The search for a wider perspective
The new Government will want to get things done. But it would do well to tread carefully on the primary curriculum. Sir Ron Dearing's five-year moratorium on change comes to an end in September 2000 and already national curriculum advisers are setting the scene for the next revision. Teachers, on the other hand, are at last getting on top of the current version. They are learning to use it as a tool, leaving them free for some innovations of their own. They have had years of change, and now they need time to consolidate. There is also a view - expressed by some writers on the following pages - that any change needs to be more fundamental, that the subject-orientated national curriculum may not be what's needed in the 21st century. It might be better in the short term to relax some of the requirements, and spend time thinking hard about the future.
A national curriculum, in some form, is here to stay. It is right that there should be national standards and entitlements. Performance tables, too - the focus of this Update - are likely to be a long-term fixture, although Labour prefers to publish them locally rather than nationally. They give those who have succeeded against the odds a chance to shine, but in their present form they are in danger of diminishing the achievements of other first-rate schools. In this Update, we visit schools that have topped the tables despite their deprived circumstances, and others whose low scores belie their rich offerings and glowing reports from the Office for Standards in Education.
Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector, unwisely said that either the tables were rubbish, or OFSTED was. But there is not necessarily a conflict. The tables, in time, will be able to show the value added by schools to children's expected attainments, but they will always reflect demographics. The performance tables only give a part of the picture; Labour will be under pressure to modify them heavily.
Learning to read and write well is crucially important: these skills form the foundation for most other learning - but not all of it. In our present national obsession with the basics, we should not sacrifice the broader curriculum: the arts, PE, social education, science. OFSTED looks for all of this in its inspections. Some schools with good test results and mediocre OFSTED reports may be making that sacrifice. In middle-class schools, there is no excuse. But some deprived schools may see no other way to give their pupils the basic foundations they need to gain access to a richer curriculum and later life. Perhaps they are right, at least under the present financial constraints, but it is sad to think so.
Labour will be tempted to look for one answer to the problem of raising standards, but life isn't like that. Each school has different needs and strengths. As one successful headteacher told Gerald Haigh (see page 9) "If they don't have responsibility for their learning then they don't have ownership of it." And that goes for teachers, too.