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17 June 2012
How should schools best take forward the proposed new national curriculum?
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We've been here a few times before. The introduction of the first National Curriculum in 1988 and the National Strategies arrival in the late 1990s have, I hope, taught us something about how to embed successfully a new national initiative and about the pitfalls that we need to avoid.
We know that the very best learning is delivered by enthusiasts and experts who exploit children's interests and respond to their local context. This is something that the very best schools have always done. However, this requires strong and effective leadership within schools. What will happen in those schools that lack such leadership? Freedom to innovate in the hand of timid, inexperienced or weak leaders could seem like travelling with no map. With the contraction of advisory support available from Local Authorities, where will schools receive their support and how will this be quality assured?
We must ensure teachers have time to prepare and become confident and enthused about the changes. If we neglect to allow schools an appropriate planning and preparation phase, we may be in danger of falling at the first hurdle.
For example, if the Key Stage 2 curriculum for mathematics is to contain concepts that until now were found in the first two years of the secondary curriculum, how will schools equip their teachers with the knowledge and expertise they require to teach these new and more challenging concepts? If the same is true of the new primary science curriculum, not only are there concerns about teacher expertise, but where will this more sophisticated science be taught? Typically, Key Stage 2 science lessons are carried out in classrooms, on desks. We don't have labs, we don't have technicians, we don't have experts.
Making a foreign language compulsory may be a laudable ideal in an ever globalised world, but this will only be successful if it is well taught by fluent and capable linguists. If the secondary curriculum is going to find its way into the primary school so must some of the funding that would allow us to move away from the generalist teacher to the specialists.
Any new initiative requires some method to check that schools are teaching what they are supposed to be delivering. However, this must not be so rigorous or prescriptive as to stifle innovation and choice. We saw this with the introduction of the National Strategies where the definition of best practice was so narrow that schools felt obliged to follow a format that they knew had the approval of their Local Authorities and, more importantly, OfSTED.
We must ensure that any new evaluation schedule from OfSTED not only recognises but values variety and remains firmly focussed on outcomes not delivery. Those who hold schools to account must also understand and accept that in developing the new curriculum teachers must be allowed to experiment, innovate, take risks and sometimes make mistakes.
The new curriculum needs to be open to change and adaptation. It can't be a document published on one day that remains the same and unchanged for years. The opinions and evidence of those who are delivering it must be listened and responded to. So, if I could write a foolproof recipe for taking the new national curriculum forward in schools, what would I include?
If we are to enjoy a truly national curriculum, it should be compulsory across both state and independent sectors from ages 4 to 14.
Kate Dethridge is Principal of Churchend Academy, Reading and Associate Director of the National Education Trust. She was a member of Lord Bew's review of Key Stage 2 assessment.
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