What are consultations for?

Dominic Wyse

A national curriculum is in part a representation of what a society wants for the education of its citizens. This is why many people feel that wide consultation on its content and ethos is necessary.

The proposals for England’s 2014 national curriculum, finalised and published a few days ago, were subject to a national public consultation that ran from February to April 2013. The consultation attracted more than 17,000 responses from a mixture of organisations and individuals. The table below shows my analysis of the DFE’s report on the consultation outcomes, and the Government’s response to it. In particular, for each question in the consultation I have identified the majority response to the consultation questions.

It is worthwhile for Ministers to consider the value of carrying the educational community with them on a matter of such national significance. Yet, as can be seen, the majority of those who expressed a view gave negative responses to eight out of nine questions. In my view it is reasonable to conclude that in the light of this strikingly negative response the national curriculum is not fit for purpose and should be rewritten. This view is given added force by last year’s decision by most members of the national curriculum expert group to raise strong objections to many of the proposals.

Some cynically take the view that one should not expect public consultations to result in major change to proposals, and that such consultations are emblematic rather than pragmatic. But if this is the case it invalidates what should be the main purpose: to consult the widest possible range of people, address their response, and act even-handedly on this response.

As far as the specific problems with the national curriculum proposals are concerned, many people predicted these in their responses to the consultation. Indeed my own department, the Early Years and Primary Education department at the IOE convened a team to respond fully to the consultation. For example, we argued that a national debate on aims should precede the crafting of the content and urged that the process of learning be given more prominence. We also highlighted discontinuities between the primary curriculum and the stages that precede and follow it.

Analysis of government response to consultation on the national curriculum

Slide1Slide2 Slide3

If public consultation on national curricula and assessment is to be genuinely meaningful then the following need to be in place:

• Analysis of consultation responses should be carried out by an organisation independent of government and the civil service, for example a research organisation.
• A transparent methodology for analysis is needed, for example to account fairly (including through statistical weighting) for the views of organisations versus individual respondents; to clearly explain the approach to analysis of qualitative answers; and more generally to be an account that would satisfy researchers of the rigor of the analysis.
• Consultation should include a question on the overall desirability of proposed changes in addition to any questions about the fine detail of proposals.
• Clear majority views should be acted on in line with the opinion expressed. A principled way to deal with less clear-cut answers should be established.
• Responses, analyses, and government actions should be available online in order to ensure public trust, and to demonstrate democracy at work.

I hope that these principles will inform the consultation on assessment that is currently in progress, because the decisions made on assessment are likely to have a profound impact on the curriculum, pedagogy and children’s lives in school.

The best that has been thought and said?

Dominic Wyse

I welcome the government’s continued emphasis on primary and early years education. I also like the intention to reduce bureaucracy for teachers, and to give schools more control over the curriculum. However I am concerned that these intentions are in danger of not being met if the current proposals for the national curriculum are implemented.

Michael Gove has referred to Mathew Arnold’s well known phrase from 1869, “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. One of his most recent mentions of the phrase came in a letter in response to the report from the expert group on the national curriculum. In his letter Gove said,

I agree with your clear recommendation that we should define the aims of the curriculum. We need to set ambitious goals for our progress as a nation. And we need clear expectations for each subject. I expect those aims to embody our sense of ambition, a love of education for its own sake, respect for the best that has been thought and written, appreciation of human creativity and a determination to democratise knowledge by ensuring that as many children as possible can lay claim to a rich intellectual inheritance. (Letter from Michael Gove to Tim Oates chair of the expert panel)

In view of the lack of attention to oral language in the proposals for ‘English’ in the national curriculum the replacement of ‘said’, with ‘written’ in the quote above, was perhaps prophetic. However, the full context of Arnold’s long sentence stresses the importance of “turning a stream of fresh thought upon our stock notions and habit …” For example, our knowledge of the importance of children and adults being able to think across boundaries might lead to fresh thinking about the use of traditional subjects to organise the curriculum. Or our knowledge from research that the national curriculum in England has repeatedly been seen by teachers as too content laden might lead to fresh thinking about the extensive list of topics proposed for the teaching of history at key stage 2, and the appendices of grammar and spelling proposed for English.

The quote above is indicative of other problems with the proposals. It is regrettable that appropriate aims for the curriculum were not consulted on and agreed prior to building programmes of study. The negative consequences of a mismatch between aims and programmes of study are well understood. As John White argued, on the basis of his finding that most national curriculum subjects had an intra-subject emphasis, “Schools’ first duty is not in the preparation of [subject] specialists, but with providing a sound general education in line with subject-transcending aims” (White, 2005, p. 127).

The statements on aims in the proposed national curriculum prompt too many questions: for example, where is the evidence, rather than assertion, that the “core knowledge” presented in the proposals is what is needed to be “educated citizens”? Who should decide, and who has decided, what is “the best that has been thought and said” in the proposals? Particularly problematic is the suggestion that the proposed curriculum “helps engender an appreciation of human creativity” when no definition is given of how this is interpreted in the curriculum, and attention to creativity in most subjects is negligible as measured, for example, by the lack of explicit use of the terms creative and creativity. Two of the welcome elements of the New Labour national curriculum of 2009 were, a) the more frequent requirement for creativity that required pupils to engage in active forms of creativity (including making and composing), and b) the use of areas of learning rather than traditional subjects to structure the curriculum, a feature which provided a better match with the Early Years Foundation Stage.

The stark disparity between the proposed programmes of study at primary level and key stage three level, particularly in relation to content and structure (for example for the subject English), is a clear example of the inappropriate model of development that appears to have been applied to the structure of the programmes of study. Children at the primary phase should not have their education unduly restricted to the learning of factual knowledge and key skills at the expense of development of their motivation, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and application through hands-on experience. I recognise the vital importance of key skills and knowledge when set in an appropriate curriculum context, but am concerned about what appears to be an inappropriate ‘secondary school readiness’ model of development.

The structure of core and foundation subjects is different from the structure in the Early Years Foundation Stage. This is unfortunate as close alignment between the two phases, for example using a through-curriculum like Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, is likely to lead to better teaching and learning. The importance of links made across subject areas in relation to pupils’ thinking and in teaching is not addressed. The reason for continuing designation of core and foundation subjects is not explained, something that the Cambridge Primary Review was concerned about (Alexander, 2010).

The treatment of different subjects in the proposals is unbalanced. For example, in relation to the teaching of English, language and literacy, the inclusion of very lengthy appendices of spelling and grammar knowledge to be learned is not supported by research evidence of effective teaching and learning, and the inclusion of such appendices is not a feature of any of the other curriculum subjects in the proposals. The wealth of research into literacy teaching and learning shows that transcription elements of writing such as spelling and grammar are important but their emphasis by teachers must be very carefully balanced to ensure that the communication of meaning remains central to the teaching and learning. The increased emphasis that the appendices represent risks these areas being inappropriately magnified resulting in less than optimal learning.

In short, the proposed national curriculum is not appropriate and needs to be substantially rewritten. I am conscious that there may be an understandable response to this idea that could be described as ‘policy change fatigue’. However, curriculum development that is genuinely owned by schools has positive energy and passionate commitment behind it rather than the often depressing effect of government prescription.

Refs: 

Alexander, R. (ed) (2010) Children, their World, their Education: Final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review. London: Routledge.

White, J. (2005) The Curriculum and the Child: The Selected Works of John White. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

A right is not a right unless you know about it: why we must defend citizenship education

Hugh Starkey

Despite rumours of its untimely demise, citizenship education in England is alive and kicking. Following a rather lukewarm endorsement in the report of the expert panel in December 2011, last month’s new national curriculum Framework document for consultation retains citizenship as a subject at key stages 3 and 4 but with a very much reduced programme of study.

Democratic Life, the coordinating group for organisations associated with citizenship education, including the Association for Citizenship TeachingCitizenship Foundation and Amnesty International, considers this as something of a moral victory. But is it?

In England’s current national curriculum Citizenship is a statutory subject with a brief but carefully constructed Programme of Study for each of the four key stages. At Key Stage 3 the key concepts are: Democracy and Justice; Rights and Responsibilities; Identities and Diversity: living together in the UK, and the new programme of study contains the vestiges of these themes. “Pupils should be taught about … how the political system of the United Kingdom has developed as a democracy”. The justice system includes “the role of the police, and how courts and tribunals work”. An overarching aim is developing understanding of “the rights and responsibilities of [UK] citizens”. At Key stage 4 pupils should be taught about: “diverse national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom and the need for mutual respect and understanding”.

This may feel like a diluted version. But in practice, the national curriculum may have relatively little influence on what happens in schools. The most recent Ofsted report,  Citizenship established? Citizenship in schools 2006/9 noted that more than 10% of schools visited “had done little or nothing to implement citizenship, a National Curriculum requirement that has now been in place for seven years” (p5). Clearly the schools felt that they had other priorities and that the national curriculum would not be the only factor determining their arrangements.

The NFER’s longitudinal study of citizenship education in schools found in 2009 that less than half of schools had a dedicated time slot and less than half had specialist teachers. In other words, whatever curriculum advice schools get, only a minority are able to commit to best practice for citizenship education even when it is a statutory obligation.

However, the national curriculum has great symbolic importance. It is the public and explicit statement of the knowledge, skills and dispositions that are deemed essential to transmit as embodying a cultural heritage as well as preparing for the future. It may, in practice, have relatively little impact on the priorities of schools. It gives expression to the essential elements of knowledge, skills and understandings that the current generation wishes to see transmitted to the next. It provides an opportunity for political leadership in standard-setting.

One of the first actions of the Conservative-led Coalition Government on 11 May 2010 was to sign a formal Recommendation supporting the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education. The ministers of education collectively agreed to recommend to their governments that: “Member states should include education for democratic citizenship and human rights education in the curricula for formal education at pre-primary, primary and secondary school level”. This commitment is barely visible in the new programme of study, suggesting that an opportunity to emphasise the importance of democracy and human rights for our diverse society has been missed.

The new proposed programme of study for citizenship alludes, rather quaintly, to “the precious liberties enjoyed by the citizens of the United Kingdom”. These liberties or freedoms are guaranteed by the UK’s commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. But these “precious liberties” are at risk if citizens do not know that they are entitlements in international law and that people everywhere struggle for them. A right is not a right unless you know about it.

The debate on citizenship education in multicultural societies comes to IOE on Monday 11 March 2013 with the visit of Professor James A. Banks, Kerry and Linda Killinger Endowed Chair in Diversity Studies and Director Center for Multicultural Education, University of Washington, Seattle. Invited by the International Centre for Education and Democratic Citizenship (ICEDC), he will launch his monumental SAGE Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education in presence of a distinguished panel of contributors to this four volume work. This will be followed by an open public lecture in the series sponsored by the Faculty of Children and Learning on the subject: Diversity and Citizenship Education in Global Times.

The National Curriculum: what’s the point of it all?

 Michael J Reiss and John White

After Michael Gove’s announcement last week that English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) have been abandoned and that GCSEs will carry on, some might assume that the debate about the school curriculum has, temporarily at least, gone away. This is not the case. On the same day that the Secretary of State announced his “climb down”, the DFE published its draft National Curriculum.

There is much one could say about these documents. Here, though, we focus on just one issue – the dismal lack of attention paid to the aims of the National Curriculum. In the 221 page document on the draft programmes of study for KS1-3 (PDF), each subject has its own specific aims but here is all that is said about the overarching aims of the National Curriculum:

3.1 The National Curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

3.2 The National Curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the National Curriculum specifications. The National Curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons.

“The best that has been thought and said” is a phrase from Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book Culture and Anarchy and Arnold would have recognised much that is in the new draft curriculum. The division into a litany of separate subjects – most of which were familiar to Arnold – shows how subjects remain the starting point for curriculum development, with the overarching aims tagged on as an afterthought.

But there is another way. After all, why should one start with subjects? Isn’t it not only more logical but also more sensible to start with the aims of schooling and from them derive a curriculum?

This is the approach the two of us have taken with our new book An Aims-based Curriculum – The Significance of Human Flourishing for Schools, published this week. We begin with overarching aims that will equip each learner to lead a personally fulfilling life and help others do so too. From these, we derive more specific aims covering the personal qualities, skills and understanding needed for a life of personal, civic and vocational well-being. The second half of the book, on political realities of implementation, takes this process of deriving aims further. Some of its detailed aims, but by no means all, overlap with conventional curriculum objectives. We also look at the role of the state in curriculum decisions, as well as the implications of the book’s central argument that aims should be the starting point for student choice, school ethos, assessment, inspection and teacher education.

Some might think that there is no need to bother with such considerations. Teachers can just get on and teach their subjects. In our view this is a deeply mistaken view. Thankfully, many 5-16 year-olds enjoy their schooling and learn well. But many don’t – not least because much of what they are presented with seems pointless; it doesn’t connect with them as they trudge from one subject class to another. We argue that by starting with aims, schools can have a curriculum that will inspire learning and provide a stronger basis for future life than is typically provided by a subject-based curriculum.

An Aims-based Curriculum – The Significance of Human Flourishing for Schools, is published by IOE Press on 15 February 2013. If you would like an invitation to a seminar at the IOE on 30 April at which the book’s argument will be debated, please e-mail abc@ioe.ac.uk.

The end of History? Let’s make sure it’s not

Chris Husbands

I should begin by setting out my stall. I graduated with a history degree. The first thing I did with it was to complete a PhD on Seventeenth Century demographic and economic structures. The next was to teach history in comprehensive schools. I was devoted to my subject and worked hard to encourage pupils – many of whom thought that history had nothing to tell them – to learn about the past and to comprehend what it had to do with their own lives.

I have written history textbooks and books on how to teach history, and have examined the subject at A-level. I think history is incredibly important: I believe that an understanding of history is an integral part of every young person’s general education, and that it does not make sense for anyone to stop studying history at 14. One of the delights of my job as IOE Director is that I get to work with fantastic teachers who excite, stimulate and enthuse their pupils. Ofsted agrees with my view of history teaching: its evidence shows that history is one of the best-taught subjects in the school curriculum.

It’s from this perspective that I read the Government’s draft national curriculum for history, and I have two basic questions: is it good history, and will it promote good learning?  One of the fundamental problems which history poses for the school curriculum is that there is just too much of it. That means that any curriculum has to make a selection, and that selection has to be made on the basis of some coherent set of principles. If not, history, as the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay observed, is “just one damned thing after another”.

The draft national curriculum is not short on things: once primary children have been introduced to the concept of the nation at five, they will be treated to an introduction to classical civilisation and then a strong chronological narrative taking them through the Heptarchy (look it up), and the Middle Ages (including “the Black Death and chivalry”), ending their primary career by encountering the Glorious Revolution.

Secondary pupils’ history career will begin with General Wolfe at Quebec, and will move both through the British Imperial past – the Indian Mutiny, the Great Game, Gandhi – and the economic and political history of Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, up to the election of, but not, it seems, the government led by, Margaret Thatcher. In the House of Commons, the Secretary of State commended a history curriculum which would place the inspirational stories of heroes and heroines at its core.

Is this good history? Few appear to think so. The Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, Sir Richard Evans, wrote in the Financial Times that it could portend the end of good history teaching in schools. History teachers, including the Historical Association, have been vehement about the proposals’ shortcomings.

The word history carries two distinct meanings: from the Greek work ἱστορία, literally an inquiry, and the French word l’histoire, which is, of course, a story. History as an academic discipline is both a story, and a mode of inquiry. The national curriculum draft realises this in the preamble to Key Stage 3, but it separates historians’ ways of working absolutely from the narrative, and the Key Stage 2 programme of study emphasises story at the expense of inquiry: it is chronicle rather than history.

In a powerful speech to the Social Market Foundation, the Secretary of State cited the influential work of the American cultural critic E D Hirsch in his defence. Hirsch emphasises the importance of a “core knowledge” curriculum, setting out – often in great detail – year by year slabs of knowledge to be taught to children. But Hirsch’s model, and its English imitators are incurious about two things: first, about child development, and the ability of children to master complex ideas at different ages, and secondly about the relationship between “knowledge” and “understanding”.

Knowledge is of fundamental importance – and most curricula that play it down are not very good. But understanding matters just as much. I may be wrong, but I find it difficult to believe that a seven-year-old can make much sense of the Heptarchy, or an 11-year-old the issues at stake in the Glorious Revolution. We can – and history teachers do – do much better than that.

Knowledge does not exist on the Internet. It only exists in the head

David Lambert

As a geographer, I find it interesting that it is politicians and thinkers on “the right” who appear to speak for knowledge in schools. In fact, geography tends to do well under Conservative governments. However, for me, the question of what has happened to the idea of education in recent years is much more important, a question that transcends party politics.

Although the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching frequently mentions “core knowledge” as the substance of an enduring national curriculum, it does so in a way that is broadly based. It is the essential knowledge, concepts and understanding of school subjects, it says; teachers should know “how to convey knowledge effectively and how to unlock understanding” (para 4.8). However, it is clear how influential ED Hirsch has been in establishing “core knowledge” in the contemporary education lexicon. This is especially so now that Civitas has published its curriculum and its Years 1 and 2 books on “what your child needs to know”. It is no secret that Michael Gove, the education secretary, is a Hirsch fan.

I first came across the idea in a book shop in Boulder, Colorado – in 1992. A whole section was dedicated to the series of books on “what your child needs to know”. It seemed to be pandering to parental angst about the failure of schools to teach properly and their need to top up the experience to ensure educational advancement for their children. This appeared to be the main attraction of “core knowledge”:  as a silver-bullet solution to a deep-seated deficit model of state education.

I read more about it. Hirsch’s 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, describes a beguiling idea, with more to it than at first meets the eye. It makes sense that children need access to their national culture. Schools should teach a curriculum that takes children beyond what they already know and experience in their day to day lives.

As a geographer, I welcome the “knowledge turn” in schools. The story of the national curriculum since its introduction has been one of slimming down and reduction. Even if children experience lessons called geography, there are question marks about what makes it geographical.

What has replaced rigorous curriculum thinking (addressing the question of what we shall teach children) is the pedagogic adventure, wrapped up in some notion of “thinking skills” or “learning to learn”. I think it a wonder that children tolerate this at all.

However, what fuels the current core knowledge drive from government – at least in my subject – are questions such as: “Do 14-year-olds know the countries of Africa?” And statements like: “Children at 11 years old should know the rivers of England”. This is a shame, because it is mis-reads what Hirsch is saying. Thus, when I was told the rivers statement, all I could think of in reply was: “what, all of them?” It was meant as a light joke – but my serious point was: how many of the rivers of England would constitute a pass mark? Even more seriously: what do we mean by “know”?

Hirsch is brazen – and interesting – about this. Superficial core knowledge will do. It is almost as if Thames or Trent or Severn are simply words, to be used, more or less appropriately. The less you can do this with reasonable proficiency the less culturally literate you are – and the less enabled you are to converse, think and develop deeper, conceptual knowledge about … flood plains, electricity generation, transport, sewage disposal and so on.

My subject has a massive amount of potential “core knowledge” in this sense – every place name, feature, or wind pattern on Earth. We don’t need to know it all, but we do need to know some. It is embarrassing how little of this knowledge many children and adults seem able to draw on.

But perhaps core knowledge in the Hirschian sense holds less promise than its supporters allow. Like many ideas in education it gets over-invested in; we end up relying too heavily on it. I worry in particular about those lists!

I hope we can accept that geography (along with all subjects, surely) has its extensive facts. I hope we can hold this thought alongside the notion that our main priority in schools is to develop intensive deep knowledge (you may prefer “understanding”). I hope we can see that one feeds the other and that we need to teach them together. Core knowledge only becomes a problem if we marginalise it or ignore it as somehow low level or beneath us.

Geographers know what I am saying. “We can always look it up in at atlas” will not do, not if we want autonomous thinkers who know when they are being tricked. Knowledge does not exist in atlases or the internet. Knowledge only exists in the head.

The primary English curriculum: command of language or language of command?

Dominic Wyse

Primary children should develop a “love of literature through widespread reading for enjoyment”, according to the Government’s proposed new English curriculum. I couldn’t agree more. An early introduction to the wonderful range of children’s books will enrich their lives forever. Children who love to read and relish a wide range of texts are more likely to succeed at school and enjoy their time there. As the Programme of Study says: “for pupils, understanding language provides access to the whole curriculum.”

But is the proposals’ encouraging use of the words love and enjoyment mere rhetoric or does it signify a rich seam weaving its way naturally throughout the Programme of Study? Unfortunately not the latter, because at every turn pleasure, love, and meaning appear to be secondary to the mechanics of phonics, spelling and grammar.

This over-emphasis on mechanics fails to reflect advances in research and scholarship over the last 25 years. For example, we know that phonics teaching is an important part of helping children learn to read. But we also know that too much phonics of the wrong kind can have a negative effect by narrowing the curriculum and by risking a lack of attention to other important parts of learning to read. The decontextualised phonics programme set out in the Programme of Study is not the only effective way to teach phonics. Research has shown that learning about the alphabetic code is effective when set in the context of whole texts (such as stories, poems, and songs: Peterborough headteacher Christine Parker and I have shown ways to do this in our new handbook).

Grammar, too, is better learned in context, so that it supports children’s use of language — for example teaching children to craft their use of language in relation to the intended audience for their writing — rather than through learning terms such as “subordinate clause”. Have we not learned anything from 10 years of explicit grammar teaching in the National Literacy Strategy, and its failure significantly to improve primary pupils’ writing?

Importantly, any new curriculum needs to take account of the real world that 21st century children are living in and recognise the value that children’s languages, dialects and vernacular bring to the classroom. Multi-vernacularism is the daily reality for all pupils and teachers in England. In urban and rural settings pupils speak, hear, and engage with accents, dialects and multiple languages.

Linguistic misunderstanding is also seen in the absence of talk in the draft Programme of Study. Following the hard fought battles to have talk as an explicit part of the national curriculum the limp exhortations for pupils to “discuss what they are learning and to develop their wider skills in spoken language” is simply not enough. Careful re-drafting of the curriculum for language will require clear understanding of the difference between talk as part of pedagogy (e.g. dialogic teaching), and elements of pupils’ talk that can be enhanced through direct teaching.

I would argue that this Programme of Study needs a complete rewrite, guided by the following principles:

  • It should be informed by a coherent interdisciplinary research perspective. Part of this requires a foundation in the daily reality of the many types of English (and other languages) children use.
  • Developing pupils’ motivation for learning should be an explicit element throughout. Opportunities for pupils to choose texts to read and write is a vital part of this.
  • Expressing meaning and interpreting meaning should be the driving forces of the Programme of Study. This means that comprehension and composition should come first and foremost in any relevant sections.
  • The teaching of mechanics such as phonics and spelling should be closely related to comprehension and composition, not excessively decontextualised.
  • The “subject” should be titled Language, not English, as it is in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to recognise its breadth. It should also be part of a single developmental integrated curriculum from the early years through to the end of schooling.

For more on multi-vernacularism and other issues raised see Wyse, D. (Ed.) (2011). Literacy Teaching and Education: SAGE Library of Educational Thought and Practice. London: Sage.

How teachers can open up the promise of the digital playground

Rose Luckin

While the debate raged this week around the draft primary national curriculum Programmes of Study for English, maths and science, another part of the government’s plans attracted less notice. Ministers have decided to disapply the duty on maintained schools to teach the existing information and communication technology (ICT) Programmes of Study and associated Attainment Targets and assessment arrangements.

There is good news here: First, teachers will have the flexibility to decide what is best for their pupils in ICT and computer science, and to demonstrate what works. Second, ICT is now acknowledged to be an important subject that should be taught to all pupils and that will be part of the national curriculum.

Admittedly this good news has the potential for a bitter aftertaste if the experience of the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review is anything to go by. But one has to hope that the new statutory Programmes of Study to be introduced from September 2014 will reflect the views of the industry experts, IT organisations and the teaching profession with whom the government has pledged to work closely.

Ian Livingstone, who co-authored the Next Gen report that Mr Gove showered with praise when he announced his dream of a new approach to ICT in schools back in January, has welcomed the government’s announcement and stated that “the Government should set out a vision for Computer Science so that every child learns the concepts and principles of Information Technology and Computer Science from primary school age onwards…”

Initially however we will have to build a vision for computer science where every teacher learns the concepts and principles of computational thinking, so that they can open up the promise of the digital playground to those they teach. Emphasis has been placed upon making sure that ICT and computer science teachers have the specialist skills and knowledge to teach their subject, and this is an important first step.

There is however, more, much more, that can be done if we really empower all teachers with clear computational thinking skills. These skills will give them the confidence and expertise to help their students to get the best from their increasingly sophisticated digital infrastructure. More importantly, it will give teachers and learners the ability to appropriate the power of technology and precipitate the revolution in our education system that is long overdue.

The multiplication of Massachusetts and the chemistry of Canada

Chris Husbands

It is probably an apocryphal story. George Bernard Shaw was propositioned by Isadora Duncan, who suggested that she and Shaw should have a child together. “Think of it!” said the acclaimed dancer, “With your brains and my body, what a wonder it would be.” Shaw thought for a moment and replied, Yes, but what if it had my body and your brains?”

The story comes to mind in reading the web statement on the government’s proposals for the new primary national curriculum, which tells us that the proposals on algebra are consistent with “the high-performing education jurisdictions of Singapore and Hong Kong”, the focus on times tables draws on the “high-performing jurisdiction of Massachusetts” and the science curriculum is “similar to the approach taken in Alberta and Massachusetts”. 

Unfortunately, despite this whistlestop tour, the draft programmes of study so far developed do not include geography, but the message is clear: different countries have been used as models to benchmark different parts of the curriculum. With so broad an approach to “learning from the best”, surely the results will be exceptional.

In fact, the mechanics of policy borrowing are just as complex as George Bernard Shaw feared the workings of genetics might be. There is attraction in believing that if a practice works somewhere,  it will work anywhere and that the task of curriculum construction is a matter of taking what is done somewhere else and applying it in a different jurisdiction.

If that were the case, education systems would be more alike than they are. In fact, patterns of performance are more difficult to fathom. There are education systems which are higher performing than others:  the Pacific Rim countries score highly on mathematics and science, as does the northern European jurisdiction of Finland. But Singapore (retaining selective schools) is quite different from Finland (wholly comprehensive), and the curriculum is quite different in Korea (high performing and highly centralised) by comparison with Canada (high performing and decentralized). 

Why this should be the case is a matter of fierce debate. Of course, the task of learning mathematics is as culturally invariable as any subject could be, but the context in which it is learnt is not:  the role that mathematics and science play in different cultures varies hugely. The assumptions made about what “teaching” involves vary enormously.   Moreover, the variation in performance between countries, on PISA evidence, is not in the levels of performance of the best performing children but on the distribution of weaker performance: put differently, equity matters a great deal in education system performance.  And this is why it may be more difficult to bolt together the algebra of Singapore, the multiplication of Massachusetts and the science of Alberta.

The lessons of educational improvement are hard ones. As the American scholar – and now chancellor of the Chicago public school system – Charles Payne bemoans in his most recent book “so much reform, so little change”. Ben Levin, the hugely influential Canadian academic – and former secretary for education in rapidly improving Ontario – observes in How to Change 5000 Schools, “teaching and learning practices [are] far ahead of curriculum as a means of improving student outcomes”. No curriculum, really, exists on a piece of paper, but in the day to day challenge of classrooms.

Proposed primary curriculum: what about the pupils?

Andrew Pollard

Education Secretary Michael Gove and Schools Minister Nick Gibb have finally begun to show their hand on the National Curriculum Review – at least for primary education. This sector has been well prepared for development by two substantial reports — the Rose Review, commissioned by the previous government, and the Cambridge Primary Review, funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. And in the past eighteen months a very large number of teachers, parents and other stakeholders have offered advice to the Department for Education.  The report of an Expert Panel, of which I was a member, drew on this background in making its proposals. However, it is far from clear that these sources have influenced the proposals published yesterday.

The voice that has really counted from beginning to the end has been that of an American educator, ED Hirsch. In his early work, Hirsch developed the view that reading comprehension requires both decoding skills and background cultural knowledge. His influential 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, appended long lists of facts and tapped a strong current of concern about US education. It was then extended to provide a Core Knowledge Sequence of year-on-year prescriptions for each subject pre-school to Grade 8 (age 13-14).

When I first met Nick Gibb, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence was open on his desk, heavily stickered with Post-It notes.  Michael Gove’s instructions to Tim Oates, chair of the Expert Panel, were to trawl the curricula of the world’s high performing countries, to collect core knowledge, and put it in the right order. Then, he believed, we’d have a national curriculum to restore our economic fortunes and provide new opportunities for all.

Why Mary James, Dylan Wiliam and I were appointed to the Expert Panel remains something of a mystery, for we were hardly likely to accede to this crude design for curricular reform.  For my own part, I would not deny that subject knowledge is important nor demur from sustained efforts to consider how it should be most appropriately represented in a programme of study. And of course, the idea sounds wonderful – yes, let’s sort out, once and for all, when spelling of particular words will be mastered, and the use of apostrophes, and the subjunctive, and so on. So this approach is likely to be very attractive to the public.

But the approach is fatally flawed without parallel consideration of the needs of learners. Primary teachers consider the overall experiences of each child, and try to provide a broad and balanced curriculum as is required by law. The skill and expertise of the teacher lies in building on each pupil’s existing understanding and capabilities, and in matching tasks to extend attainment. To do these things, they need scope to exercise professional judgement.

However, on the basis of the new National Curriculum proposals, they are to be faced by extremely detailed year-on-year specifications in mathematics, science and most of English. This is to be complemented by punitive inspection arrangements and tough new tests at 11. The new curriculum will preserve statutory breadth, we are told but, whilst teaching of a foreign language is to be added, provision for the arts, humanities and physical education is uncertain at this point. The constraining effects on the primary curriculum as a whole are likely to be profound and the preservation of breadth, balance and quality of experience will test even the most committed of teachers.

In an attempt to head off such constraints and preserve opportunities for teachers to exercise judgement, the Expert Panel recommended the organisation of programmes of study on a two year basis. But it is Hirsch’s very detailed year-on-year model that has prevailed. This was one of the main issues which caused the Expert Panel as a whole to withdraw from the development of programmes of study, leaving only Tim Oates to work with Ministers and the DfE teams. In the interests of transparency, DfE should identify those who have been particularly influential in preparing the draft programmes of study. 

Certainly there are ameliorative provisions – for instance, the “freedoms” of the School Curriculum permit schools to vary the placement of content within each key stage, or to bring forward material to an earlier key stage. The latter may help teachers to satisfy the needs of high attainers, but there is no comparable provision for those who find learning particularly difficult. Further thinking is absolutely essential on how the needs of those who fall behind cumulatively, year on year, will be met.

Expectations should be high, but if targets are unreasonable they will simply generate a widespread sense of failure. It is essential therefore that the draft Programmes of Study are now subjected to scrutiny, moderation and refinement by teachers, researchers and others so that expectations are appropriately pitched.  And the provisions for flexibility and for slower learners must be explored, tested and developed much further.  Tidying up “knowledge” is a desk exercise, but in the real world of classrooms the range of pupil needs is enormous.  These cannot be wished away.

Education must be seen as “the product of interaction between knowledge and individual development” (Expert Panel report, p11).  Curriculum structures must enable teachers to use their expertise to manage this interaction beneficially.  This is the real lesson of international evidence.