Time to go for a total shake-up

Michael Stoten

I felt the first stirrings of hope on the curriculum front for years when John Macintosh, a man intimately connected to the construction of the national curriculum, recently called for its deregulation in schools which could prove they had delivered the goods. This was because they were having trouble offering a broader diet - a second language, Latin and other delicacies in danger of being lost to future generations of children. As if they haven't been lost to those recently past.

Could it be, I wondered, that those of us who had opprobium dumped on us for daring to question the quality and quantity of the national curriculum Marks l and 2 might actually be proved right? Would the world finally understand that Sir Ron, far from being the saviour of the learning process, had failed to make the sufficient improvements demanded of him by concentrating on what the teaching unions said teachers could teach rather than what children should learn? And might the Secretary of State realise that when you try to buy peace as part of a political appeasement process you ultimately pay a high price? I don't suppose so for a minute, but I can hope.

In fact if we go back to the reasons for having a national curriculum we can be sure Mr Macintosh is at least partly right. It was intended, inter alia, to screw down those schools which couldn't distinguish a curriculum from the back of a cornflakes packet and, in that respect, it has worked. It has played a major part in dragging many poor schools to a passable standard. Indeed, some were so bad it could hardly fail. But it is minimalist. It is still regarded by too many schools as a tablet of stone beyond which they will not go.

Good schools don't need it. They never did and there are many, many of them who regard it as inadequate in content but completely over the top in process. Despite its complexity, schools still offer greater depth in what is laid down to be taught and greater breadth of subject matter.

The real problem is not just to do with the national curriculum, although it does play into the hands of those in the teacher unions who see their role as minimising the amount of teaching which is done. The way the national curriculum has been constructed lends some force to what they say because teachers are required to spend inordinate amounts of time planning and talking about the curriculum rather than teaching it. Nevertheless, the content has suffered too.

Despite this, good schools do offer much more than the national curriculum requires. They understand the need to offer a range of languages, they know that teaching Latin has huge value outside its own boundaries. They know that an unwillingness to teach separate sciences acts against the interests of brighter children, and they know that the existing content of national curriculum subjects is sometimes woefully lacking.

There is, though, a more sinister force at work, and that is our absurd Pay and Conditions legislation - another capitulation by the appeasers in government. Mr Macintosh is wrong when he says the national curriculum squeezes out other subjects. As I've observed, they can all be taught in the right environment. What squeezes out learning opportunities far more is the rigid interpretation of what constitutes the use of teachers time' and the amount of it.

No one wants to see teachers exploited, but how can any group of people who want to be regarded as professionals have any truck with a scheme which prescribes working hours like the most basic trade union? That has never been the stuff of the teaching force in general, but it is no surprise that the majority of failing schools work shorter hours - and deliver less in them - than successful schools.

So, on the one hand, we have a national curriculum which is too complex in its construction but lacking in content and, on the other, we have an abused, unprofessional system of conditions of service which makes matters worse.

A solution? I don't believe we have to deregulate the national curriculum, in respect of its content anyway, because all schools need to include its requirements. But anything which breaks the mould of non-productive prescription is to be welcomed. We need, first, to free teachers from much of the peripheral curriculum guff and, second, to deregulate national pay and conditions arrangements. They've been a millstone round our necks for years. As long as they are in place, the national curriculum will not have sufficient impact to bring about the necessary improvements in weak schools, where they are used as an obstacle to change.

Far too many good initiatives of this Government have fallen short of what they could achieve because of craven backtracking to buy peace. It's time to stop tinkering around at the margins of our education service and go for a wholesale shake-up. Deregulation of pay and conditions of service arrangements would form a useful part of that.

Michael Stoten is former chief education officer for Kensington and Chelsea.

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