NC29: Memorandum submitted by National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT)

 

National Association of Head Teachers

 

The National Association of Head Teachers is a professional association representing leaders in education. Its members work in educational establishments covering the whole 0 - 19 age range and beyond. The Association represents leaders in nursery, primary, secondary and special schools and further education colleges. As such, it is well versed in the issues concerning the National Curriculum in all phases.

 

Introduction

 

1. The history of the national curriculum is well-known. It has now been in place in some form or other since 1988, when it was introduced by the Education and Reform Act. It has been a major element of the move from what was previously a largely decentralised system to what is now a heavily controlled and regulated system, in the state sector at least. This is especially true of the education process, which has virtually no equal in the developed world.

 

2. One of the incoming Labour Government's pledges in 1997 was to make education central to government policy, and in an ongoing review, QCA stated that the 4 main purposes of the national curriculum were:

entitlement,

standards,

continuity and coherence, and

public understanding.

 

3. The educational aims were encapsulated in the 2 phrases, "to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn and achieve", and "to promote pupils` spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and prepare all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life". Notwithstanding the laudable aims in the above statements, the main plank in the Government's drive to "improve standards" has been, continually since 1997, the literacy and numeracy strategies and associated national testing regime. These have evolved over time into an interconnected and convoluted warp that pervade the fabric and the ethos of the contemporary curriculum by attempting to hold schools nationally accountable through the unholy trinity of targets, tables and testing. Statutory national inspection tends to exacerbate this policy, often seeming to accentuate the negative rather than celebrate the positive. It was Eric Bolton, former HMCI, who in the early 1990's postulated that, when a government gained control of the assessment agenda, then, per se, it also gained control of the curriculum.

 

4. "Excellence and enjoyment", a phrase used in a 2002 DfES curriculum document, ostensibly gave schools the freedom to be more innovative and flexible, and the Government, on the surface at least, is espousing the personalisation agenda in its latest publications and pronouncements. However, the reality is that, despite encouraging glimmers, such as the revised Key Stage 3 curriculum and much of the Foundation Stage framework, the overall curriculum is both overloaded and too much in the thrall of the standards agenda. The 2008 Children's Plan, for instance, which will be the Government's vision for the next several years, encompasses among other things, the root and branch primary curriculum review, which will "ensure" that there is "more time for the basics", yet at the same time gives "greater flexibility" for other subjects. One wonders what kind of fudge this is going to be.

 

5. It is against this continually evolving background that the Select Committee has announced its inquiry into the National Curriculum. There have been many calls from various sources for a wholesale review of the Curriculum. The timing of this inquiry is interesting, coming as it does after the Foundation and Key Stage 3 stages have been confirmed, and running concurrent with the Alexander Primary Review, the Williams Primary Mathematics Review, and the Rose/QCA primary curriculum review. Alexander has already made much of curriculum and assessment, but runs some danger of being adroitly side-stepped by a government that will undoubtedly put its muscle behind the Rose Review, not least because it has been commissioned by them. Moreover, the Rose Review has a less than clear remit. This perhaps inevitably suits the Government agenda, with its talk of more time for basics, whilst paying lip-service to a more flexible curriculum.

 

 

Should there be a national curriculum?

 

6. The English National Curriculum, it is generally acknowledged, was something that was appropriate at the time. Its major selling point was that it gave pupils an entitlement to a "broad and balanced" curriculum, specifying 9 subjects at the primary stage, plus RE. Hitherto, certainly at the primary stage, it was theoretically possible, for example, for a class to go through a year without learning much science or music, depending on school organisation and an individual teacher's interests and strengths. At the Secondary stage, it was also possible for young people to be denied clearly important subject areas such as Modern Foreign Languages or even, for girls, a science other than biology!

 

7. The rise of child-based topic work was enthusiastically embraced by many practitioners in the 60`s and 70`s, but without benchmarking against agreed learning outcomes. This was highlighted by some notorious, albeit extremely rare, high profile examples castigated in the popular contemporary media and led to a process of rationalisation, via James Callaghan's Ruskin College speech of 1976, to the implementation of a national curriculum some 12 years later. This has been with us, without substantial change or review, since then. The various attempts at review that have taken place have always pre-supposed the necessity for a national curriculum in some form. This debate comes at a time of massive social, political and technological change, but one constant is that whatever is taught, what we want children to know and how we want them to learn, will have profound repercussions for successive generations during this century.

 

8. It is doubtful that we would want to turn the clock back to pre-1988. The world has moved on. Interestingly, the questions concerning the validity of the National Curriculum are posed at a time that Australia is asking itself whether it can any longer do without a national curriculum, as there are deep concerns about the "34 separate organisations contributing to the current state curricula, leading to disparities..." We recognise that a totally laissez-faire approach could disenfranchise children from the broad and balanced entitlement that has, in theory at least, given a wide range of subjects, skills and activities. As a minimum, there needs to be some framework. Whether the title "National Curriculum" is to be used is debatable - perhaps "National Curriculum Framework" would be more apposite. This at least would open the door to a more flexible approach that takes account of the need for greater creativity and locally relevant initiatives. Such a curriculum framework would need to be skills and competencies based, rather than prescriptive and knowledge-based. There is certainly an overwhelming feeling among educationalists that the present curriculum is far too prescriptive and driven by national accountability demands, rather than serving the needs of the pupils that have to study it. Consideration needs to be given to the fact that, with increasing independence to such institutions as the Bank of England and QCA, perhaps now is the time to look at the independence of the National Curriculum. There needs to be some form of national curriculum framework that leaves schools free to exercise both creativity and the ability to respond to local need - broad-based boundaries but with flexibility maintained.

 

 

What should be the purpose of a national curriculum?

 

9. The National Curriculum should act as a framework upon which schools can base their programmes of study. This framework, although overarching, should be capable of being interpreted broadly and flexibly. The purpose of a national curriculum should be to give an overall entitlement to children, which is based upon broadly agreed principles. However, there is no need to re-invent the wheel, and the two principles outlined by QCA in the late 90`s, referred to earlier in this text, are still relevant today. They are:

"to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn and achieve", and

"to promote pupils` spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and prepare all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life".

 

QCA then expands upon these 2 areas in the form of a longer list of desirable aims, all worthy, but not relevant here.

 

10. The theme is picked up in the QCA 2007 overview, "a big picture of the curriculum", where the curriculum aims are "successful learners", "confident individuals" and "responsible citizens". The 5 "Every Child Matters" outcomes are linked into this and the curriculum is seen as a planned learning experience underpinned by a broad set of common values and purposes. Much of this dovetails neatly into general NAHT philosophy, as outlined in the Association's submission to the Alexander Primary Review in March 2007. We stress the importance of the values based "curriculum", whether that is the Unicef Charter, the Neil Hawkes/Oxfordshire work or other similar values-based approaches. The curriculum that will best serve today's children is one that is values based, encompassing community and creativity, with flexibility built in. This is not necessarily a retreat from specific subjects, there will always be a place for these, but, rather, a rationale for more cross-curricular approaches and independent unfettered thinking, based on today's best practice, with room to breathe and reflect built in. Some aspects of the revised KS3 curriculum are in line with this approach. The Nuffield Review of the 14-19 Curriculum posed the question: What would we expect of an educated 19 year old in the 21st Century? The Curriculum is seen by many as broadly a means of developing such a modern "Renaissance Man", a menu of entitlement. Within these principles should lie the core purpose of any national curriculum.

 

 

How best can we balance central prescription and flexibility?

 

11. Many commentators from far and wide have noted the excessive centralism of the current National Curriculum. This was increased in the late 1990's with the advent of the national literacy strategies and national numeracy strategies. Although well-meant, the detailed subject schemes of work published by QCA in 1998 for KS1 and KS2 further increased the sense of a central prescription. National Strategy directives in recent years, allied to unrealistic target objectives imposed from above, and associated pressure from Ofsted when unrealistic targets have not been achieved, have all added to an impression of Government diktat. A leading authority on innovation and creativity, and a strategic adviser to government, Charles Leadbetter, has commented in 2008 that:

 

"there is an assumption that a small group of experts at the centre are better placed to know what should be learned than heads, teachers, parents, pupils and employers on the ground. It turns education into a delivery system, rather than a process of discovery and engagement".

 

12. The 2003 "Excellence and Enjoyment" strategy for primary schools promised a rich, varied and exciting curriculum, but has generally been usurped by the high-stakes testing and assessment regime that has taken precedence, fuelled by the factors mentioned above.

 

13. The mechanism for greater flexibility is there. The National Curriculum documentation purports to allow schools to deliver in their own way. The QCA, NNS and NLS frameworks are, in theory, only guidance and are potentially very helpful, particularly in terms of planning and examples of age/stage appropriate achievement, and clear objectives/ success criteria. The problem occurs when National Strategy leaders, local authorities, and latterly some School Improvement Partners use these as vehicles to pillory and browbeat schools into unrealistic target-setting, leading to a narrowing of the curriculum in the pursuit of narrowly and somewhat crudely measured national standards. The point has been made before that no other country seems to have such an obsessive pre-occupation with "national standards", as defined by the national testing system.

 

14. There needs to be a far greater stress on the guidance nature of these documents, allied to an overall de-escalation of the high-stakes nature of the current testing and assessment regime. Inevitably this will be easier said than done. The mindset at ministerial and departmental level still seems to focus on those (relatively few) schools failing to provide a satisfactory level of education (in DCSF terms), rather than the 94% or so of schools who are performing effectively or better. In contrast, the Government's own ECM and personalised learning agendas are being espoused by schools and there appears to be a clear paradox in so far as these laudable Government initiatives sit alongside their entrenched and defensive attitude towards increasing curriculum prescription.

 

 

To what extent are National Strategies effective in supporting the National Curriculum?

 

15. The National Strategies have been effective in as much that, at their best, they have given schools and teachers the tools to improve planning and assessment. They have given guidance, for instance, on work with gifted and talented pupils, programmes and guidance for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEAL) and intervention work and programmes in early years settings. Most schools have found these developments helpful. The paper on "Pedagogy and Personalisation" was a creditable attempt to sort the wheat from the chaff in this complex area. The work on systematic teaching of phonics was more measured than was apparent from the press it received from some quarters. The current work on Assessment for Learning is helpful, particularly if it is used as a guide, or aide-memoire, by schools. There has been a danger that the guidance documents and resources for the National Strategies have been seen as THE way to deliver the curriculum and, where teachers have lacked confidence or experience, there has been a tendency to view these as "teaching by numbers", leading to a generation of teachers who are curriculum deliverers rather than curriculum developers. This leads to a detachment from the process and a move towards "de-professionalisation".

 

16. Another concern is the amount of material that is produced. Teachers are very busy people, operating in an increasingly sophisticated and complex workplace, with countless demands upon their time and expertise. The amount of "guidance" from the National Strategies teams can be daunting, with allied pressure on school leaders to follow the "guidance" to the letter. This has happened with the recent (2007) Primary National Strategy paper, which some regional strategy directors and LAs used as a bludgeoning tool in attempts to coerce schools into early implementation. In fact the framework is guidance only. It is the unholy alliance of Primary Strategy Teams, some local authorities and some School Improvement Partners putting unnecessary and unwarranted pressure on schools and school leaders that can cause problems. Schools are inherently confident in what they are doing but this confidence is undermined by the 'results at all costs' mantra. Schools are more and more adept at moving with an ever evolving educational landscape, and school leaders will know their priorities. The National Strategies, used in the right manner, are helpful and constructive (notwithstanding the overload issue, which is an important one), but they must not be imposed on schools or used as a method to "control and dictate" the curriculum.

 

 

The impact of the current testing and assessment regime on the delivery and scope of the National Curriculum

 

17. The current testing and assessment system labels too many young people as failures. It is unfortunately the case that in too many classrooms, because of the high stakes nature of the regime, pupils are taught on the strict treadmill of meeting the criteria to get good test results. The current testing system is not effective in terms of a pupil's broader educational achievement, nor his or her development into a young adult with a responsible, caring and co-operative persona.

 

18. At the time that the National Curriculum was introduced, this was seen as a positive development, as it curtailed the more "laissez-faire" elements of teaching and learning in some schools, and gave pupils a basic and broad entitlement. However, we have since moved to a far more prescriptive National Curriculum linked to a testing format that is heavily accented towards summative data and the publication of results. There is much evidence from a number of sources to indicate that schools do cut the curriculum to the bare minimum, particularly in end of key stage years, for repeated test practice in the core subjects. This leaves limited time for the broad, balanced curriculum that is essential for the flowering of pupils' creativity. Figures from QCA, moreover, show that primary schools are devoting nearly half the teaching week, for 4 months in the lead up to the SATs, coaching children for the tests. That is 10 hours per week, or 44% of the teaching time. This is generally against teachers' better professional judgement and solely due to the high stakes nature of the national testing process. This, in turn, must be leading to a narrowing of opportunity for our children. It has been observed that they are learning to pass tests, not involved in the deep learning that is necessary to develop the skills and knowledge required in the 21st century.

 

19. In the later years of the Secondary curriculum, it is clearly necessary for young people to achieve externally administered accreditation for their learning. GCSEs, GCEs and other qualifications are essential as the step towards the next phase in learning, to guarantee admission to a profession or to further study. The danger in the over-testing which has been the experience of the learner for their entire school life, is that it is only the outcome of the examination that is valued. Passing the test and getting the certificate becomes the objective and it may well be that the importance of learning and skills to the young person is undervalued. This also leads to a narrowing in the young student's mind - viewing the wider (and not examined) aspects as unimportant or even surplus to requirements.

 

20. In "Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing", Warwick Mansell reveals that advice provided by the National Literacy Strategy team in 2003 said that pupils should be repeatedly taken through the mark scheme for the particular exercises they are doing. The guidance offers transcripts of suggested teaching, including pupils practising answering techniques. This is not a good use of pupil time, nor is the amount of time spent on preparing pupils for the tests as indicated in the QCA figures, but in the current pernicious accountability climate it takes a very brave end of Key Stage teacher or school leader to throw caution to the wind. The current situation is getting no better. One of the remits given to the Rose/QCA Primary Curriculum Review is to find more time for the "basics", which presupposes a continuation, or even extension, of the narrow assessment agenda.

 

21. The negative impact of current assessment arrangements also impacts upon the "Every Child Matters" agenda. The PACE project survey noted that curriculum and testing pressures appeared to be "diminishing the opportunities for teachers to work in a way that enables them to develop the whole child and address the social concerns of the wider society. The Assessment Reform group also noted the disparity between the narrow range of learning outcomes assessed by the tests and the broad view of learning goals espoused by the "Every Child Matters" document. Recent reports from the Alexander Primary Review team have supported these findings and added further comment based on extensive and robust research.

 

 

The likely impact of the single level tests currently being piloted

 

22. The question to be asked is not what effect the single level tests (SLT) will have on the curriculum, but whether they would be necessary anyway and indeed, how they would operate, under a system that was not so assessment orientated. NAHT's concern with the Making Good Progress pilot has always been on the issue of what is going to be done with the results in the public domain. If league tables are going to be further embellished by the SLT results, then we are merely exacerbating the current iniquities of the national assessment system, with its continuous unremitting pressure on schools in challenging catchment areas. Early reports from the pilots also suggest that there are considerable workload issues surrounding the administration of these tests for teachers, administrative staff and school leaders.

 

23. There are substantial challenges for the Single Level Test designers in producing materials which are level specific and able to be used for students of different ages. Designing a test which will be as appropriate for a 13 year old as it is for an 8 year old is indeed a difficult task. We ignore levels of maturity at our peril.

 

24. A recent survey has found that less than a quarter of professionals in the schools taking part believe that the tests support teaching and learning. This draws us back to the earlier comment made by a neutral observer that the Government seems to regard the voice of the professional as not important enough to engage with in a constructive manner. To behave in such a way is the Government's prerogative, but it perhaps bodes ill for genuine dialogue on crucial issues. It is vitally important that Government engages with the profession and listens - only then will it be possible to obtain a 'joined-up' view of the curriculum as a whole.

 

25. Much work needs to be done in order for professionals to put their trust in ventures such as the single level tests. We are led to believe that the SLTs may in time replace the SATs, but if it is merely perpetuating the present system (albeit with when-ready testing) with its associated league tables, then no progress will be made. The system itself requires urgent fundamental change. NAHT's position is clearly set out in our recent publication, "Commission of Inquiry into Assessment and League Tables".

 

 

The likely impact of the current "root and branch" review of the primary curriculum by Sir Jim Rose

 

26. The timing of the Rose review is extraordinary. There is already a well researched, high profile review taking place, namely the Alexander Review, a very comprehensive and thorough investigation of all aspects of the Primary stage. Whilst the hope is that the Rose Review will tap into the relevant sections and findings of the Alexander Review, this may not prove to be the reality. The Government's remit to the Rose team places certain barriers in the way of a fully unfettered report, with its reference to more time for the basics and no consideration of any changes to the current assessment and testing regime. Indeed, the BBC website, for example, already states that Rose has been charged quite specifically with clearing more timetable space for the "3R`s" and a foreign language.

 

27. This immediately places the Rose team in a difficult position as there is now a clear unanimity among professionals and school governors that the assessment regime needs to be changed in order to free up creativity, the development of relevant skills and the realisation of the aims of the "Every Child Matters" agenda. The Rose review is thus already compromised before it begins. This is a pity, as there are elements of the Minister`s letter to Jim Rose that give cause for optimism, with references to "broad and balanced entitlement", "encouraging creativity", "reducing prescription" and the extension of the EYFS into the primary curriculum. Without a root and branch review of the assessment regime, the same pressures will inevitably apply to schools, no matter what tinkering/adjustment takes place in other areas.

 

 

Implications of personalised learning, including flexibility introduced by the Secondary Curriculum

 

28. Personalised learning is a term which is interpreted in a myriad of different ways. At one extreme, it may be defined as enabling the young person to choose a personal route through the educational system, taking elements which are of interest and individual value. This harks back to the 'laissez-faire' attitude referred to previously and could result in impossible demands being made on resources. At the other extreme, however, it may amount to putting in the necessary assistance at the most affordable point in order to guarantee that all learners meet a minimum standard. This could result in personalisation becoming merely a newly defined form of streaming,even grouping according to deficit, to target booster provision and intervention. The solution, which it is proving increasingly difficult for schools and colleges to find, lies somewhere between the two extremes.

 

29. In the new KS3 Curriculum, there is little scope for a young person to tailor his or her curriculum in a novel way. The flexibilities offered by the revisions are those for the school rather than the student. Departments can work together. Subjects can be approached in more imaginative ways in accordance with the strengths and dynamisms of subject specialists. The potential (and requirement) for booster provision and intervention is writ large and enforced by the revised statutory targets, placing a focus on the schools to achieve defined measures of progress in the core subjects.

 

30. In the new 14-19 curriculum, the revised GCSE courses, the developments of the Diplomas, apprenticeships, for example, all lend themselves to the pursuit of personalisation. Personal choice, development of interests, development of the wider skills (personal, learning and thinking skills and the extended project) all underpin the opportunities for the learner to choose from a wider menu. However, there are significant logistical difficulties which the 14-19 curriculum faces. Collaboration between institutions, the development of consortia, joint timetabling, quality assurance and trust, and travel arrangements all pose significant challenges.

 

31. It is to their credit that schools and colleges are determined to move towards the new world of 14-19 education. There is tremendous goodwill, alongside tremendous frustration and nervousness, as schools struggle to maintain the vision and manage financial and staffing pressures. The disappointment with the workforce development programme (too little, too late and of poor quality) and the under-involvement of teaching and assessment professionals in the development of the Diplomas at a sufficiently early stage has not helped.

 

 

How well does the National Curriculum support transition to and delivery of the Diplomas?

 

32. The realities of the National Curriculum from Key Stages 1 to 3, as outlined above, have meant that students arrive at the beginning of KS4 over-tested, tired and lacking motivation. This can only be regarded as a poor preparation for courses of study which require and rightly focus on independent learners, self-motivated and enthusiastic about their studies. We need to get the early years of Primary and Secondary education right so that we do not lose our adolescents and waste their opportunities. For students to remain engaged in full time education and navigate the changing qualifications landscape, they must be encouraged to develop independence and will need additional support.

 

33. If the KS3 curriculum does not produce a positive and confident learner at age 14, the challenges could well be too great and the choices overwhelming when the young person arrives at the wider menu of KS4. Information, advice and guidance are all important, and legislation alone will not be sufficient to assist youngsters in matching their interests and abilities to suitable lines of learning.

 

 

The role of the new QCA in relation to the National Curriculum

 

34. It is vital that the new QCA retains its "authority" as it becomes an "agency". The creative thinking that has been the hallmark of those who have supported and developed the new flexibilities at KS3 and the wider range of opportunities at KS4 must not be lost as the desire to standardize and regulate becomes dominant.

 

35. We must not underestimate the value of the current QCA in providing a balance and advice against the relentless march of the testing regime. The work of the Assessment of Pupil Progress project, and the principles of "when ready" testing (not the hi-jacked reality), are of great importance in returning to a creative and wider curricular opportunity.

 

 

The role of teachers in the future development of the National Curriculum

 

36. Teachers are the front line motivators and should be the prime curriculum developers. The new National Curriculum documentation requires greater thought, collaboration and creativity in developing what young people experience during their school years. Enforcing a curriculum and ignoring the views, the skills and the commitment of the workforce is not the way to proceed. Subject specialists and education enthusiasts have a key role to play in the future development of the educational system of the 21st century as we move forward in an ever-changing and increasingly unpredictable world. Some of the difficulties presented by the first lines of learning in the Diploma development came as a result of underestimating the value of experienced curriculum and assessment experts to be found in our schools and colleges. That lesson, we hope, has been learnt. Teachers have the central role in the future development of both "the National Curriculum" and any curriculum which may be deemed to be more appropriate for the future years of the 21st Century.

 

March 2008