When dinosaurs ruled the curriculum

25th March 2005 at 00:00
Dinosaurs are to blame for the national curriculum. Kenneth Baker, the former education secretary, who introduced the reform, said we needed one because primary children were learning about tyrannosaurus rex and diplodocus for three years in a row.

At the time, I thought he had a point. Fifteen years later, after successive governments have squeezed much of the fun and orginiality out of classrooms, I'm less sure. Baker's antipathy to dinosaurs was the result of a failure of imagination: diplodocus was just a way of enticing children into more mundane activities such as writing and adding up.

Last week I was at the new pound;25 million Lambeth academy in south London where journalists put the head, Pat Millichamp, on the spot about why she had agreed to preside over such a controversial venture. She said that she had thought hard before taking up a post at an independent state school backed by private sponsors after 30 years in local education authority schools. What finally tipped the balance was the academy's freedom to set its own curriculum: "to tear up the tedium", as she put it.

So pupils at Lambeth, for example, do less written work in science and music and more experiments and instrument-playing.

I have also just visited Montgomery high in Blackpool which has devised its own curriculum for a group of Year 8 pupils who have had difficulty settling into secondary school. Lessons are grouped around themes. One, called Under the Sea, is based on the film Finding Nemo with its cast of sharks and fish. Montgomery isn't an academy, nor has it gone through any procedures for opting out of the national curriculum. It tries to match its programme to the latter but has to keep a wary watch for conservative Ofsted inspectors.

Both schools have a buzz about them. Teachers have wrested back the curriculum from outsiders and are basing it on their ideas of what works for pupils.

So why are the academies, sited in the most challenging areas, trusted to jettison the national curriculum when thousands of other schools have to plough through procedures for "disapplying" it? Why should heads need to brave inspectors' disapproval if they want to tap the ideas and talents of their staff? If teachers have been terrified into tedium by tests, targets and tables, who can blame them?

Stephen Twigg, the school standards minister, has hinted that ministers might consider extending the academies' curriculum freedom to most schools.

He realises, he said last week, that teachers often lack the confidence to innovate. He also made it clear that change was little more than a gleam in a ministerial eye.

Yet, ministers' treasured "personalised learning" agenda scarcely fits with an imposed curriculum: Montgomery, which has a government grant for innovation, is considering linking pupils' hobbies into its timetable as part of its personalised learning plan.

Politicians have plenty of checks on schools without dictating what they teach. Tests at 11 monitor English, maths and science. GCSE tells us about English and maths.

The Tories' decision to ask Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector, to review the curriculum if they win the election is enough to deter anyone who thinks politicians should prescribe what is taught. Woodhead's 19th-century lessons packed with dates and facts would boost truancy rates and ensure that disenchanted 16-year-olds escape from education as fast as they can.

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