NC04: Memorandum submitted by Malcolm Ross

 

HAPPY DAYS OR HARD TIMES?

 

Summary

- I believe the national Curriculum has been hugely damaging to the country's education project.

- The National Curriculum was designed with a political rather than an educational agenda and its impositional and reductive character has resulted in the marginalizing of teachers and the demoralizing of children.

- The National Curriculum is inimical to the idea of education as a creative conversation structured around understanding, mutual respect and a spirit of enquiry. - The whole legal framework and testing apparatus of the National Curriculum should be dismantled and replaced by a broad set of Educational Entitlement Guidelines which would leave schools and teachers free to exercise their legitimate expertise and authority, sensitive to local needs and circumstances.

 

1 The National Curriculum has been a thoroughly bad thing. Bad for education, bad for teachers, bad for children, schools and families. It is bad because it is has politics rather than education as its raison d'etre. The story goes that Kenneth Baker, then Secretary of State for Education, designed it on the back of an envelop as his particular contribution to Margaret Thatcher's campaign to savage and subdue the teacher unions. The Tory Government of the day took its cue from a speech by James Callaghan in the mid 1970s in which the case was advanced for a more accountable and more politically driven agenda of educational 'reform'. It was a centralizing impulse born of a desire to express educational performance as a factor of government intervention and achievement.

 

2 Like Callaghan before her Thatcher saw the political advantage of removing the curriculum from the control of schools, teachers and the local authorities, and of having central government prescribe what was to be taught and how achievement was to be measured and, most important of all, how results could be best presented and used to regulate a system of rewards and punishments. Initially there was a promise to provide guidelines only on what children were entitled to be taught, and there was to be no question of eroding the teacher's responsibility for the how or the particularity of teaching. There can still be no quarrel with that. However, that promise was quickly broken and we now have a totally prescriptive, centrally worked out set of curriculum packages designed for 'delivery' by teachers acting as educational agents - servicing student clients pretty much on the call-centre principle.

 

3 Education has been radically re-thought since the 1980s along business rather than cultural lines. Schools today function more like fast-food outlets than cultural communities. Children are operatives under constant pressure to raise their performance in a narrow range of practical skills. From this impulse has arisen the whole oppressive regime of target setting, treasure hunting, endless testing, round the clock surveillance, interminable award chasing and soccer style leagues tables. Creeping privatisation has been another consequence of the marketing approach to schooling. Put like that it really does add up to a nightmare for children, schools and families. I believe that the educational opportunities of a whole generation have been blighted by this pernicious idea - and the rot is now so deeply entrenched in the system that is will indeed take a 'root and branch' demolition job to eradicate it. The process of educational reconstruction cannot begin too soon.

 

4 The consequences, in general terms, of the catastrophe that is the National Curriculum include:

 

- The trivializing of teaching as a vocation and a profession.

- The regimentation of much of schooling.

- Many children have come to feel totally disconnected from their schooling: the curriculum is an arcane, semi-magical conspiracy in which they cannot believe and which seems to work despite rather than because of them.

- The collapse of the professional authority and independence of the teacher training institutions.

- The universities complain new students lack self-reliance and are ill-equipped to manage their studies and enquiries.

- The determined wasting away of local authority influence and resources.

- The re-branding of schooling along management and marketing lines .

- The degrading of the idea of curriculum as cultural conversation (Socrates) to curriculum as commodity packaging.

- The abandonment of the idea of education as an inherently optimistic, creative and progressive project for one defined in terms of skills-training, production targets and delivery dates.

- The widening gap between educational winners and loser.

- The spawning of the cut-and-paste generation.

- The arts reduced to donkey's tail status: after-thoughts for after-hours.

 

5 The present government floods the educational market place with headline catching 'initiatives' as part of its total strategy of domination and control. More recently it has decided, in the face of disappointing results where its targets are concerned, to set up pilot schemes in areas selected on social and economic grounds with a 'softer' feel about them. Creativity has become the new buzz word. 'Personalized learning' is coming back we're told. More flexibility is to be allowed to secondary schools at the margins of their operations. Even 'play' is to receive a fresh airing. But these latest manoeuvres are simply a cover-up - a sop to those clamouring for a more humane, a more liberal and more hopeful environment for children growing up . If they are 'soft' then presumably the NT is 'hard' - meaning it is firmly rooted in the 'real' world of hard graft, hard choices and hard times, where the only thing that counts is hard results. There can be no way in for the soft principles of play, or creativity or child-centred learning under the hard regime that is government policy for children, families and schools. The government's unrelentingly hard-nosed approach to education is, I believe, symptomatic of a deeply depressive, reactionary political mind-set.

 

6 In broader terms, under the aegis of the National Curriculum, there can be no way in for the notion of education as cultural conversation led by a cultured profession free to express itself in essentially local, small scale environments. In short, politicians have to be persuaded to give up their ambitions to re-engineer the mind of the nation on commercial, mass-production lines together with its profit and loss mode of accounting, return it to the care of a revitalized and independent profession working in partnership with a resurrected, well-funded network of local authorities. It would then be able to re-assign its own central resources, taking the lead in a massive and long-overdue programme of educational research and development. Along with these reforms there must be a fresh remit for the QCA reflecting the needs of children, families and schools - rather than the latest whims of its political masters. What we now need is not simply, as Howard Jacobson argued recently in the Independent newspaper, a brighter, happier, better educated bunch of ministers, but whole-scale educational regime change.

 

7 This submission outlines my position on the National Curriculum. The Committee will have access to a mounting body of research that corroborates my strictures, e.g., recent studies published by Cambridge and Manchester Metropolitan Universities. I should be happy to develop any or all of my ideas in oral evidence. I enlarge upon some of the material touched on here in my somewhat fuller submission to the Committee's recent Inquiry into Creative Partnerships. That submission includes my model for a creative curriculum and argues for the total incompatibility of a creative education (creative students taught by creative teachers) and the National Curriculum.

 

 

 

 

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