What is going to happen to education if the current government loses the election in 2015?
Are we going to return to the policies of New Labour with its “education, education, education” mantra that really meant “tests, tests, tests”? Or if the Tories win outright, are we going to have a return of grammar schools? Or have they decided that they won’t need to push the selection agenda because in reality, we already have a return to the two-tiered system of education by the enforced development of the Academies programme?
What is going to happen to the National Curriculum? Is it going to be altered again when Labour return to power and disagree with the compulsory study of Byron, Pope and Shelley? Or will an incoming government realise that the education profession has had too much political meddling and leave it alone in its hopelessly inappropriate state, purely because they haven’t the nerve to make yet more sweeping changes?
This is a real problem that can be eradicated with one simple change: put education policy back where it belongs – in the hands of educationalists.
Simple: yet our politicians still feel as though they know the answers to the education of our young people, largely determined by what worked for them over a quarter of a century ago – before computers, before the Internet, before the globalisation of our world and the opportunities to learn from others further away than our next-door neighbours.
The Secretary of State for Education announced draft proposals for the National Curriculum for Primary Schools, outlining in considerable detail what should be taught in English, Maths and Science – this, despite the fact that he was insistent that he wanted teachers to have more freedom to teach what they wanted, what they thought was appropriate for their children and not what politicians thought was the right thing to do.
Forty plus pages later, and we have a national curriculum that once more dictates what should be taught in each year, right down to a list of words that should be known and understood by all. (Interesting that they have included the word ‘Europe’ and ‘European’ – no sign of the word ‘federalism’ though).
The proposed National Curriculum for English resembles another government document from a decade ago; a straitjacket of prescription that came in the form of a bright yellow and white hard-backed file, which allegedly gave certain headteachers the right to prevent many good and experienced teachers using their individuality, creativity and imagination to teach this all-important subject.
Obviously, within this 2012 document, there is more emphasis on synthetic phonics and the reciting of poetry but essentially, it looks horrendously similar to the Literacy Strategy that has been tried, over-tested and failed to produce lasting attainment and enjoyment of what can be the most wonderful subject to learn and teach.
Once more, despite the mantra of enabling teachers to have flexibility within the curriculum, the Secretary of State has produced a 37 page document, explaining precisely what should be taught in Science, with some glaring omissions that defy belief!
Gone is the scientific enquiry where children are encouraged to ask questions, and apparently gone too is any mention of drugs – legal and illegal; this despite the fact that a disproportionate amount of money is spent on reacting to the problems of drug abuse compared with the minimal amount of finances available for prevention. This smacks of false economy, as does the pitiful content relating to healthy eating which health professionals continually warn will be a complete drain on our country’s resources if it is left to escalate in the manner it has done over previous decades.
The counter-argument from the Department of Education is that drug education and work on obesity should be locally driven and not put in specifics in the National Curriculum, thereby allowing the all-important teacher flexibility that they talk about. However, what they fail to recognise is that there are thousands of teachers who have been trained to follow the prescription, and have been indoctrinated into thinking that if it is not in the manual, if it is not clearly stated in black and white, then they don’t have to teach it. This is not suggesting that these teachers are incapable of creating a curriculum themselves but they certainly need some help in re-awaking their creative juices.
Times tables to the magic number 144 are back in the maths curriculum despite the fact that mathematicians continue to explain that there is no point in being able to recite 8×7 is 56 if there is no mathematical comprehension of what this actually means!
However we should be grateful for some changes that the government are introducing. The SATs are on their last legs. Wonderful! However, this does not mean that the didactic teaching that accompanied these exams is disappearing too, and this is a real problem.
On the radio this morning, in discussing Gove’s next announcement about the scrapping of GCSEs, the expert rightly stated that it was the testing regime that drove the curriculum in secondary schools rather than the National Curriculum which was largely redundant. What he didn’t say was that this is not just a secondary school issue. For too many years it has been the testing which has driven the curriculum – not the needs of the pupils, not the frequently stated needs of society or even economics. How many times have we heard from organisations such as the CBI, the UK’s top business lobbying organisation, that young people are not equipped in essential interpersonal and intrapersonal skills – of communication, empathy, intuition, innovation, creativity, self-reliance, individuality, imagination?
And this has been happening in primary schools as well as secondary.
The important humanities and creative subjects have been washed away by the need to follow the road to the test. Children have been boosted in the core subjects at the expense of real learning; all done in the name of getting a standard that in some cases cannot be maintained without 1:1 support, thus making this so-called attainment meaningless.
The National Curriculum is meaningless, and only has ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ if it is following a course towards attainment apparently, and it is this prescription that will guide what our children are taught, and anything that is omitted or reduced to non-statutory will be lost, especially if schools and young people are going to be judged on a narrow interpretation of attainment rather than a more rounded educational achievement that includes the personal, social, spiritual, moral and cultural development of the whole child.
This week the first cohort of children were given a meaningless set of words to assess whether they had understood their phonics work. Why?
From September 2013, Year One will have to learn GPC words (grapheme-phoneme correspondences – try explaining that to a six year old!). Those who are unable to progress will “follow the curriculum for the Early Years Foundation Stage to develop their word reading, spelling and language skills”. Good – this shows some intelligence in ensuring children that have not yet met early learning goals are given appropriate work. Yet, this quote continues by stating, “However, these pupils should follow the Year One Programme of Study in terms of the books they listen to and discuss so that they develop their vocabulary and understanding of grammar.”
I wonder how many teachers have taught children who are confident in the use of exclamation marks and the use of the apostrophe when they can hardly spell their own name!
When the National Curriculum was introduced there were some who welcomed the concept. Too many children were not getting the basic entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum, and having some guidance on what should be taught could be seen as a positive move (if it had been devised by educationalists and not politicians or civil servants). However, the National Curriculum came with thousands of statements of attainment that could not be taught rigorously in the 190 days that children were in school. It was always unachievable.
And eventually it became a straitjacket which meant that any real learning that didn’t have a prescriptive learning outcome that was written down in a government document was largely ignored.
These new proposals do nothing to develop that broad and balanced curriculum, does nothing to support the entitlement to learning holistically and continues to narrow the learning experience with or without the tests at the end of it.
The primary and secondary curriculum will continue to be dictated by tests and rote learning, which do nothing to develop and stimulate the child of the 21st century.
It’s now time to do something that should have been done decades ago. As a profession, we have to say NO!
We have to press for what we believe in, and what our children and young people are saying to us. They want to be enlivened by education as much as educationalists want to impart this love of learning. We have to tell Mr Gove that this prescriptive National Curriculum will not work. Even three of the four ‘experts’ on his committee reviewing the National Curriculum have resigned in despondency at the minister’s total reluctance to listen to their views.
We may lose SATs and we may call GCSEs another new name, but the mundane and the rote learning is still there, as will be the teaching to the tests.
Return education to the educationalists, before we have yet another round of educational reform that is dictated by the ballot box rather than the classroom and the children within.
A footnote of exemplification
Child sits down to eat dinner having just sat a GCSE in History.
“The exam went really well – the right questions came up,” he said.
“So what were the right questions?” asked the parent.
“I can’t remember – I just know that it was what we had learned and therefore we could answer the question,” he replied.
So what precisely was the point of all that?