Tony Gardiner: National curriculum – Comments and suggested necessary changes

Published today:

A. D. Gardiner, National curriculum (England), September 2013; Attainment targets and programmes of study (key stages 1–3). Comments and suggested necessary changes. The De Morgan Gazette 4 , no. 3 (2013), 13-57

From the Introduction:

The Education Order 2013 was “made” on 5 September 2013. The relevant details were “laid before parliament” on 11 September 2013, and will come into effect on 1 September 2014. Some of the details for GCSE were published on 1 November 2013. Further elaboration of GCSE assessment structure, and curriculum guidance for Key Stage 4 (Years 10–11, ages 14–16) are awaited.

It is generally agreed that the curriculum review process adopted over the last 3–4 years has been seriously flawed. Those involved worked hard, often under very difficult conditions. But the overall approach (of relying on civil servants and drafters whose responsibilities and constraints remained inscrutable) has merely demonstrated that drafting and maintaining curricula is a specialist task, requiring dedicated professionals with specialist experience.

Whatever flaws there may have been in the process, we will all have to live with the new curriculum for some years. So it is important to have an open discussion of the likely difficulties. This article is an attempt to indicate aspects of the National curriculum in England: mathematics programmes of study that will need to be handled with considerable care, and revised in the light of experience.

After three years of widespread unease about the process of the curriculum review and its apparent direction, it is remarkable that there has been almost no media coverage, and no clear professional response to the final mathematics programmes of study for ages 5–14. There is therefore a real danger that insights that emerged along the way will simply be forgotten, and that the same mistakes may then be made next time. […]

The details laid before parliament are `statutory’; but they incorporate basic flaws, and significant contradictions between the statutory list of content (which could all-too-easily be imposed uncritically) and the declared over-arching “aims” (which could get forgotten, or ignored). Given these flaws, the fate of the new programmes of study will depend on how sensitively their implementation is handled—whether slavishly, or intelligently. Teachers—and Ofsted, senior management, etc.—need to be alert to those aspects of the stated programmes of study that incorporate predictable pitfalls.

We summarise here what seem to be the two most important flaws.

Some material in Key Stage 1 and 2 is very poorly specified (especially from Year 4 onwards).

Some items are listed unnecessarily and unrealistically early, and so may be introduced at a stage:

  • where they are not yet needed,
  • where they will not be understood,
  • where they will be badly taught, and
  • where – if the relevant requirements were relaxed – the premature material could easily be delayed without causing any subsequent problems.

The listing of content for Key Stage 3 is in some ways reasonable, but too many things are left implicit. The programme of study is less structured than, and contains less detail than, that for Key Stages 1 and 2. Hence the details of the Key Stage 3 programme need interpretation. At present:

  • the words of each bullet point are rarely elaborated;
  • the connections between themes are mostly suppressed; and
  • there is no mention of essential preliminaries.

In addition

  • the Key Stage 3 programme has no accompanying `Notes and guidance’.

In summary, if the declared goals for Key Stage 4 are to be realised,

  • we need some way of clarifying the specified content and relaxing the unnecessary and potentially damaging pressures built in to the Key Stage 1–2 curriculum as it stands; and
  • the centrally prescribed curriculum for Key Stage 3 needs to be much more clearly structured to help schools understand what it is that is currently missing at this level—initially by providing suitable non-statutory `Notes and guidance’.

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