Your verdict: It must be less prescriptive

17th November 2006 at 00:00
WHAT A long, strange trip it has been. Since its inception in 1988, the national curriculum has sometimes resembled a rusty Ford Capri, enduring constant trips to the mechanics' yard and repeated calls for it to be streamlined or possibly scrapped.

"I ignore it as much as possible," one east London English teacher said.

"It is chaotic, irrational, unselfconscious, with an ingrained distrust of the people expected to carry it out."

With a wave of 14 to 19-year-old reforms scheduled for 2008, which will introduce diplomas in vocational subjects like social care and IT as an alternative to GCSE and A-levels, it is clear the overhauls are not over yet.

A spokesman for the QCA said the 14 to 19-year-old reforms would, "increase flexibility and reduce prescription". "We want to encourage creative and innovative teaching that gives pupils the high-quality learning experience which they are entitled to," he said. Giving their verdict in this week's TES survey, teachers made it clear they are struggling under an avalanche of well-meaning initiatives. Two-thirds believe the curriculum is too prescriptive.

More than half would prefer to set their own teaching plans, and two-thirds told The TES their priority was coaching schoolchildren for exams, whether they believed in them or not.

Given that the history of the curriculum seems to move in ever-decreasing circles it is hardly surprising. Three-quarters of teachers felt they were not adequately consulted on reforms, possibly because decisions about educational policy seem to be ditched or reversed every few years.

"The problem is that it (the curriculum) is seen as a panacea for all social ills," Kevin Rooney, a social science teacher at Queens' School in Hertfordshire, said. "More and more it is used as an instrument to fulfil social demands and we are denied any freedom to teach how we see fit."

The recent controversy over modern languages is a case in point. Our survey showed that 41 per cent of teachers believed they should be mandatory until 16. This was the case until 2000, when the Labour Government decided foreign languages would be compulsory only to 14. But now less than half of students take up the offer of a foreign language course "entitlement", that decision is being seriously reviewed.

Lord Dearing has been brought in to report on the state of secondary languages as ministers question their policy change. "We broadly support bringing back languages," said Bill Musk of the Association of Language Learning. "There has been a continuing decline and fall-off, and that is a response to policy decisions made a few years ago. Unfortunately that cannot be reversed overnight."

Languages are by no means an exception. Sports have proved another political football, with support for team games in secondary schools ditched post-2000, only to be welcomed back into Labour's bosom amid concerns about child fitness. Only one in 10 children receive their recommended hour of exercise a day, according to a study in The Lancet.

The national curriculum was introduced in 1988 and consisted of a mere 10 subjects across all age ranges. ICT and modern languages were notable omissions.

It was the beginning of centralisation for teachers on a massive scale, with compulsory testing introduced at key stages 1 to 4, but staff who complained that it was an erosion of their professional freedom could hardly have foreseen the upheavals to come.

Further reforms followed in 1995 and Labour's election in 1997 heralded a brave new era for education policy - cementing the place of fringe subjects in the secondary curriculum (PSHE, ICT, citizenship and careers), and imposing rigorous tests and targets on primary school teachers, as part of their national literacy and numeracy strategies of 1998. Few of the targets have been reached since then and testing at key stage 1 has been dropped in response to criticism from teachers.

Author Philip Pullman dismissed the national literacy strategy as "half baked drivel". He told The TES: "It has nothing to do with a true, wise, open and rich response to literature."

But one success story has been the introduction of new technology, from smart boards to "serious games" such as Sonica which helps pupils learn Spanish. An overwhelming three-quarters of teachers believed their lessons had improved as a result - almost unknown for a Government IT initiative - showing that billions of pounds of funding had not been in vain.

"It is daunting when you first start out but it is really motivating," said Geoff Cumner-Price, headteacher at Oakthorpe primary in Palmers Green, north London. His staff regularly use smart boards and laptops. "The interactive white boards are a window on the world," he added. "We do science experiments virtually and we can invite authors to speak on screen.

Children today demand that level of sophistication."

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