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Proposed primary curriculum: what about the pupils?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 12 June 2012

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.

72 Responses to “Proposed primary curriculum: what about the pupils?”

  • 1
    Michael Gove's own experts revolt over 'punitive' model for curriculum – Government Tenders, Government News and Information – Government Online wrote on 12 December 2012:

    […] Andrew Pollard, who described the plans as “crude” on a blog, told the Observer he believed Gove’s model for reform was “punitive and […]

  • 2
    John Mountford wrote on 21 December 2012:

    Any neutral observer of the review of the curriculum would realise the case against the current proposals is being made in the wrong places and to the wrong people. I applaud your principled expose of the present government’s unprincipled rejection of ‘advice’ it presumably commissioned with the intention of paying due regard to. That it did not, has been amply recorded here and elsewhere. However, where it is not being made, is in the clear light of day for those who most need to receive the message. What is happening, without doubt, will affect the future of education in our country and consequently will affect our future. It isn’t simply of concern to academics and professionals protesting on specialised web sites away from the notice of parents, families and young people. The public have right to know the extent to which the supposed consultation process was a sham from the outset, because such behaviour damages our democracy.
    There is a need to engage the public in this project. It will not suffice just to create some eye-catching headline in the hope of drawing attention to the need for an open, unprejudiced debate. We have an opportunity to shape a system for educating people from cradle to grave at the beginning of a century of change, the demands of which we can barely begin to comprehend (that is what this has to be about).
    A way ahead would be to establish an interim national leadership group. It would be non-political and aim to inform and consult parents and others using schools as the point of focus. This would ensure open participation at grass-roots level and involve key stakeholders directly. If media interest waned, as it probably would, that would not matter. There are other means of maintaining interest and commitment via social media today, as we have seen happen in countries that are yet to evolve democratic rule. People have new ways of influencing their leaders, and they work. Of course this is a wild dream, I hear you mutter. But, when did that ever limit courageous individuals with a vision of what might be?
    Many years ago I picked up a gem of a book entitled ‘The Learning Society” by Dr Robert M Hutchins, published in 1968. Please allow me to quote;
    “The leadership, in recognition of the facts of life, must come from individuals and groups who can, over the years or decades, persuade their fellow citizens that what they see is true. These may include writers, artists, scholars, or anybody who has the independence or vision to transcend his culture. It can come from free minds and those pursuing the dialogue about the condition and aims of society.”
    It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. I’m in, what about you!!?

  • 3
    nurul islam, dhaka, bangladesh wrote on 25 December 2012:

    excellent proposal

  • 4
    Alison Cooper wrote on 7 April 2013:

    ‘How children fail’ by John Holt is also worth considering in the current debate.

  • 5
    John Mountford wrote on 7 April 2013:

    Andrew, I am not sure when you posted your article back in June last year whether you thought it would still be attracting interest ten months on. I entered the discussion rather late, back in October. Since then, I have been watching developments very closely around the primary curriculum in particular. I feel driven to add to my earlier comment because the concerns you addressed then remain unresolved. They were not “wished away”.
    It is clearer now, in light of more recent developments, that common sense has no chance of tempering the excesses of our political leaders in this crucial debate over the curriculum. Sadly, the application of brute political power threatens to delay more than just the reform of the curriculum. It promises to block the long-overdue re-framing of education for the future.
    Since October, I have been preparing a campaign that aims to divorce education from party politics. I read the whole thread again today Andrew. John Walker’s comments of 23 October caught my attention because he asked something that I believe is central the ongoing debate over the curriculum. I would like to suggest that there are some things we do “have to know in order to gain a satisfactory education” for every child. The first thing we need to know and convey to young people is that education matters. The second thing we should know is, if we imagine that all children have the same needs, talents, interests and aspirations, what we teach them will matter rather less than it could and should. I am not arguing that knowledge is unimportant. The curriculum needs content like a sandwich needs a filling. I just don’t think all children will enjoy the same filling and, especially for primary aged children, if they don’t enjoy it, they won’t benefit form it.
    Unfortunately, the excesses of political tinkering in education have continued to escalate over the last ten months. There is no sign that the voice of reason will prevail and we will be stuck with reforms, some of which are potentially disastrous or obviously divisive, until the next politician to take their turn at directing our national education is handed power at the DfE. The madness has to stop. I hope that people will take the time to follow what I have written at http://www.ordinaryvoices.org.uk and consider giving their support to the campaign to change the way we plan and deliver education for this new century.

  • 6
    Ruth Sharpe wrote on 10 April 2013:

    Thank you Andrew for your continued advocacy of common sense. Mr Gove’s consistent refusal to take advice from experts is particularly alarming in mathematics, where his own lack of ability in the subject (as evidenced by his failure to understand the difference between causality and correlation) gives us little hope that he could possibly having anything of value to offer young learners.

  • 7
    Norman Pratt wrote on 20 June 2013:

    As a retired History teacher, I have been following the revision of the History National Curriculum for the last 3 years with a growing sense of horror, Thank you for this insight into what lies behind The Programme of Study – apparently very little.

  • 8
    Michael Gove’s approach to education reform is the opposite of open policymaking wrote on 10 September 2013:

    […] Provoking two members of the expert panel recruited to redraft the English primary curriculum to resign; one of them, Andrew Pollard, criticized Gove’s plans for undermining teachers’ professional judgment; […]

  • 9
    From Dawn till Dusk – Games and life » Blog Archive » RNLC Conference – New Challenges and New opportunities wrote on 9 November 2013:

    […] blogged from IOE, this in turn was picked up by various news outlets.  The blog posts can be read here the expert panel tried to be as open as possible publishing letters on bera site etc as to the […]

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