Category Archives: Curriculum

We need a bit more smoke before we start a fire

The case for the prosecution looks flimsy, based on rumour and a juggernaut of twitter-driven opinion, but Micheal Gove is being castigated for ditching American classics from the GCSE English syllabus and narrowing the canon to include authors primarily described as ‘English’ or ‘British’ (terms, interestingly, which are often used interchangeably in this debate).

So out go Lee and Steinbeck and Miller, to be replaced by more Dickens, Shakespeare and a smattering of modern British books. At least, that’s what’s supposed to be happening. No-one has actually seen the exam board lists and nor will they until they are published during the course of this week.

If they do contain more British authors, at the expense of classic texts from other countries, then, as yet, there is little evidence that this was done under the direction of Micheal Gove. All we have is a somewhat pitiful assertion from a man at OCR that the Education Secretary ‘doesn’t like Of Mice and Men’. Should the exam boards have folded under such minimal pressure then much of the internet ire should be directed at the exam bodies, not just the man at the top.

More pointedly, of course, it’s clear that nothing will be banned. Schools are free to study whatever texts they choose, albeit over and above the books that will be included as part of the exam (admittedly, demands on curriculum time, and the realities of preparing children to pass their GCSEs, will of course limit the breadth of study).

All this said, a reduction of the vastness of English literature to fit within the confines of a nation state is so self-evidently ludicrous that it should be resisted with all the fire and energy the education and academic community can generate. How dim-witted would it be to dismiss the qualities of a book, written in English, on the grounds of where the author was born?

However, to start the fire we need to see a bit more smoke. Let’s wait, at least, until we have seen the lists.

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Filed under Curriculum, Michael Gove

New curriculum is all about results

It’s not long until September when the new primary curriculum is launched. Some schools, like mine, are getting ahead of the game and giving their curriculum a spring clean, ready for a trial run straight after Easter.

Unlike changes to the curriculum under the previous Government, which were introduced with a hefty to pile of detailed guidance, this curriculum stands pretty much alone – it is what it is and it’s up to schools to make sense of it and to make the best of it.

No-one who has worked in schools would say this is an entirely bad thing. Wading through all the materials accompanying the Primary National Strategies, introduced in 2003 and quickly jettisoned by the current government, was rarely pleasurable and not altogether useful. Similarly, the QCA Schemes of Work, became increasingly preposterous as schools slavishly and unthinkingly followed the guidance (I worked in one school where the DT scheme of work was replicated precisely, resulting in each year 4 child making a single slipper. Children love to hop, but really – one slipper!).

Now this has all gone and we start with a clean slate – or at least a clean slate of sorts. Most schools are finding plenty in the new curriculum that can be worked in to current planning and topics. Where there is new material, the challenge is either to find time to squeeze it all in (a perennial problem), developing teacher subject knowledge (programming in the computing curriculum, anyone?) and looking again at well-loved but possibly irrelevant resources (all that slipper felt needs to go!).

This is not to say implementing the new curriculum is easy or straightforward. The absence of guidance from the centre tips the weight of responsibility back towards schools, or groups of schools, to consider how to plan and organise their curriculum. This is particularly hard for schools, also like mine, who are under a monstrous amount of pressure to raise results for literacy and maths at the end of Year 6.

The reality for us is simple. We’re planning for the future, looking to teach a broad, balanced and exciting curriculum – numeracy and literacy at the core, enriched with the experience and knowledge from other subject and based on the belief that there is, ultimately, more to life and more to living than colons, compound sentences and calculations.

But, if our 11 year-olds don’t come good in a few weeks time, we’re doomed. If they don’t get those one or two marks in their SATs that will tip them from Level 3 to the golden ticket of ‘secondary ready’ then all the DT, the computing, the science, the art won’t matter a jot. The pressure is on. The clock is ticking.

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Filed under Curriculum

That Ian Gilbert catches the eye

I can be guilty of book-hopping – opening one while finishing another – but Ian Gilbert’s latest has so far managed to both grab and keep my attention. The rhetorical title – ‘Why do I need a teacher when I’ve got Google?’ – certainly helps catch the eye, but within it he presents, with great skill and humour, a simple argument: the primary purpose of the education system is to teach children to think and, in its current form, the system is failing in this purpose.

That’s a serious charge, but a pretty persuasive one. Mind you, having just emerged from a few weeks of cramming juvenile brains with certainties – facts to be reproduced on SATs day – it wouldn’t take much to win me over.

I won’t repeat his points at length – mainly because he writes better than I do and, besides, you’ve got Google so you can go and find out for yourself. But what he says about the absence of genuine thought within the average child’s school day rings true. Yes, we cover a lot and are busy, busy, busy. Is that enough though?

For me, in the classroom, some of the most revelatory moments have arisen when I’ve put the plan to one side – jam-packed as it is with differentiated activities, resources, assessment opportunities and the rest – and allowed for a discussion to emerge. A proper one – with opinions, and disagreement, and challenge. This is learning, just as much – if not more – than a neatly marked page full of times tables or a list of English Kings and Queens in a text book.

Sometimes the discussion can lasts minutes, sometimes it fizzes around the room until necessity brings it to a close. On these occasions, there is a shift that can be hard to describe and difficult to define, but it sure looks and feels a lot like thinking. My guess is that brains – in some small way – have been re-configured, re-shaped for the better.

It’s hard to disagree that with Gilbert’s view that we need to find a way to generate more of these moments, not less. And that’s why we still need teachers.

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Filed under Curriculum, Schools

Gibb v Hattie: The Verdict

After Nick Gibb’s pounding at the hands of Professor John Hattie in Round 1 of the ‘Improving Schools Challenge’, its time for a more sober analysis of the other strands of the School Minister’s ‘vision’ for schools.

In an interview with Mike Baker, Gibb identifies certain ‘imperatives’ which he expects schools to follow (it’s not too difficult to spot the tension here between a stated aim of freeing up schools to teach how they want and, at the same time, prescribing what teachers must do).

Alongside ‘setting by ability’ (which has been addressed in ‘Round 1’), Gibb’s ‘imperatives’ are: first, for schools to adhere to a policy of ‘strict school uniform’ and, second, for teachers to teach reading using the ‘synthetic phonics’ method.

One wonders at the process by which these seemingly unconnected ideas have become central to Gibb’s world-view. Even taken together they fail to constitute anything approaching a vision for primary education. But, let’s put that to one side, and deal with them on face value and scrutinise their worth using the ‘Hattie test’.

(For those who can’t face reading my last blog, you have my sympathies. Put simply, this is a ‘Hattie test’ : the Professor from Auckland analysed – meta-analysed to be precise – over 50,000 different studies into almost every imaginable area of school life. This analysis was then computed to give something called ‘effect size’ which tells you whether a given variable – e.g. teachers adopting a particular questioning style – is worth doing or not. It’s very clever, meticulous work, giving some clarity to the confusion and complexity of classroom life and the still-intriguing process of learning).

Let’s start with school uniform: does a crisp shirt and a throat-throttling school tie help children to learn?

The evidence here mainly comes from the United States which has traditionally had a more relaxed approach to school attire. President Clinton introduced a rule allowing public schools to require students to wear uniform. Interestingly, not many did (about one in four), but enough to carry out a large-scale analysis of achievement and attitudinal data. And the conclusion?

Bad news for Gibb: school uniform had no effect on academic achievement in elementary school and a ‘significant negative effect’ in high school; no effect on attendance, or self-esteem or behaviour incidents. Overall, the impact was ‘close to zero’ (keep in mind that, the way ‘effect size’ is calculated, almost anything has an effect – even, say, a teacher standing still, smiling. So, a score ‘close to zero’ is really, really bad). Hattie describes highly-visible ideas, which are shown to achieve nothing, as ‘coats of paint’; look pretty, but pointless (assuming your measure is improving academic achievement).

So: round 2 to Hattie.

Round 3? Synthetic phonics (a process of teaching reading by breaking down words into the smallest sounds and ‘blending’ them to assist reading; children are then taught these sounds as part of a planned programme, building their knowledge of phonics day-by-day and/or week-by-week. Typically, synthetic phonics is used in this country very early in a child’s school life – infant school – and as an intervention for struggling readers later in school).

This has been an area of some contention, after it was introduced with much enthusiasm by the last Government. It was presented as a panacea; critics suggested the research base was weak, arguing the most effective method for teaching reading involved the development of different strategies (e.g. reading a whole book, using visual clues to predict words, learning words by sight – as well as a phonetics etc), rather than the adoption of a single strategy as the way to read.

But does synthetic phonics work?

Gibb is in unusual territory here: he’s backed up by the science! Hattie is enthusiastic about phonics instruction and concludes it is ‘powerful in the process of learning to read’.

The only reason this is not a clear win for Gibb is that nowhere does Hattie argue that ‘synthetic phonics’ should be used in isolation. So, teachers still must use different strategies to encourage reading (not least enthusing about books and encouraging children to love reading). But, let’s give the man some credit: Gibb ties Round 3 with Hattie.

It looks like the message from Hattie to Gibb is this: put less emphasis on ‘setting’ children, it doesn’t make a difference; loosen the old school tie, it’s purely cosmetic; and keep going with the synthetic phonics, but it’s not a panacea.

To finish, one other of Gibb’s ‘imperatives’ is worth a menion. Gibb, believe it or not, thinks children should stand when a teacher enters the room. In his meticulous study of the effectiveness of interventions which have an impact on educational achievement, Professor John Hattie makes no mention of ‘standing up’ or, indeed, ‘sitting down’.

This could be because he thinks it is of no educational significance. Or he could be saving his really big, knock-out ideas for a later volume. You decide.

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Filed under Conservatives, Curriculum, Nick Gibb, Policy, Schools

Nick Gibb adds confusion to uncertainty

Poor Jim Rose.

After months of consultations on a new curriculum for primary schools, the writing of a lengthy report and the adoption of his proposals by the last Government, his plan to enliven and simplify the curriculum have been scrapped. Not revised or amended: scrapped.

It’s not surprising in the least and he must have known it was coming. The ‘Rose Review’ was derided by the Conservatives and the legislation to enact his Review was blocked in the final few days of pre-election ‘wash-up’.

His main idea was to bring together different strands of learning and to group the content of the curriculum into six key areas (his report addressed other pertinent issues, such as improving the transition from primary to secondary; making greater use of ICT; giving dialogue a more central role in the curriculum; and possible changes to school start-times for summer-born babies).

For many teachers, his ideas were an extension of what many schools were beginning to do: moving away from the excessive prescription of some elements of the National Curriculum (and the various strategies which followed it) and towards more creative, flexible teaching.

This meant, for example, the at-times artificial barriers of ‘history’ and ‘geography’ or ‘art’ could be softened (not always, of course, but Rose’s curriculum made allowances for this to happen if it aided learning) – children could then immerse themselves in a different theme or topic; teaching could focus on deeper understanding, rather than having to rush from one subject to the next.

Just to be absolutely clear: Rose did not mean (and this is where the Conservatives had got themselves a bit worked up) that history or geography would not be taught. Instead, these subjects would (or could) be taught as part of a bigger theme. An example of this might be a term-long focus on the Egyptians which, at different times, would cover art, numeracy, literacy as well as history and geography. When done well, it works brilliantly. Learning becomes memorable to children in the way a plain-old history lesson struggles to.

While suspecting that Rose would be for the chop, schools have been waiting to see what Gove and Gibb would say about the curriculum. There’s been radio silence for almost a month. Even allowing for the negotiations and compromises a coalition inevitably involves, this is a long time to leave schools in the dark. Given what was finally announced by Nick Gibb, it’s a mystery what took them so long. Here’s the section on the primary curriculum:

“A move away from teaching traditional subjects like history and geography could have led to an unacceptable erosion of standards in our primary schools. Instead, teachers need a curriculum which helps them ensure that every child has a firm grasp of the basics and a good grounding in general knowledge, free from unnecessary prescription and bureaucracy. It is vital that we return our curriculum to its intended purpose – a minimum national entitlement organised around subject disciplines.”

That’s it – much of this is down-right meaningless. So, ‘subjects’ are back in vogue – I get that bit. But what does ‘a firm grasp of the basics’ mean? Is that literacy and numeracy? In the 21st century, surely this must include ICT? What about a foreign language? Is science a ‘basic’? Without any explanation such a statement is useless – it would be rude to a man in a pub to say a man in a pub could have come up with about the same.

The plot thickens though: what does ‘a good grounding in general knowledge mean?’ Unless his aim is to help the man in the pub with his quiz scores, this is pretty vacuous.

But what is genuinely confusing is his stated aim that schools should have ‘freedom from prescription’. Presumably that still allows schools to develop their curriculum along the lines Rose envisages? Or does it? Who knows…

Don’t watch this space though: if it took a whole month to devise this announcement, I dread to think how long it will be before the emergence of any kind of meaningful message on the primary curriculum.

As I said: poor Jim Rose.

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Filed under Cameron, Conservatives, Curriculum, Policy, Schools

Gove does a deal with Ferguson (Niall, not Sarah)

Michael Gove’s first foray into the school curriculum has certainly raised a few eyebrows. His plans to ask historian Niall Ferguson (sorry, I mean, controversial historian, Niall Ferguson) to help re-design the history curriculum was an interesting start, if only for the apoplectic reaction amongst those who see Ferguson as a right-wing imperialist who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the tender brains of ten year-olds. You can see where they’re coming from.

Primary schools are currently in limbo in terms of their curriculum planning. Just before the election, the Labour Government was planning to introduce a new curriculum in primary schools based on Jim Rose’s review (although he wasn’t allowed to include testing and assessment – i.e. SATs – in his horizon-scanning, so it wasn’t a complete picture by any means). Aside from being forced to ignore the SATs-shaped elephant in the room, his review and his curriculum plans were widely supported: it certainly gave schools an idea of where to head but also allowed for as much local flexibility as teachers could reasonably want.

Slight problem: the Tories knocked the new curriculum on the head, so schools are currently waiting and watching to see which way Gove turns. His hints so far have been about complete freedom for schools (which is surely going too far – there must be some collective sense of what we want or need children to learn) or a strangulated half-free, half-prescribed curriculum which comes out something like ‘teach what you want, but you must say that Winston Churchill was a demi-God’.

So Ferguson’s involvement suggests there will, after all, be a central curriculum of some sort and, furthermore, the history element will be re-engineered to focus, according to Ferguson, on a “grand narrative” which can be summarised as “the rise of the West”. A leap to the right if ever there was one.

Ferguson’s pugnacious approach is of academic and popular interest, but I simply don’t buy the idea of history as ‘grand narrative’, let alone one that can be reduced to ‘the rise of the West’.

Yes, there are certain facts and events of history that can and should be taught. It may even be possible to devise some kind of narrative But that inevitably involves a narrowing-down. If the aim is an understanding of what has gone before, then facts and events and a ‘single narrative’ will only get you so far. Particularly one that is so obviously contentious as Ferguson’s.

What’s really enlightening – and what makes history so powerful – is that there are different ‘histories’ rather than one unifying ‘history’ or narrative. It is the rub between these different viewpoints that makes history interesting and an active, ‘live’ subject.

Whenever I’ve taught history the repetition of dates and events has one affect: it deadens brains and dulls eyes. What really captures children’s imagination is when they can pick apart an event and look at this from different points of view; they argue, present a case, use artefacts, discuss, change their minds and agree to disagree. Above all, they are thinking about history, not being given a script to learn.

History should not be about the simple transmission of one man’s interesting, yet highly partial views, but an awakening of interest in the sheer complexity of the past: an understanding that there is not one ‘grand narrative’, but many – and that is what makes the subject fascinating. Gove may have begun a flirtation with Ferguson, but he shouldn’t commit himself too soon: there’s plenty more historical fish in the sea.

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Filed under Conservatives, Curriculum, Policy, Schools