Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



Mr Pollard

  60. You said there was 15 per cent flexibility in the curriculum, and that you determine the content of what should be taught. Your colleague also said earlier that the more successful schools manage the curriculum well. That is not the experience of teachers. I addressed a conference of ATL not long ago, and they said that the curriculum is a straightjacket. That is the view coming back from the coal-face. That does not accord with what you were saying about your research, that people were saying that the curriculum is okay and that you were encouraged to continue doing what you were doing. There is a dichotomy there, and I wondered if you would take us through that.
  (Sir William Stubbs) I do not think I ever used the phrase that things were okay, but I did say that—

  61. That is the impression I got.
  (Sir William Stubbs) I hope you got the impression that it was satisfactory. I was talking about the testing arrangement at that point. When we turn to the curriculum, there is no doubt that some teachers, and some schools, find it burdensome, but the evidence of the day-to-day practice in many, many schools that HMI have looked at is that it is an enriching experience for young people. This was devised primarily for young people, and it was devised secondly in order that parents could have confidence in the education of young people, and that the nation in turn could obtain its benefits from the education system. Teachers are delivering that on our behalf, and are very, very important in relation to that. It has not made life for some teachers any easier, but many teachers have taken to it like a duck to water, and many teachers contribute to and help us enormously in giving advice to schools about how to make it more effective. Chris Jones is very much our expert on the curriculum side and I will ask him if he wants to add to that.
  (Mr Jones) The fact that people, including teachers, argue and have very strong views about the nature of the National Curriculum and how much there is of it, et cetera, we are in a sense at the centre of that debate, particularly as it comes towards a point at which we are going to offer advice to the Secretary of State to change or review it, or whatever. We have a huge postbag, not just from teachers, but from parents, employers, and all sorts of organisations, expressing their views. Our view is that that is a measure of the health of the system. It is, in my view, a healthy system, and we want to engage in discussion. Prior to 1988-89 we had no central specification of curriculum at all in this country, and we were unique amongst countries that we would naturally compare ourselves with. There was huge controversy at the time it was introduced as to whether we should even take that step. There are very few people now, including teachers, who would put forward a serious argument to say we should not have any sort of central specification. There will always be controversy about how much there should be and the content. Our job is to keep our ear closely to the ground and turn our minds to issues like what should be in it, why, and how much. There are always differing opinions. Over those ten or eleven years since we have had the National Curriculum, we have moved from the position of having nothing, (when people, including people like myself were involved in the early stages of constructing it), to having something that was hugely ambitious in terms of detail. I think the criticisms about a straitjacket were entirely appropriate in the early 1990s, but if you compare what we have now, there has been a major shift towards flexibility, and there is much less prescription. There is a debate, however, about the point at which taking the foot off the pedal and giving more flexibility starts to interfere with the fundamental purposes of having a framework in the first place. There will always be a debate about whether there is too much or too little. We now compare ourselves with the international situation much more now than we did ten years ago. We are still ambitious in terms of our scope, breadth and balance. Many countries specify things in much more detail than we do, and there are some that are more flexible. That will continue to be a debate. For every teacher that says it is a straitjacket, you will find others who privately will say, "it is very useful". Interestingly, we have found that if we are in the least bit vague about what we are expecting teachers to teach nationally, it can sometimes be seen as being helpful, but as often as not it leads to problems. If you leave the slightest amount of doubt about expectations of teachers, then teachers being teachers will over-interpret and will do more than was the intention, because they are conscientious people and do a good job. We want to be as precise and as clear as we can. It is not on the basis of what teachers want. Teachers are a major input into this process, but it is a debate about the National Curriculum which everybody—employers, people and organisations, in huge numbers—contribute to.

  62. Citizenship is being mooted, but how will we make room for that? How will teachers make room for that?
  (Sir William Stubbs) It is now statutory this year in secondary schools, and it is advisory in primary schools. You have already heard that we give advice on all subjects. We have given a lot of advice to secondary schools on this. It is not an additional subject entirely. It brings together under a collective heading a number of matters that schools have been dealing with anyway, and it gives a coherence to it. It is an encroachment on to the area of freedom that schools had, but I do not hear many voices saying that it is not a topic that schools should be dealing with; indeed, there is an increasing number of voices saying that it is coming just in time.


  63. Did you cram more into the pint pot, as it were, or did you push something off the curriculum?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Nothing went off the curriculum specifically to do with citizenship.

  64. Did you push anything else out?
  (Sir William Stubbs) We brought some subjects that were elsewhere under the banner of citizenship, and some extra within. Is your question whether when we reviewed it anything went out?

  65. Yes.
  (Sir William Stubbs) The last time it went out was in 2000.
  (Mr Jones) Probably the best way to answer that, Chairman, is to say that whilst it is becoming statutory in secondary schools in September, almost every secondary school has had, and continues to have within its timetable, time set aside for a range of things that have different labels, depending on the school. It is often called something like personal/social/health education, and things in that area, which were not covered by the National Curriculum until the recent review in 2000. We have done a huge amount of work since the review in terms of giving guidance on the very issues that have been raised about where to fit it in. Many schools are looking to re-engineer, re-establish the programme that they are offering in that timetable slot, although, as Sir William said, it is a subject that will not necessarily be taught through specific timetabled lessons; it is something that we would expect to influence other areas of the curriculum as well. Schools, in a sense, had time set aside in that time that is their own, if you use that crude division of the National Curriculum and things that are specified by the school; and to some extent the citizenship, National Curriculum, will have an influence on an area of the curriculum that schools previously determined themselves.

  66. How often do you give advice on the curriculum? When we did the Early Years Report, you may remember that we were very interested in the environment and using open space, especially at the primary level. We found it very important that schools should use the environment and that children should have access to the environment, but not in a sloppy way, and to use it in the educational process. Is that something that you would give advice to?
  (Sir William Stubbs) We did give advice to that, which has been very much welcomed. I think it has been the basis on which the Secretary of State has felt able to create a statutory foundation stage in schools. We give advice regularly on different subjects, from year to year. We have given advice on citizenship.
  (Mr Jones) In terms of advice about making changes to the detail of the National Curriculum, there is a cycle to that. It is not laid down anywhere, but the pattern that has been established is that approximately every five years the Secretary of State will probably think it is time to see whether there is a need for change. That is within the Secretary of States's gift. We work against a timetable which says we do not want to be changing the goalposts every year, which would be quite intolerable and the schools would not thank us for that; but every five or years so—and our monitoring programme is designed so that we are absolutely familiar with the issues for schools—to be in a position to be able to offer advice with that kind of regularity. At other times, we would pick out individual subjects and identify issues about which we could make recommendations to the Secretary of State. In terms of direct advice to schools, spreading good practice and so on, we do that as part of our regular business. For the last two years there has been a massive effort to move from paper-based materials into web-based production of advice for schools as to how to implement the curriculum, what the standards are and the rest of it. Those are now used by almost every school.

  67. It would be very useful to this Committee if you could show us any evidence. We have produced a report on early years; the Secretary of State came back to us on that, but I wonder if from that date you have given any advice or taken any actions.
  (Sir William Stubbs) We will take a look at that, Chairman.

Mr Pollard

  68. Does QCA believe that the curriculum is sufficiently forward-looking and related to the schools' evolving situation?
  (Sir William Stubbs) I think we give sufficient scrutiny to the environment within which young people are operating and where they will be looking for careers, in order to inform themselves about the content of subjects within the curriculum. The most spectacular example of that is within the area of IT. That is developing in the National Curriculum, not just as a subject on its own, but cutting right through. That shows the flexibility. We do work hard at making sure that the curriculum is relevant to life outside school.
  (Mr Weller) I wanted to make a connection between the curriculum and the examination system. There is a piece of work going on at the moment under the banner of Science in the 21st Century, which is exactly about that, to ensure that science is not just about being up-to-date, but that it meets the range of the whole population, those who will become scientists and those who will not. We are looking into a pilot GCSE.
  (Mr Jones) When we offer advice at a review, for example, we know that for some of the things we pick up, the time will not be right. At the last time of review, the Secretary of State said that for three or four things we had picked up for possible change the time was not right, and we had to do some development work in those areas. We compile a list of areas where we are doing exactly as Keith has said, and looking forward. Science is one subject; creativity is another; and there is some interesting work in the area of algebra and geometry in secondary schools where we are looking at international work and looking forward to the next ten or twenty years. There is a growing list of areas where we are doing development work, which will not find its place in the National Curriculum for some time; but we need to do that work in preparation for offering advice in the future.


  69. In terms of forensics, the one that most people have been concerned with in recent weeks is the change in foreign language teaching, taking it off compulsion at a later level of the school curriculum. The Secretary of States wants foreign language to be taught at primary level. Indeed, coming out of the recent prime ministerial meeting in Barcelona, there is commitment within that statement to two foreign languages being taught at primary level. Is that down to you? Did you say to the Secretary of State, "we do not think it should be compulsory any more; you should introduce it at the lower level because that is where our research shows the effort should be made"?
  (Sir William Stubbs) When a government is led by a Prime Minister who has said that education, education, education is his policy, one must expect and welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is taking an interest in what we are doing and will have fresh thoughts and different thoughts—and Secretaries of State likewise. What we are charged to do is to say to them, on some thoughts: "Are these unreal?" Some of these are on the verge of being very hard to deliver because of shortage of teachers in that area. We then ask if they can be delivered, and what is the best and most effective way of doing it. That is what we do. In the meantime, prime ministers and others will want to drive on and make the system what they see as being more effective, and we listen very carefully to what they say.

  70. Were you in favour of foreign language ceasing to be compulsory in secondary schools?
  (Sir William Stubbs) We gave advice to the Secretary of State. I do not know whether that advice is in the public domain yet.
  (Mr Jones) There are proposals within the current Green Paper about the constitution of the Key Stage 4 curriculum, which is what we are talking about. Obviously, that is of major interest to the Authority, and the Authority will be offering a response to the Green Paper in the next week or so.

  71. But this is a Select Committee of Parliament: we are asking you whether you are in favour of non-compulsion.
  (Sir William Stubbs) The proposals in the Green Paper seemed to us to have considerable benefits associated with them.

  72. You talk about having enough teachers, and although we may be in favour of teaching foreign languages at primary level, do you see a problem?
  (Sir William Stubbs) We were talking about 14 to 18 and it becoming optional at Key Stage 4. The issue there is—

  73. This is the balance, is it not?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Yes, it is, but Key Stage 4 is rooted in a discussion about how to be more flexible with the school curriculum and so forth. The one at primary is about how to stimulate English young people's interest in modern language, which is significantly different from elsewhere in Europe. To some extent, that is curtailed—and if you are talking about two languages it is considerably curtailed—by availability of teachers. It is also surrounded by the very real practical difficulties of secondary school having to receive primary school pupils, from a network of primary schools, whose advocacy and use and expertise in modern languages is unlikely to be of the same level. How does a secondary school cope with that? These are difficult pedagogical matters. If they can be overcome—and it is more difficult if we are talking about two languages—then we will go forward, but we have not offered a view on that yet.

  74. Sir William, this is interesting stuff and really gets to the heart of the matter, does it not? Did you have reservations about compulsory foreign language and did you articulate those to the Secretary of State, who then puts it in the Green Paper; or did you pick up the Green Paper and say, "wow, that is surprising"?
  (Sir William Stubbs) We give views to the Secretary of State, Chairman, on a number of matters, some of which are exhorting her to go faster in some respects than at the end of the day she feels appropriate, and some of which are advising her to go rather slower than she decides to do—and that should not surprise us and probably means we are getting it about right.

  75. Did you advise the non-compulsory element of foreign language? Was that your judgment, and did you say to the Secretary of State, "I really think that this should be non-compulsory"?
  (Sir William Stubbs) I have not offered, personally, any advice to the Secretary of State on languages; the Board did not offer any formal advice on languages before the Secretary of State brought forward a paper, although there were discussions between civil servants and my colleagues; but the Board has offered views on the Green Paper proposals after it was published.

Mr Chaytor

  76. Given the modularisation of the curriculum at 16-19, as is generally now accepted, why has QCA not moved to modularising the curriculum for 14-16, and would it not have been more rational to do that first?
  (Sir William Stubbs) Do you mean modularise the examination system?

  77. Yes, using the curriculum 2000 model for GCSE.
  (Mr Weller) There are particular reasons that we alluded to earlier for the unit-based approach to A-levels because it allows the feedback and the stepping-off point at AS, half-way through a non-compulsory part of education, and people can go away with a qualification rather than going away with nothing. That does not quite apply at Key Stage 4 because we are talking about compulsory schooling, so the reasons would be different.

  78. Do you think it could have helped to maintain interest of those young people most at risk of dropping out of the system or fading away from the system in the last 12 months, had they been able to get a qualification at the end of year 10?
  (Mr Weller) There is nothing to stop people going faster or slower within GCSEs as the school can manage. One might argue that that would have been an awful lot of change in a time that was pretty well filled with change of various kinds anyway, adapting to the new curriculum and adapting to post-16 structures and so on. That would be asking an awful lot both of the exam boards and the schools. The science pilot that I mentioned is working on the concept that a core of science associated with some options which would be of a modular kind, some of which might be more academic and some of which might be more general, could be quite useful in those terms, in allowing people to make choices as to which science, giving the feedback and doing something to relate to the vocational, or to the academic qualifications world.

  79. If that model were implemented, would young people be able to get part of their qualification part-way through the course, or would they still have to wait until the end?
  (Mr Weller) No, that is one of the options, and that would be one of the models we implement.

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