Making sense of the noise…and building a better curriculum for the future.

I have been a bit quiet on the blogging front recently, in part because my time has been filled with some quite extraordinary school-based activity. Now that’s not just the usual business of school, busy every day clearly, and now with the examination season well under way, this morning we have over 600 children being put through their paces. That change in operational behaviour needs care and consideration to implement the short whole school exam season effectively.

The new business I am about is the whole scale review of our curriculum currently under way, brought about entirely through our own choice. Now the review is not just about the explicit set of classroom activities our teachers use to engage their pupils; we are including all of the other things we cause to make happen too, from homework, clubs, activities, trips, residentials and other opportunities.

Review does not mean whole root and branch reform of everything of course, because so much of what we do is effective, engaging, exciting and dare I say even fun. But I do suspect that our review is going to cause some more radical reorientation, because the removal of examination by bite-size does mean we have time to build and develop rather more carefully the reading, writing and investigative, skills of our pupils, so that they stand the test of terminal examination at the end of a 2, 3 or 4 year course. Let me explain further.

Currently, with a GCSE syllabus broken down into between 4 and 8 assessment events, with some resit opportunities for those modules’ controlled assessments which did not give high enough outcomes, there has been precious little time or need to build in deep reading and research activities. BBC GCSE bitesize and of course many other publishers, including the exam boards themselves, have produced umpteen examples of multiple choice assessments which learners have used to good effect to rehearse and improve their ability to respond under pressure. The examiners themselves have highlighted the very specific responses they are looking for in answers involving continuous prose, one way for Language, another way for Literature for example on the same extract. Successful learners have been able to quote this assessment mantra, understood the requirements to lay down with a trowel in like manner when answering questions on Shakespeare. It has been much less about the ‘book’ and much more about ‘pleasing the examiner’.

Put simply, short-termism has been the order of the day. If you can learn all that you need on Forces and Motion in 3 months, take an assessment on that knowledge and move-on, then there is neither time, space or need to build in activities that build more profound understanding and embed more permanently the subject skills and techniques required. But that comes to an end from this September for exam groups beneath Year 11, and it is quite clear that the long range intentions of those that manage UK exam factory plc. are to leverage similar change at A level too.

Exploring further the research evidence flowing out of Ofqual, OfSted, DfE, other national and international bodies, it’s clear that the England approach of National Curriculum levelling itself is running to the end of its course, providing now a corrupting influence over what happens in state schools, with its target-led approach to raising standards. In addition, whether it be for the early years, for specific subject based education such as Mathematics or more generally in terms of subject acceleration toward public examination below 16, early teaching of more advanced skills and subject matter is almost entirely counter-productive. Full-time socialisation might be important for those under 6, but starting academic work and losing a child’s natural curiosity to play at this age is wholly counterproductive. As yesterday’s report on Maths education shows by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools, , accelerating children towards GCSE grade C early “is at the expense of adequate understanding and mastery of mathematics needed to succeed at A level and beyond”.

One of the great purposes of Education to keep learners open to learning in all subject areas for as long as possible, to build innate competency as deeply as one can, and to refuse to let go of those ready to give-up, to keep them engaged so that when that next step of intellectual development happens, the individual child has remained open to the possibility that they ‘can’ achieve after all. The leading countries for achievement (as identified through the OECD and their PISA research) do so by starting education later, by having a less crowded curriculum, by using assessment testing for diagnostic purposes (rather than for league tables) for intervention and support, and by keeping their learners as broad as possible for as long as possible.

So it’s our job as educators to keep our young boys and girls open and prepared for future challenges. They need to be able to analyse, reason and communicate effectively, and have the capacity to continue learning throughout life. The fact that the word ‘teacher’ only appears in this essay twice is critically important; the process of education is not about ‘us’ the adults. We know our responsibility is to keep the child at the centre of each learning opportunity; the room they find to day-dream or switch off might be important too on occasion, though that’s another blog. Sure, there is a body of knowledge to wade through, poems to memorise, languages to practice and skills to acquire, but the plan needs to be long-term and joined up. It takes 7 years of practice, or 10,000 hours (dependent upon which research model you use) for a dancer to be genuinely able to improvise, for a sportsman to reach the peak of their game under pressure, or dare I say a Historian to write a great essay; that degree of discipline builds deep knowledge and technique, and we should wish that for all in our schools.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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