Stability if ministers can shake on new curriculum

25th May 2012 at 01:00
Gove and his Labour shadow will meet to seek consensus on reform

The long-awaited new national curriculum could be the last for a very long time if attempts to build political consensus around the reform are successful.

TES has learned that education secretary Michael Gove is to meet his Labour shadow, Stephen Twigg, who wants to try to thrash out a common approach. Mr Twigg believes any agreement will be in teachers' interests.

When the coalition took power in 2010, it immediately abandoned a new primary national curriculum inspired by the Rose Review. Schools had spent months preparing for the changes, which were to be introduced last September.

"One of the things teachers always say to me is they hate the chopping and changing when there are changes of government," Mr Twigg said. "So if we can forge as broad a cross-party consensus on the future curriculum as possible, then any changes that are brought in can bed in and schools can have a sense of confidence they will last."

The news comes as the long-delayed draft of the new national curriculum for English, maths, science and PE is published. Ministers' responses to initial recommendations made by the curriculum review expert panel are expected imminently.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, applauded any attempt to achieve consensus. "Although the curriculum is a political issue, I don't think we should play party politics with it," he said. "Teachers will have a lot more confidence in a new national curriculum if they know it is not going to be changed every few years."

Mr Twigg said he did "basically agree" with the view of expert panel chair Tim Oates that the curriculum should not stray into telling teachers how to teach.

But the shadow education secretary wants it to include skills as well as subject knowledge and said he had concerns about the importance the panel had given to design and technology and citizenship. Mr Oates' team of four experts has recommended that the two subjects, along with ICT, should remain statutory but be excluded from the actual national curriculum, with schools free to decide how they cover them.

"There may be some areas where it is a tougher challenge to reach agreement," Mr Twigg acknowledged. "We may not agree on every dot and comma." But he was encouraged that Mr Gove had responded to his overtures with the offer of a meeting, expected later this term.

Mr Oates wrote a paper in 2010, praised by Mr Gove, which called for more stability in the national curriculum, warning that the frequency of change had been "problematic". But he said it had to assume the "right form" first, and warned that a "drive towards consensus" during previous national curriculum reforms caused its own problems.

"Statements which `keep all happy' in fact detract from the very purpose of the national curriculum," Mr Oates' paper, Could do Better, concluded.

Labour has already begun its own review of the curriculum.

A Department for Education spokeswoman confirmed that Mr Gove and Mr Twigg were to meet to discuss the curriculum.

Literacy experts say no to `nonsense' words

Literacy experts are warning that they will bitterly resist any attempt to introduce "nonsense" words such as "jound" and "vead" into the new national curriculum.

Concerns have been raised that the curriculum could be used to tell schools to teach pupils the "pseudo" or "non-words" that are a core element of the phonics method of teaching reading.

The government's independent review of the national curriculum is designed to have a strict focus on subject content rather than teaching methods. But some fear that ministerial enthusiasm for phonics could see that line crossed.

John Coe, chairman of the National Association for Primary Education, thinks ministers "wouldn't dare" to include the teaching of non-words, but said that if they did it would be "beyond reason".

"To teach our children nonsense invalidates the whole idea of reading," he said. "Meaning is intrinsic to reading and you have to give that message right from the beginning."

Non-words will be used in the first phonics screening test, to be taken by all Year 1 pupils next month. A pilot test in 300 schools last year saw only a third of pupils achieve a pass mark that some heads argue is too high.

Original headline: Stability at last if ministers can shake on new curriculum

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