We need less slap and more tickle;Opinion

8th January 1999 at 00:00
The curriculum review should lead to the heavy hand of bureaucracy giving way to a lighter, more fun education system, argues Christopher Price

AS THE review of the national curriculum gathers pace, it is still not clear exactly what malaise such a review is meant to address.

There is a widespread belief in schools - and among the pundits and policymakers - that something is wrong: but very little agreement about the strategy necessary to improve things.

The agenda is full of contradictions. The curriculum is too crowded, yet important new "subjects" - citizenship, the arts - are knocking on the door to get a greater share of the action. Regulation from the Office for Standards in Education is too intense, yet many teachers now seem to be becoming more content with some sort of regulatory regime in the classroom.

Schools are blamed for "dumbing down" society at the same time as they are urged to teach new technological curricula alongside old traditional academic ones.

Some elements of malaise, however, are incontestable. Teacher morale is not high; suddenly headships and other senior positions are becoming harder to fill; in many key subjects, it is as difficult to get the students we need into the colleges as it is to get the teachers into the classroom.

Whether the advent of regulatory quangos like the Teacher Training Agency and OFSTED are the cause or simply the accidental handmaidens of these phenomena will never be proven. But there remains a strong belief that all is not right and that a new deal is needed for a new millennium.

There are also further worrying straws in the wind. The private sector - especially, but not exclusively, in the affluent South - is more resilient than ever, and this is not just, as commentator Will Hutton has pointed out, because private schools can command two or three times the level of resources per pupil which state schools get.

The private sector has also steadfastly refused to accept the national curriculum. Almost certainly as a direct result of this refusal, subjects - in particular those in the arts - which the national curriculum sidelined now flourish in the independent sector; this is in marked contrast to the 1960s when the arts, creativity and innovation were developing exponentially in both primary and secondary schools at a time when most "public" schools were still locked into an traditional and often unimaginative curricular diet.

If lessons emerge from all this, they seem to demand a change in general atmosphere rather than specific regulatory provisions. Policies should become more inclusive, less directive; inspection should become more supportive, less mechanistic; the TTA should stop believing that it has some unique ability to identify and train future heads; the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority should continue to loosen up curricular definitions, so that schools can take greater ownership of what happens in the classroom and play to the strengths of the staff they have; and above all the statutory 80 per cent of time spent in school devoted to the national curriculum should be relaxed to 75 per cent or even 70 per cent.

A shift of this kind would allow space for creativity and growth and help transform the "hidden curriculum" of schools away from an atmosphere of nervous tension and creeping managerialism into one of higher morale and renewed educational purpose.

In any organisation, the morale of the people within it is the key to success. High morale feeds on itself. The perversity of the past ten years is that, as easily measurable outcomes have gained greater importance, morale boosting informal activities have been sidelined. School plays and operas and art festivals - occasions which cater for every different sort of skill and aptitude - are becoming rarer. Education needs to become much less bureaucratic, managerial and po-faced.

Indeed the trick of serious education is not to make it sound serious at all. The provenance of the idea of school was the Greek word scolh which connoted leisure, relaxation, even fun.

One of the conclusions which the Arts Council came up with at a recently was that "arts education projects were often most effective when participants were not aware they were educational". Therein lies an important moral for our ministers and educational bureaucrats as they set about the task of shaping a creative school curriculum for the 21st century.

Christopher Price is editor of 'The Stakeholder' and a former chairman of the House of Commons select committee on education

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