the same packages from Bodmin to Berwick. The segments have to be balanced over the period of the primary phase, not each week. (There are six areas and six half-terms in a year, so perhaps half a term on each area would work.) The challenge is to ensure learning rather than coverage and delivery of each area.

Resist ready-made solutions.

Publishers will be tempting schools into a spending spree, whether it's schemes of work, exercise books, work books, work sheets or IT programmes. But teachers and schools need to trust themselves to design real learning and use real texts, maps and artefacts and visit real places and talk to real people.

Avoid narrowing the curriculum to satisfy accountability systems.

Ofsted's new framework defines the curriculum as one that "provides memorable experiences and rich opportunities for high-quality learning and wider personal development and well-being". It also talks about the curriculum being "innovative" and "customised". But there is still an over-emphasis on data, so we must not be seduced into thinking that a narrow curriculum can produce better results.

Consider how the new regimes of responsibility will work.

The move away from subject leadership is no bad thing. But what will provide the drive for learning? Starting with the essentials for learning and life is the way forward. It will bring coherence and a focus on progression that would help pupil performance.

The curriculum should fit your school, not be a throwback.

Some schools will have staff who remember nothing but the national curriculum as it is now. Will they adjust? The evidence from pilots is that most teachers revel in the idea of doing it differently. Sometimes more worrying are the staff who remember life before the national curriculum and think the review is a throwback. We need to avoid topics built on word association where we tried to kill two birds with one stone and ended up with a wounded bird and a redundant pebble.

Beware planning blight.

Teachers have become used to writing extensive plans of the way in which they intend to cover the programmes of study. This has taken a huge amount of time and effort, but has not always improved learning or the curriculum. What we need is curriculum design: to think what experiences children need to bring about the intended learning. We must simplify the process and focus on learning, not coverage.

So is it a big deal? The dawn of a new era? The areas of learning provide only the ingredients. They need blending and incorporating with the skills for learning and life. The ingredients can be addressed in lessons, school routines, special events and what children do after and beyond school.

Good schools know that the curriculum is everything we do, from planned lessons and assembly to dining, the library, the school garden, the link via ICT to a partner school overseas, the visiting artist, and the band.

They do not see the curriculum as a set of lessons and the add-ons as extras. The curriculum is the entire planned learning experience and includes the national curriculum as part of it. A good school makes the national curriculum work for them rather than being a slave to it.

What about a change of government? There is nothing in the basic model that drives the Rose proposals that cannot be implemented immediately. Indeed, it is based on present good practice. So schools don't need to wait for 2011 or national elections. They can put the very best curriculum in front of their pupils right now.

To call the Rose curriculum proposals radical might overstate it. But we are not simply preparing children for the future. We also need to give them the best present we can, a childhood experience upon which to build the rest of their lives.

Mick Waters, Professor of education at Wolverhampton University and president of the Curriculum Foundation.

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