The curriculum: Making the best of a bad job

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Ministers have not listened to the profession when setting the new curriculum, says Kevin Courtney, leaving teachers to make the ‘best of a bad job’.

The NUT has a proud tradition of developing positive proposals aimed at improving and enhancing children’s life-chances. We know that what teachers most enjoy about their jobs is seeing young people develop, progress and achieve.

However there are many issues that get in the way of this. Excessive testing, targets, over-prescription and ministerial diktat are stifling our education system. This top-down culture is cheating children and young people of the stimulating experience that school should be and creating, as one respondent in a recent NUT survey said, “soulless drones” of teachers who are weighed down with unnecessary paperwork and constantly changing initiatives.

The survey of 2,159 NUT members showed that the majority did not agree with the proposals for the national curriculum as set out by the secretary of state, Michael Gove. Two-thirds felt there was far too much emphasis on “facts” rather than skills. 

The fear that many teachers have is that this will lead to rote-learning and will squeeze out creativity and critical-thinking. Clearly pupils need to learn facts but rote-learning must not displace experiential learning. One teacher pointed out that “learning facts and figures is a very small part of the learning journey”. Only eight per cent believed that the proposal gave teachers more freedom. 

The extra four-week consultation in July was a welcome step and the good news is that some of the content has been reduced, improved and clarified since the formal consultation ended in April.

There remains  however a number of outstanding issues that have not been addressed. The curriculum is not an entitlement for all pupils and a substantial proportion of children, including those who attend academies, are outside its statutory requirements. 

A very narrow set of aims is still proposed. There is a tension between the stated policy of curricular freedom and the reality of the detailed, prescriptive content of the core subjects’ programmes of study. 

There is greater emphasis that all children should achieve the “expected” levels, regardless of any additional needs. This is a counter-productive one-size-fits-all approach and will constrain teachers from using appropriate approaches with SEN pupils.

This term teachers are asking why there is still no plan from the government to support schools to introduce the new national curriculum in autumn 2014; why the secretary of state does not recognise that this is a demanding undertaking; and where they are expected to find the budget for new resources, extra planning time and the necessary CPD.

There are particular issues for small and rural schools, and for schools with a high percentage of pupils with SEN and pupils with English as an additional language. The statutory SEN Code of Practice will be changing at the same time.

The government has indicated it will not provide any national resources or support for implementation. It has advised schools to seek out and “purchase” the help they need. Together with the Curriculum Foundation, the NUT is developing a range of practical modules to help all schools develop their curriculum. Called The Year of The Curriculum, it will help develop curriculum aims and principles relating to national requirements, learners’ needs and local context and then to design school curriculum accordingly. Teachers can attend a course or access an online programme.

Hopefully this will at least offer the relevant guidance and support to schools to make the best out of a bad job. It really didn’t need to be like this. This is a result of politicians refusing to listen to the profession and rushing through changes that are not in the best interests of all pupils.

An NUT-commissioned YouGov survey showed that 85 per cent of parents believe that the curriculum in secondary schools should provide a broad and balanced range of experiences and areas of knowledge which embrace both vocational and academic subjects. We still have not achieved this balance.

  • Kevin Courtney is deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Visit www.teachers.org.uk


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