Overloaded generation

8th August 2003 at 01:00
Only students who can learn independently will cope with the future knowledge explosion, says Caroline Whalley. And to create this new breed of learner we need a 9-19 curriculum

The big initiative of the moment in education is to reform the 14-19 curriculum. For young people growing to adulthood in the 21st century, the context for reform is awe-inspiring. It is said that society's knowledge base is doubling every year, prompting the claim that teaching subject knowledge in the time-honoured way is now an anachronism.

In this new century of exploding knowledge, society will need effective learners who can find, retrieve and apply information and knowledge. We need secure, independent and "e-confident" learners, who can assess their own requirements and set their own goals.

But while this applies very much to teenagers in the final years of their schooling, the need for reform goes far beyond the 14 to 18 phase. At a recent local conference I attended, along with primary and secondary heads and representatives from the further and higher education and skills sectors, there was a general recognition that the 14 to 19 reforms would only succeed if they are carefully planned to extend the range of skills taught and developed in the earlier phases of education.

The 14-19 reforms are ambitious and will offer exciting opportunities for a bigger range of pathways - but youngsters will have to be prepared to take advantage of the increased choice on offer. Formulating a recognised 9-19 curriculum would smooth their progression and create that positive jumping-off point.

The core of a 9-19 curriculum is likely to include English, maths , science and a modern language and must integrate information and communications technology. A focus on core skills and learning how to learn will almost certainly mean that subject content is less likely to dominate. The concept of teacher as facilitator of learning - "not a sage on the stage but a guide on the side" - has been around for some time. Embracing this concept has implications for pupils and teachers alike and being able to cope with not knowing what they don't know is going to be a key skill for both.

We are familiar with inter-school transition and most schools are already accomplished at transferring attainment data and pastoral information, to the benefit of pupils. However, in terms of curriculum progression and teaching and learning, there is still much to do to break down stereotypes about primary and secondary practice and develop the mutual regard which will bring great advantages.

Primary teachers have pupils for long stretches of time, sometimes all day and are therefore aware of and know the "whole" child's needs. They are likely to be accomplished fine detail planners, incorporating a variety of experiences into their sessions.

Secondary practitioners bring secure subject knowledge and significant experience of dealing with the needs of gifted and talented as well as less able pupils. In identifying and recognising the different skills each phase has to offer, and what they have in common, we could begin to build integrating experiences across the primarysecondary divide. Looking to the way our colleagues work across phases in special schools could offer a flying start.

Some collaborative practices we will need to consider across all key stage transitions to pursue this agenda will be:

* planning for progress in learning how to learn

* sharing and developing practice on what works well across all phases

* exploring ingenious ways of working with ICT

* developing high levels of ICT capability and confidence in pupils and teachers

* creatively timetabling across schools and within schools so that integrated curricula and exchanges of teachers and resources become possible

* aligning professional development activities for staff both through the National College for School Leadership and locally to support these developments.

The Government can support all these practices through staff development and by ensuring that the current workforce re-modelling process allows for collaboration between primary, lower secondary and 14 to 19 phases. It would also help if some of the funding for transforming secondary education was used to encourage cross-phase working.

I believe the case for a 9 - 19 continuum is strong. It makes sense of the national strategies we have all invested in so heavily. And if the 14 - 19 reforms are not fitted in with earlier phases they will end up in that packed graveyard of failed education initiatives.

Dr Caroline Whalley is the chief education officer in the London borough of Ealing and co-author of "Learning about Learning", London, Routledge (2000)

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