News came in yesterday that Michael Gove has confirmed that changes to the National Curriculum in the UK will not now take effect until September 2014 rather than the planned September 2013, and this qualifies as a good thing in my book. We do of course have to change the national curriculum – it is so full of ‘stuff’ that it is hard to find any room for anything other than relentless cramming, and in seeking to be all things to all people it has fallen into the trap of becoming disjointed and unconnected – but without proper reflection, any changes will as likely as not fail to take effect properly, and the Government could very easily end up with egg on its face. Far better to pause, think intelligently, respond to the new evidence which is emerging, and work to create a framework for the curriculum which really does qualify as a world-class education.
The new evidence emerging is of course linked to the standards which other countries seem to be able to enable their young people to reach, notably in Maths and Science, but also in Languages. Many cultural elements are at play here, however, and it would be unwise for a national curriculum simply to transplant to the UK teaching models that work elsewhere – in the Far East for example, or even in Finland (until recently, flavour of the month). With this in mind, it would be worth the Department for Education and the National Curriculum Review Committee spending some of their newly acquired time on working out how to tackle the apathy and lack of aspiration which marks many young people (and their parents) in the country today; if we don’t find a way to do this, we may as well not bother with a framework, for it will have little or any effect on the final educational outcomes.
In addition, some of the freed up time could usefully be spent on working out how to measure young people’s attainment accurately without resorting to national tests at certain set intervals (and in this I include GCSEs). The enormous danger of such tests, seen time and again in practice, is that teachers will end up teaching to the test, and the educational experience of the student will narrow in focus, especially if he or she is struggling to reach the benchmark required. Why – other than for the obvious financial reasons – are we not devoting time and energy to working out how to assess on an individual basis, and follow this up with remedial or extension work as appropriate? Surely this makes sense?
A National Curriculum is a double-edged sword – a means on the one hand by which we can ensure fair access and equality of educational opportunity; a downward spiral on the other hand towards a restrictive and insubstantial educational experience on the other. Governments caught between the devil and deep blue sea in this respect are wise not simply to tweak what has gone before, but to stop and consider what we all really need from such a curriculum. We now have a little more time and space to do this.