Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Reforming the curriculum

The Government has started to realise how much harder it is to deliver change than it is to advance rhetoric. Any changes to the National Curriculum have been postponed until 2014 as ministers try to work out how their plans relate to each other. There has, it is true, been some good early work by the curriculum review team, albeit in the parameters set for them. However, there is still a real danger that in the Government's zeal to widen the academic requirements for the majority, the needs of the minority will be neglected.

The curriculum review are recommending that history, geography, the 'arts' and modern languages should all be compulsory until the age of 16, and that GCSEs should be taken over three rather than two years to allow time for the further study. The latter idea reflects existing practice, and is a good one, even if it belies the rhetoric criticising those who entered students for early GCSEs that seemed to come from government a few months ago. At the same time as requiring study in these additional subjects, schools will be expected to teach citizenship, technology and ICT, though it will be for them to decide how to do so. In line with the Wolf Review, but counter to the direction of travel of Lord Baker's University Technical Colleges, there is no room for serious vocational learning before 16.

All of this is certainly in line with the direction of travel signalled by the English Baccalaureate, and its weighting for particular GCSE subjects. And while the majority - perhaps four in five students - should certainly be able to take this range of academic subjects through to GCSE standard, there is a serious question mark over its appropriateness for the minority who will undoubtedly be turned off this mix. There needs to be a serious option of college-based vocational and pre-apprenticeship courses, with English and Maths, for the remainder. This means that it should not be compulsory for all to take the extended national curriculum through to 16.

This group may be 1 in 5 nationally, but they will number as many as half the cohort in some schools and academies. The latter, in theory, should be able to ignore these strictures. But the Department has its levers - including the EBac - to cajole them in a different direction. Meanwhile, what of the compulsory subjects without programmes of study? This is fine, so long as there are some clear expectations of what young people should know about civics and citizenship, as the research for the review team shows to be the norm in most countries, and which concepts are crucial in ICT. But the real problem is the exclusion of technology as a subject on a par with history and geography on the GCSE curriculum: the call for computer science, for example, is being sidelined. And citizenship is to be sidelined competely as an add-on to PSHE, as was the case before it became a compulsory subject. Democracy is to be an afterthought.

Today sees Ofqual reporting on the growing errors and ineptitude of some exam boards. There will be those who might ask whether it would make more sense to have a single board for England (with separate boards in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) to deal with the GCSE and A-level syllabuses. That way, there could be some clear expectations and no room for gaming. When I suggested this before, I was accused of undermining the innovation delivered by competition. I do wonder whether we have not seen rather too much such innovation from examiners in recent weeks.


mr chas said...

Surely your 'missing link' is the studio schools that are just starting to come on stream. Is this not the suggested avenue for the 1 in 5 to whom you refer ?

mr chas said...

Surely your 'missing link' is the studio schools that are just starting to come on stream. Is this not the suggested avenue for the 1 in 5 to whom you refer ?

Conor Ryan said...

I think they could be a very good route for some, but I don't think these 300-student schools (or UTCs) will cater for all the 240,000 pupils (1 in 5 of the two year age cohort) for whom a vocational curriculum would be more appropriate.

mr chas said...

I would hope....that the plan is to have these in every town / borough eventually, then supply will be closer to the undoubted demand. I have heard rumour that there could be changes to school laws to allow FE colleges to admit kids at 14, bearing in mind they have the facilities needed to allow kids to start to train as mechanics, chefs etc It always amuses me that schools like this are so abhorred by the teaching unions. I believe in giving the 'customers' what they want !

John Parry said...

Doesn't it seem strange that a government committed to redeveloping the economy with small manufacturing businesses is also developing an educational system that intentionally makes vocational opportunities difficult to deliver?