Teachers, prepare to be straitjacketed

6th July 2012 at 01:00

Michael Gove's road to his position as education secretary was paved with good intentions. He was going to make teachers' lives better, improve the status of the profession, keep out of the classroom and leave teachers to decide what they should teach and how. Quite how he can square his grand ambitions with the current reality of his proposals for the revised national curriculum is a mystery. Anyone who has read the draft programmes of study for primary English, maths and science will, if they survive the trauma, be left in no doubt that, far from raising morale through improving teacher autonomy, Gove wants to control teachers' every working hour.

He acts as if teachers are not to be trusted, at least not with curriculum choice: the revised programmes of study are exhaustively detailed, down to exactly which links between letters and sounds should be taught and what spellings should be learned each year in English. The science and maths programmes are similarly, overwhelmingly detailed. Nor will teachers be left to make professional choices about teaching and learning strategies, because the weight of subject content and its sequencing can only lead to teachers doing little more than transmitting information, which is inappropriate for most primary pupils.

Aware that they may be portrayed as control freaks, Department for Education officials have been anxious to give assurances that non-core programmes of study will be shorter and give teachers more flexibility. Teachers, however, know that this will not wash. A huge imbalance in the detailed prescription of core and non-core subjects will have only one possible outcome: the core subjects will dominate what is taught and the rest will be neglected. There is every danger that a broad and balanced primary curriculum, already a distant dream for too many Year 6 teachers, will become a forlorn memory for their colleagues teaching Years 1-5.

This revised curriculum has not been written by subject experts, nor by teachers, but by civil servants. Teachers were not on the expert group for the curriculum review advising Gove and the consultation process barely touched classroom practitioners. Civil servants insist that the draft programmes of study were examined by subject experts, but I had to write to the DfE requesting the names and positions of these experts before the information was published. So, we have a proposed primary national curriculum written by unnamed civil servants, none of whom will have to take responsibility for the mess they create. So much for the government's commitment to openness and transparency.

Heading in the wrong direction

This dysfunctional process has resulted in some fundamental and nonsensical errors. One example is in the Year 1 English programme of study, which states that teachers must "ensure that pupils practise their reading with books that are consistent with their developing phonic knowledge and that do not require them to use other strategies to work out words". How extraordinary is this, that teachers cannot let Year 1 pupils read a book containing the word "said", even if they come to school already able to read, or well on the path to reading and with a rich knowledge of children's fiction. No, their diet is to be the thin gruel of systemic phonic reading schemes. Never has ministerial interference been more misguided.

Even more seriously (if that were possible), the role of speaking and listening, which should be the foundation for learning in the early years and beyond, is downgraded. There is no separate strand for speaking and listening in English - only reading, comprehension and writing. Do the civil servants know about the national and international evidence showing the fundamental importance of the development of pupils' oral abilities? Children need to learn to talk well in order to narrate, explain, speculate, imagine and hypothesise. The ability to talk fluently is a fundamental building block of learning because speech expresses thoughts and opens them to development, challenge and revision. Inexplicably, these ambitious reasons for speech are absent from the revised programmes of study.

Much of the press gave the revised curriculum a largely positive response, apparently reassured by the return to a rosy past of times tables, long division and poetry recitation. There is now, however, a dawning realisation of just how straitjacketed teachers will be if these proposals are implemented in their current form. Professor Andrew Pollard, a member of the expert panel for the curriculum review, has written that the approach taken "is fatally flawed ... The skill and expertise of the teacher lies in building on each pupil's existing understanding and capabilities, and in matching tasks to extend attainment. To do these things, they need scope to exercise professional judgement."

Columnist Suzanne Moore, writing in The Guardian, is more robust in her reaction: 'The new prescriptive curriculum is all about linear learning. There is no room to meander. We cannot allow the risks even of letting teachers teach. All learning must be directed and disciplined. This is life as lived via some centrally controlled sat nav."

And the tragedy is, this sat nav curriculum will, if implemented in its current form, direct real learning over the cliff edge.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today