My first reactions to the new national curriculum

Feb 10, 2013

Miles Berry

Thursday saw Mr Gove publish the draft of a new National Curriculum for English schools. Not all English schools, of course, which means that the ideal of ‘entitlement’ which underpinned the whole project from Kenneth Baker’s time has been lost somewhere in the drive to academies. Independent schools, academies and free schools have autonomy over their curriculum and thus can opt in to the proposals. Indeed, some progressive heads may see Gove’s work as so reactionary that the price of giving up local authority support no longer seems too high for the freedom to create a curriculum around a love of learning and the attitudes, skills and understanding appropriate to a third millennium, rather than 19th century, education. A cynic might think that this was part of some Machiavellian hidden agenda.

In the distant, final days of the Labour government, when publicly accountable bodies such as the QCDA and Becta would advise on such matters, Sir Jim Rose did an extensive review of the primary curriculum, consulting widely and proposing six broad areas of learning with ICT alongside literacy and numeracy at the core of the curriculum as ‘essential for learning and life’. I’ve posted a copy of the ICT proposals here. Most of us expected this to go through on the nod as as part of the parliamentary ‘wash up’. It didn’t; the Tories rejected it as lacking rigour and promised they’d produce a new version themselves. Almost three years on, on Thursday we got to see the fruit of their labours.

Gove, and former school minister Gibb, admit to being inspired by E D Hirsch’s writing on cultural literacy. Some of Hirsch’s work is really quite odd to the eyes of UK educators, consisting of long, long lists of quite isolated facts. In the UK, Civitas have produced something not dissimilar, although rather better organised. Thankfully, the Gove curriculum isn’t quite this bad, but he has focused, unashamedly, on the knowledge children should be expected to acquire, and there are a number of areas (notably history and science) where there’s perhaps a few too many facts and not enough understanding.

The National Curriculum Review Expert Panel were clear that the curriculum ought to be based on a clear and coherent statement of overarching aims, with more detailed aims for each subject. The new Framework starts by acknowledging that all schools, have to provide a broad and balanced curriculum which:

promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and

prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.

The curriculum produced by Gove and his advisors though has a further set of aims, specifically to

  • provide pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens.
  • introduce pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and help engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

Some of the language here is almost a direct quote from Matthew Arnold in the preface to Culture and Anarchy (1869), although Arnold goes on to write about

turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits

Something which might have been a useful addition to the aims of this document: education is about a transformed life, or even society, not merely an extensive knowledge.

I think it’s the focus on the past rather than the future where the principal difficulties lie with the new curriculum. We’re living in a time of ever accelerating change through technology, and whilst it is vital that our pupils have a firm foundation, drawing on ‘the best that has been thought and said’, in our own and other cultures, other things are needed too if schools really are to satisfy our legal obligations to prepare pupils “for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life”.

Reading through the new curriculum, I do wonder to what extent it will actually do this. Shouldn’t there be something here about inculcating a love of learning, of responsiveness to change, of developing the ability to work collaboratively, of tenacity, resilience, criticality and curiosity? Aren’t qualities like these going to be more important in these children’s future lives than knowledge of Our Island Story and ancient Greek?

Tim Oates and the rest of the Expert Panel went much further than the document published on Thursday, including such aims as

Satisfy future economic needs for individuals and for the workforce as a whole, including … confidence in acquiring new knowledge and skills; …

Support personal development and empowerment so that each pupil is able to develop as a healthy, balanced and self-confident individual and fulfil their educational potential;

Promote understanding of sustainability in the stewardship of resources locally, nationally and globally.

It’s interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that these have not been included in the curriculum published on Thursday.

Whetting our appetite for his new curriculum, Gove spoke at length on Tuesday about how important it is for pupils to know stuff, and, of course, he’s right, or at least partly right. If learning is about making connections, then there does need to be something for new ideas, new knowledge, to connect to. The educated person does have a wealth of knowledge on which they can draw. That said, all of us who can read and use the web have a wealth of knowledge on which we can draw, so I think we’ve got to move beyond merely knowing stuff.

Gove argued that without knowledge Google’s results are all ‘babble’:

“Unless you have knowledge – historical, cultural, scientific, mathematic – all you will find on Google is babble.”

Which is perhaps putting it a little strongly. What I think he’s failed to recognise is that the way we acquire and retain knowledge now is really quite different from how it was for him in his own school days, or indeed in Matthew Arnold’s time. Berners-Lee’s invention of the web outsources the connections – I’ve argued many times that learning is now (and perhaps always was) about exploring a landscape rather than following a journey. The locus of so much of my education has been libraries rather than classrooms, and for my trainees and their pupils, so much of what is learnt is outside of formal education, through exploring the links and recommendations. Similarly, remembering stuff, at least in detail, seems less necessary when clouds and devices can do that for us.

There does seems scant mention of technology as a tool to enhance, extend, enrich or support learning in the draft curriculum document: I believe deliberately so. It’s fine to say that the curriculum shouldn’t say how things should be taught, eg using technology to enhance learning, but rather should limit itself to specifying what should be taught, but I’m far from persuaded that this rule has been applied consistently (have a look at some of the maths, for example). In fact, there’s an almost anti-technological bias in much of this:

  • not mentioning any technology more advanced than books and pencils in English,
  • the emphasis on handwriting, but no mention of keyboard skills,
  • focussing on spelling, when my computer will check and correct that
  • lots of pencil and paper, formal methods arithmetic, when that’s been something computers have been pretty good at for a while now (see Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk for what we could be doing in maths if we used computers properly here), although, to be fair, the maths programme is the only place, other than the computing programme and fleeting mentions in science and D&T, where there’s any serious consideration given to the use of ICT
  • specifying sketchbooks but not digital photography in art and design
  • focussing foreign language work on translation, when Google and Bing FAMT gets better and better.
  • and, in general, as above, framing things in terms of knowledge factoids that have to be taught, when Google etc provides instant access to all this.

Knowledge matters, but wisdom and understanding matter more. The touchstone of my Purpos/Ed piece last year was RS Peters notion of what it means to be educated. For him, this was about how life is transformed by some degree of all round understanding and sensitivity. Perhaps this is the greatest flaw in Gove’s endeavour, that he’s focussed on specifying knowledge to be taught, rather than the understanding to be developed.

There are things here that I like though. For example:

I’m really pleased that the level descriptors have gone. The statutory attainment targets are now merely repeated statements that

By the end of each key stage, pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study.

This is what we teach. We use assessment to establish whether this is what has been learnt. Simples. I think this opens up some really exciting opportunities for a badge based approach, perhaps using LA/RBC instances of Mozilla’s Open Badge infrastructure, despite Henry Jenkins’ concerns.

Having been told that the policy focus has moved from inclusion to SEN/D, I’m glad to see that there’s a clear commitment to a more inclusive approach to inclusion in this document, setting out the need to set high expectations for all whilst recognising that we must strive to remove barriers for those learning English as an additional language or with special educational needs or disabilities.

I am, of course, delighted to see far more programming and computer science on the new computing programme of study, which replaces those for ICT. I’m very concerned that we’ve lost any mention of creativity in digital media at KS1 and KS2, and attention to safe and responsible use of technology at KS3. I’ll write more about the computing curriculum in another post [update: here].