Gove’s New National Curriculum: Garden Path or Right Track?
The six-week-holiday is fast-approaching and us teachers have some holiday reading to do. The new draft National Curriculum is OUT THERE, published last Monday (8th July) to be scrutinised, and critically examined before it becomes officially carved in stone, for use in 2014.
I had a brief scan through the new document on Monday evening, anticipating that there would be an alarming amount of prescription, following the letters from academics, and general complaints that the knowledge aspect of the new curriculum was simply going to be TOO MUCH for our children to cope with. Somewhat surprised, therefore, was I to see that this is probably the LEAST prescriptive curriculum incarnation I have ever seen. However, it must be said, in this case, that the devil is in the LACK of detail. The predicted lists of things which must be covered by certain ages are certainly there. How this feat is to be accomplished is left (literally) grey. The children we teach are certainly going to be expected to know and be able to do more and sooner. On Monday 8th July, The Daily Telegraphpublished a handy subject-by-subject potted-guide.
The anticipated, academic, voices of dissent were, initially, a little reticent; now they are beginning to filter through. On Thursday, Hannah Richardson reported in an article for the BBC: …’some academics say “cramming” children with complex concepts “too soon” will not raise standards.’
Professor Terry Wrigley of Leeds Metropolitan University compared the government’s new national curriculum plans to be introduced in primary schools from 2014 with the requirements for study in top European performer, Finland, and high-ranking Singapore. He highlights how Finnish children do not begin to study simple fractions, such as halves and quarters, until they are at least seven.
The Department for Education said in a statement: “We make no apologies for having high expectations for our children. We believe they can achieve more and will not stand by and allow pupils to lose ground with their peers in countries across the world …”‘
Whilst Prof. Wrigley, at the time of writing, seems to be a lone academic voice, there will no doubt be others who will join him to express their opinions. He cites high-performing nations as evidence that the content of this new curriculum is simply too much, too soon. The argument is complex. In my opinion, it is awkward to try to apply ideas and values from other countries who have completely different ethics and cultures. In these countries, we don’t know how much input there is from the home and we don’t know how the work-ethic differs. The point is that, each nation must do what works for them. What works for us, arguably, remains to be seen. Maybe we haven’t discovered it yet.
Last Tuesday, I attended my six-year-old’s school for their annual ‘open evening’. The general purpose of this was to have an informal chat with her current teacher regarding progress throughout the year, look at her work for the year and meet her new (year 2) class teacher.
On perusal of my daughter’s books, I was somewhat surprised to see that her entire year’s Maths work, apparently, wasn’t sufficient to fill one slim A4 volume. What had been done looked very nice: lots of maths-based sheets with practical tasks such as cutting-out and colouring in; colourful teacher posted ink stamps saying things such as, ‘teacher assisted’, ‘verbal feedback given’ and ‘supply teacher work’; the odd constructive comment and ticks in purple pen. However, whichever way you viewed it, there wasn’t an awful lot of it. I resisted the urge to pass comment on this, so keen am I to avoid mertiting a ‘pushy parent’ label. Instead I said: “Are you happy with her progress?” “Oh, yes! Delighted!” was her teacher’s reply.
After more general chit-chat about my daughter’s progress, the conversation moved on to ‘teacher talk’ about the welcome and impending end of term. I told her teacher about the dreadful day I’d had dealing with the abysmal behaviour of the kids I work with. “I don’t know how you do it” he said, and went on to tell me about the dreadful experiences his sister has as a secondary school science teacher.
Now, my daughter can read and write fluently, at least phonetically. She cannot, however, tell the time or do fractions, very well…
But I know that she could.
And this, I suppose, is my whole point. It is not to ‘cram’ to teach kids at school what they are well-capable of knowing and learning. My child has been an education in herself to me, in this regard. She really is a ‘sponge’; I tell her something, she remembers it. I spend time working on something with her and it ‘sticks’. For example, she knows the plot and understands some language of Shakespeare’s plays. She’s fortunate, I know. She’s been to Stratford-upon-Avon, visited The Globe Theatre in London and has got simplified versions of Shakespeare’s plays, which she enjoys reading or having read to her. She had some prior knowledge of ‘The Great Fire of London’, when her class covered it as a topic. She told me recently, that, when her teacher asked questions on this subject, she usually knew the answer, “…and Mr. James asks some very strange questions!” she admitted, laughing.
I also teach English to secondary-aged pupils who are deemed to be ‘vulnerable and complex’. Last month, I took some of these pupils to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace as part of a topic on ‘Performance’. We’d studied The Globe Theatre, in context and looked at the history of it. More importantly, perhaps, we’d looked at extracts from certain plays and plot synopses.
I had been dreading this trip. I had seriously questioned what I was doing taking a group of potential delinquents to such a precious, historic place. En route to work on the M5 that morning, I had honestly considered continuing my journey south for hot dogs on the beach in Beer, Devon. At least I’d have been spared the shame of being headline news for allowing a bunch of unpredictable Brummie bruisers to trash Shakespeare’s childhood home.
Thankfully, my fears were totally unfounded. To my surprise and utter delight, the kids were completely and totally transfixed for the entire day. Paired-up and armed with clipboards and cameras, they took some wonderful pictures and made intelligent notes. They asked pertinent questions of the excellent staff, and even joined in with performances and songs in the yard outside. The sun literally shone on every aspect of the day.
The moments that really resonate, though, especially in light of the new curriculum and it’s fairly hefty Shakespearean requirement, happened in the preliminary exhibition, before we’d even entered the main house. A booming ‘RSC’ voice was reciting ‘The Seven Ages of Man’. “Miss, Miss!” shouted a year 7 girl. “It’s ‘All The World’s a Stage!’” A few minutes later a cackling female voice began, “When shall we three meet again…” “Oh, Miss! I know that!” one of my most damaged and disaffected year 6 pupils exclaimed immediately “…It’s Macbeth!” “Yes you do, don’t you?”, I thought.
Back, briefly, to the open evening at my daughter’s school. I went to see her new classroom for next year, and meet her (Y2) class teacher. “Is there much of a leap, academically from Y1 to Y2?” I heard myself asking, casually. “Oh no, don’t worry” the soft Scottish accent replied, “It’s more of a gentle slope upwards; she’ll find it all very smooth”. I smiled, rearranging my features to express something approaching relief. “Have you seen the new National Curriculum?” I asked, airily.
“Ah! I had it emailed to me last night, I haven’t read it yet”
In 2014, there may be a steeper climb approaching for both her and her students than she expects. Hopefully.
And this can only be a good thing. In order to gain a clear picture of what our children are capable of achieving, academically, we must teach them things! If we fail to give them the knowledge to build on, we are doing them a huge disservice. It is here that Michael Gove is right to make no apology for having high expectations. The students won’t always succeed at everything. There will be fences that they fall at along the way. Better, surely, to fall at the occasional fence than not be in the race at all.
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