Monday, 8 December 2008

A balanced approach to the curriculum

It is never a good idea to pay too much attention to the early media reports of any changes to the curriculum. So nobody should prejudge Sir Jim Rose's excellent primary curriculum review paper published this morning before reading it. For this is not a death notice either for any subject or for academic rigour.

What Sir Jim has done with his characteristic skill is to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable, by showing how the trend for more thematic lessons, already a feature of many primary schools, can be accommodated within a national curriculum that is demanding in its expectations of children in the basics. As the report says:

There was considerable agreement among those consulted on the following points:

• The existing structure of knowledge, skills and understanding within the programmes of study holds good for any changes that are likely to be proposed for shaping curricular content whether taught as subjects or otherwise.

• There is a strong case for adding the development of good attitudes to this three part structure;

• Knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes might be seen as ‘organisers’ of curricular content that can be interrelated and used to plan valuable crosscurricular study;

• Subject disciplines remain an important but not necessarily exclusive way of organising the content of the primary curriculum; and

• No matter how the curriculum is construed, more and better opportunities should be provided for children to use and apply their learning to enquiry and problem solving for the purpose of increasing their understanding and learning capabilities.

These perspectives helpfully counter a long-standing, worrying tendency in primary education where discussion about the curriculum is often mired by treating as polar opposites, things which should be complementary and together act to benefit children’s learning, for example: Subjects vs cross-curricular studies; Knowledge vs skills; Child initiated learning through play vs teacher directed learning; Formal vs informal classroom organisation; and Summative vs formative assessment.

It is not just that he has identified some obvious trends such as the computer literacy of so many youngsters, who have been ill-served by an ICT curriculum that may be demanding on the teachers but is often boring for tech-savvy children. Nor that he has suggested practical ways to accommodate foreign languages in a supposedly crowded curriculum. But he has done so within
the context of recognising the need for a national curriculum to provide every child with a minimum entitlement, even if it is broken within thematic descriptors rather than more straightforward subjects. As the report notes:
Despite claims of overload and over-prescription, the Review has found almost universal support for the continuation of a National Curriculum. Many of those consulted recalled, unfavourably, the time when far too much of the primary curriculum was ‘do as you please’ and considerably more uneven in breadth, balance and quality than was the case after the introduction of the National Curriculum.
But the real strength of the report is that it seeks successfully to marry the trend towards 'skill-based learning' with the recognition that it must be a means towards acquiring knowledge not a substitute for it. All children should have the entitlement to learn a range of skills and knowledge, and to benefit from a range of cultural and educational experiences, while they are at school. This is what today's report recognises and this is what ministers must now start to evangelise about.

But if this is to work as Sir Jim hopes, the final report needs a very clear set of criteria to accompany the new curriculum, restating, for example, the commitment to phonics as the primary teacher of reading, and setting out the minimum of what all pupils should know as well as what they should be able to do by the age of 11. There must also be from government an unambiguous commitment to externally-set and marked national tests in primary school so that we can properly measure whether or not these new approaches are working.

1 comment:

Brummie Alice said...

There's a real similarity between what you and Matthew Taylor are saying:

Has there been a line to take distributed to former hacks?