On our own authority

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Don't be put off independent planning, says Mike Peters

As teachers prepare for the new national curriculum being introduced in September, they may not be too surprised to learn that they will be able to deliver it through a QCA-authored national scheme of work; the logical extension of prescribing what pupils should be taught is to prescribe how it should be taught.

Of course, the English Key Stage 3 Scheme of Work does not talk of prescription: "schools should feel free to use as much or as little of the scheme as they find helpful", the introduction states. But the virtues it claims - such as a "coherent curriculum ... that covers the requirements of the Order, and promotes curriculum continuity and progress in pupils' learning", will make it difficult to resist. If it is "a comprehensive and stimulating basis ... for planning their curriculum" then many teachers may well ask why they should spend hours producing new units of work or adapting existing ones. But many others will want to retain their relative pedagogical independence. The units have been "devised with a group of teachers and advisers". Who were they and how did they contribute? And were the scheme's teaching and learning activities properly piloted?

With its clear indicators of how units relate to the national curriculum and to expectations of pupils' abilities, and with its specifications of learning objectives, teaching activities and learning outcomes, the format suggests methodical rigour. But it fails to address questions regarding both the value and values of the named objectives, and the complexities of identifying and responding to differing outcomes. Also appealing because of its seeming clarity is the central model of teaching and learning English, which seems strongly influenced by genre theoy: if pupils are taught to identify features of particular types of text, they will be able to reproduce the genre in their own writing. The approach recognises that encouraging a child's natural creativity is not sufficient for all pupils. But the ways children learn to read and write also involve a range of practices outside the school. And to some extent children become competent users of a genre at appropriate stages in their development. To "write informatively in two different styles, varying levels of formality appropriately", (in the scheme's news unit) may be a desirable goal. Is it likely to be the outcome for most Year 7 pupils?

There is a weakness in the relation between certain of the learning outcomes and the teaching activities meant to achieve them. To enable Year 8 pupils to "talk about the structure" of The Importance of Being Earnest, the suggested activity is to "focus on the structure of the play and Oscar Wilde's craft in manipulating the audience's expectations". Is this really an activity or a vacuous aspiration?

The scheme is certainly not all bad. The Great Expectations unit, for example, contains suggestions about how a substantial novel may be taught to a Year 8 class and the Telling Stories material offers imaginative approaches to work with the short story. Engaging ways of incorporating drama and media education into mainstream English are proposed.

Few will want to ignore the scheme. But we need more information from the QCA both about how it was produced and about the theories on which it is based. That will help teachers to respond to it rationally, rather than simply being required to accept (or reject) it because of the authority it seems to represent.

Mike Peters is head of English at a school in Redbridge, east London

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