NC03: Memorandum submitted by Norman Thomas
1. The National Curriculum for schools was introduced following the 1988 Education Act. A series of revisions have taken place since its introduction with changes of emphasis and content, and another review has now been initiated by Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. It is to be concerned with the curriculum in primary schools and led by Sir James Rose, formerly a senior member of Ofsted and its HM Inspectorate predecessor. Sir James will be supported in this by the Qualifications and Assessment Authority.
2. The first overt action in the setting up of the National Curriculum was the identification of a series of subjects as its basis. They corresponded to those commonly to be found on secondary school timetables but excluded foreign languages so far as primary schools were concerned. Working Parties were set up to consider what the subjects were to include. While helpful in recognising that children should acquire a range and depth of knowledge and understanding, the approach inevitably meant that the National Curriculum suffered and continues to suffer from being defined in this top down way.
3. There are a number of disadvantageous effects:
a. The subjects have been seen as discrete aspects of learning and as being synonymous with periods on the timetable. The muddled thinking is exemplified by the use of the term 'across the curriculum.' What is actually meant when that term is used is 'across the timetable' - language, mathematics, social understanding and development, etc are each what they are whatever the lesson title of the period of the timetable.
b. One effect has been to underplay the opportunities for the application - and even further development - of 'subject' knowledge. For example the literacy hour in primary schools had some good aspects, but promoted the notion that once the hour was done that was literacy dealt with for that day. However, the use of books, the awareness of where to find the appropriate one in the school library, how to find the relevant section/paragraph in the book and the expansion of vocabulary should be being developed in many other parts of the school day.
c. The approach has led to an overemphasis on instruction/telling. Of course they are important and necessary parts of teaching, but not the whole. More attention than now should be given to children exploring their environment, ideas and their means of communication with that environment, not least with other people in a variety of groupings.
d. From time to time it has been thought necessary to 'introduce' some new aspect of learning. Recently we have had the argument for 5 hours of "culture" a week. Because the requirement is put in those timetable terms it is plain that something else currently timetabled will have to go unless the school week is to be lengthened. What we should be considering is whether underplayed aspects of growing and learning might be strengthened by the enrichment of the methods and scope of what is currently done. We should learn to start the journey from where we are (and where children are !) and not from where we want to be. That principle is something that is fundamental to the process of change both for the system and for the children and teachers in it.
4. What is needed in the revision of the National Curriculum is a broad opening statement about what the school system (including the foundation stage) should be contributing to the growth and learning of the children it serves. The following is in need of wide discussion and no doubt amendment and addition: it is offered as a starting point.
5. As children grow they need to become increasingly aware of the context in which they live - near and far - and to develop their abilities to use, react to and influence the circumstances in which they find themselves. In order to do this they need to be helped to:
a. Recognise the differences and underlying similarities in the things around them. That obviously includes the differences between, and similarities of, people, other animals and plant life, but also those between family, friends and strangers; it includes the characteristics of materials: hardness, flexibility, colour etc; it also includes notions of number, size, weight, etc.
b. Engage in inter- communication in an expanding variety of forms including gesture, speaking and listening, writing, pictorial including diagrammatic, mathematical and musical representation , and drama/play.
c. Interact with other living and non-living things. Clearly, interacting with other people, not least other children, is highly significant and requires that the individual plays different roles in different circumstance, sometimes taking the lead and sometime not; sometime going along with an action and sometimes being against. Manipulating and using materials is also vital, including, as with so many other activities, an insight into how to move from what is towards what one intends, involving suitability for purpose. Children need opportunities, within safe circumstances, to foresee possibilities and to work at ways of achieving them.
d. A sense of context beyond the immediate, in terms of distance and time and also in terms of imagination.
e. Awareness of themselves and their personal needs and capacities, physical and mental.
6. Of course, the development of each of these points requires a subsequent broad description of the progression that needs to be built into the curriculum as children grow and mature. For the youngest children distance is concerned with the journey from and to home and the layout of the room and building. Their early acquaintance with the geographical notion of adapting human behaviour to physical circumstances is the use of the desk or easel for painting as compared with sitting on the carpet to listen to a story. Their sense of change over time and the effect of earlier action on later possibilities may span the history of the single day or even less.
7. None of the above denies the requirement for focussed lessons. A teacher might take a few minutes to deal with a social incident that occurred during playtime. Some lessons might be a sequence in teaching a group of children to play the violin. Others might be planned as a series of topics involving the geography and history of the locality or a wider - even worldwide - dimension. What needs to be remembered is that it is impossible to deal with only one aspect of the curriculum at a time. For example, the violin lessons, more focussed than any of the original subject headings, involve language communication, social relationships between the teacher and the taught , physical manipulation and dexterity, appreciation of the physical nature of the instruments, the relationship between the length of string and its vibration and more. From time to time children's attention needs to be drawn to the wider implications of the activity in which they are currently engaged.
8. Satisfying these broad requirements will necessitate a substantial revision of the content and structure of the National Curriculum. Its delivery will also be severely constrained if the current SATs system and the school league tables remain in place.
9. For the time being, I will stop there, but I know that further detail and sub-titling for the whole National Curriculum statement is obviously needed. The point I wish to make strongly is that a general statement of this kind is a vital preliminary.