It has been a wonderful term at school. It has been a long time since I have felt the consistent blessing of God on any enterprise that I have been involved in, but this term’s work, effort, growing confidence and progress of pupils and teaching staff have been, by any measure, a leap forward from where we were at the start of term. Not sure how easy this would be to measure, but there is a plethora of anecdotal evidence, in such things as Christmas cards, e-mails, reactions from parents, etc., as well as actual progress in learning and a growing proportion of lessons taught that are rated good or better.  This is really important to keep in mind at the moment and to give thanks for. Otherwise, the rattling around in the background of some unsettling things nationally might cause us to lose focus and forget that we are called to grow children and to teach them where they are in the locality and life of Milton Keynes. Don’t get me started on the importance of localism in the curriculum – it you are interested, you are best reading the relevant chapter in the Cambridge Primary Review – but we have to find a way to ensure that we do not become servants of the state, but real, loved men and women passing on the accumulated wisdom, understanding, commitment to hard work and skills to the children we have care for.

Because the masters of the universe are at it again….

Dec 19 saw a plethora of activity on the DfE website, and the attendant churning of badly informed newspapermen trying to second guess what would actually be said. What actually transpired was a selection of documents to do with the reviewing of the national curriculum (small n, small c) in England (big E), and its relationship to the breadth and depth and performance of curricula in some other countries. The documents are:

1. Report summarising responses to the DfE call for evidence issued in January 2011.

2. Report and recommendations of the NC Review Expert Panel.

3. Report on curriculum scope and structure in other countries and states.

4. Report on requirements for language, maths and science in ‘high-performing jurisdictions’ (i.e. countries whose students top the PISA league tables).

There are some interesting bits to these. Actually, given their extent, there are quite a lot of interesting bits. Summaries can be found in various places including the BBC (not a great summary, actually), but a couple of things stand out straightaway.

  • Of first importance is that the principle of breadth of curriculum seems to have been accepted by the Expert Panel, which is something that some of us have been pressing for as soon as we heard that the Primary Curriculum might be reduced to a core of English, maths, science and PE. The reason that this is important is that for years, OFSTED have been pointing out that the most effective schools have the broadest range of experience and curriculum for their children. It stands to any kind of reason, though the Expert Panel (read chapters 3 and 4 of the Framework document) do seem to be veering towards a highly prescriptive “core curriculum” and a much less (almost take-it-or-leave-it approach) prescriptive approach to the foundation subjects.
  • The principle of localism seems to be accepted as part of the existing curriculum (most schools think that a local emphasis is not there at all!) and the recommendations seem to maintain that. However, the devil will be in the detail of this.
  • The principle of greater freedom and less prescription has not only been accepted but the Expert Panel have had a go at trying to say what that might mean.
  • Some subjects – Design Technology, citizenship and ICT – may not make it out alive as “separate disciplines” (you can almost see Mr Gove nodding sagely in the background). The core subjects are rtecommended to remain as maths, science and English. Foundation subjects at KS1-2 will be geography, history, PE, music and art/design.
  • There is a proposal that KS2 is split into two separate Key Stages – presumably giving opportunity to the government to stick in some extra testing at the end of year 4?
  • Finally, and of significance to schools, the new curriculum is positioned for a start in September 2014, NOT September 2013 as had been trailed originally. This will have an impact on the way we as a school plan our curriculum review.

There is lots more. RE is not part of the review, so they have not said anything much about it – except a sideswipe at its exclusion from the English Baccalaureate at KS4. Assessment gets a going-over too, with the expectation that the current level descriptors will get an overhaul.

A lot of this is good, thoughtful, not overly politically-driven, research-based work. My real worry about this is twofold.

  1. Firstly, as some union leaders have also noticed, the Government (and thus the review) starts from a position of “we want to get England higher in the league tables because our schools are clearly rubbish”. This is a flawed approach (as I noted in an earlier post) and comes wholly from the “national economic-competitive” approach to education – essentially a Stalinist view of what education is for. Children hardly get a mention, and certainly not as individuals created in God’s image. A quote from the Cambridge Primary Review might help here: “As for primary education, what we must emphatically report is that primary schools appear to be under intense pressure but in good heart. They are highly valued by children and parents and in general are doing a good job. They do not neglect and have never neglected the 3Rs, and those at Westminster and in the media who regularly make this claim are either careless with the facts or knowingly fostering a calumny. The debates about starting ages, aims, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, standards, expertise and staffing remain open, as they should, but the condition of the system is sound. Indeed, as was noted by many witnesses, primary schools may be the one point of stability and positive values in a world where everything else is changing and uncertain. For many, schools are the centre that holds when things fall apart”. (R Alexander, Ed. [2009] Children, their World, their Education, Routledge, London, p.486)
  2. That the review has been conducted within the scope of the existing curriculum consensus. Indeed, the authors of all these reviews have been at pains to note that there would not be a huge departure from the way that all previous governments have approached the curriculum. But this does not look either to the future nor to the changing culture, nor to the brave people that are trying (as I wrote in my Whole Education conference report) to wrestle with the aptitudes and skills that children will need in the future. If we really take seriously the fact that the existing curricular arrangement is past its sell-by date (and a wealth of work has been done to suggest that it is), then here was the perfect opportunity to dismantle some of the preconceptions that have been with us since 1988 (or even before) and start afresh with what people really want. Reading the parental responses to the DfE national curriculum call for evidence is quite heartbreaking. We have swallowed wholesale the agenda of successive governments about testing, standards, “accountability” and targets. Yes, there is value in some of these, but there is no sense anywhere of the children and the affection that their country and government has for them. Contrast this with the affectionate and loving instruction given by Moses to the people of Israel about children:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up (Deuteronomy 6: 4-7).

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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