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Top independent-school head: 'Is the education system ready for the rigour of the new national curriculum?'

Alice Phillips, president of the Girls’ Schools Association and headteacher of St Catherine’s in Surrey, writes:

The message of current education reform is clear: rigour is returning. I’m absolutely in favour of that. But we need rigorously educated teachers if the new rigorous curriculum is to fulfil its potential. Do we have enough of them?

Many of our brightest, most enthusiastic teachers have little or no grounding in English language or grammar – through no fault of their own – and are completely at sea with many aspects of proper usage.  Wide reading and a familiarity with formal expression and grammar work to a certain extent, but won’t help you in front of a class of 14-year-olds when you are tasked with delving into the mysteries of subordinate clauses. 

In my own school, we put in place an English grammar course for our Year 7 intake some years ago after identifying a cross-curricular need for this in native, modern and classical languages. It has paid huge dividends. In the process of introducing the course we quickly established that some of our younger teachers have not been taught English grammar in the 1990s and 2000s when they were at school themselves and, consequently, they feel less confident as they teach as relatively new learners themselves. 

I myself was only saved from exactly the same experience by my father who, in his retirement, prepared me for the "7th term" Oxbridge entrance exam with a robust understanding of grammar for the French and Latin papers which were part of the exam for prospective English undergraduates then. Indeed, at Oxford, it was sometimes the practice for English undergraduates of that period to be taken aside in their first year for ‘remedial grammar’ if they had not studied Latin at school. 

Some of our brightest English literature teachers are, frankly, unversed in much pre-20th century literature. And yet the new GCSE English curriculum guidelines – quite rightly in my opinion – call for a minimum of at least one play by Shakespeare, at least one 19th-century novel, a selection of poetry since 1789, including Romantic poetry, as well as fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards. How are we to bridge the confidence gap? I hasten to add that I believe that they are more than equal to these challenges. They just haven’t been tasked with them before. 

And, more than that, how are we to deliver the vision of breadth that is implicit in the new guidelines at the same time as enabling teachers to teach a broader range of texts with confidence? If you’re not already intimately acquainted with the tremendous breadth the 19th-century novel has to offer, in English and in translation – Jane Austen, Gustav Flaubert, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne and so on – the understandable default will be to bone up on two or three texts and stick to them. This is not at all in the spirit of the new curriculum, nor will it be permissible. Whilst, with the old GCSE, a teacher could stick determinedly to one or two staples, the new curriculum will change set text lists more regularly. This is a welcome return to variety, but are we supporting our teachers to be ready and is there time to get this right for the first generation of students?

If we are to teach really meaty literature with the real passion and confidence it warrants, and enjoy doing it, we will need English teachers who don’t just view Shakespeare as the only pre-1900 writer with whom they feel confident. Thank goodness there are some universities where English degree courses still consist of working sequentially from Chaucer to the present day. But do those graduates go into teaching in the droves of yesterday? Not necessarily. So what might entice them back to the classroom?

It’s an interesting conundrum and I can foresee similar problems with teaching the new so-called ‘big fat maths’ curriculum. While we undoubtedly have teachers who know the maths, there are not enough of them around to teach the extras. If you simply ‘do the math’ of the requirements for additional teaching time for this extended curriculum, then it is clear that there will be a shortage nationwide of appropriately qualified maths teachers. This can only mean that schools will be placing classes in front of student teachers for whom maths is not their degree subject, or even an allied subject. 

Teachers all over the country are signing up for hastily arranged training courses in the new curricula and burning the midnight oil to prepare themselves. That they strive to be prepared is good – and so typical of so many of the teachers I work alongside – but it is not enough. If a return to rigour is to be truly embraced, we must begin earlier and unashamedly promote teaching to school-age students as part of the active careers networks that operate throughout the UK. And for this, we’re going to need suitable communication materials from both the Department for Education and the Independent Schools Council. A government PR campaign aimed at 17- and 18-year-olds as they complete their Ucas forms would be a start, with clear pathways showing how they can enter Initial Teacher Training after completing their degree course.  

This is not a question of aptitude, but one of knowledge. We need subject-focused degree courses in the subjects in which we have gaps and that might perhaps deliver one module per year of educational theory with options to volunteer in local schools and gain first-hand classroom experience. This would serve to underpin a later conversion to the teaching profession after an earlier career direction of a different kind. 

I am also in favour of a reduction of university debt for graduates who qualify to teach and complete a minimum of three years’ teaching, with a complete waiver after 10 years in the profession.

Enhanced teacher-trainer qualifications and status for existing outstanding classroom practitioners could produce highly-skilled mentors for less-experienced staff.

Bridging the knowledge gap for a generation of teachers whose own education may not have included the breadth that the new curriculum espouses is our immediate task. Beyond that, we must ensure that future teacher training addresses subject knowledge as well as education theory. It’s a golden opportunity and I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Related stories:

Schools not ready for new national curriculum - August 2014

A resourceful approach to the new national curriculum - August 2014

 

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