NC32: Memorandum submitted by Futurelab

Summary

 

There should be a National Curriculum; but strategies and practices for its delivery must evolve and adapt

Heavily centralised prescription and assessment has negatively affected the attitudes of teachers and children towards the National Curriculum

An evolving and adaptable National Curriculum should be devised as a set of broad principles within which teachers and schools are permitted to devise appropriate objectives and aims

Any future National Curriculum should encourage schools to respond to local social and economic contexts, and to be reactive to children's practical needs and cultural experiences.

 

Note on contributors

 

Futurelab is a not-for-profit charitable organisation which explores educational change through a range of research and development projects. The contributors of this submission are researchers on a three year project, Enquiring Minds, a partnership between schools and researchers intended to develop and pilot an innovative approach to involving teachers and students in the design of a new curriculum. It commenced in 2005. A final report, including research analysis and conclusions, will be available in August 2008. See www.enquiringminds.org.uk.

 

Submission

 

1. A National Curriculum is necessary and important for children, teachers, and families. As a broad set of entitlements and principles, the National Curriculum provides children with a set of perspectives for understanding the world around them, and for developing a range of skills and attitudes appropriate to distinct knowledge domains. Whilst much of this sounds eminently sensible, it is important to note that the purposes of the National Curriculum should be the result of consultation and informed discussion.

2. Many teachers perceive that the National Curriculum is a relatively fixed body of knowledge and skills. They doubt the relevance of this curriculum to the lives of the children they teach and its ability to meet their needs. However, they also feel excluded from the conversation about what the curriculum should look like. This amounts to a significant loss in teachers' ability to contribute to professional debates about education.

 

3. As it is currently arranged, the national curriculum insulates subjects from one another, imposing barriers between disciplines and diminishing students' and teachers' capacities for joining ideas and knowledge together from mutually compatible areas. There should be more scope for imaginative and principled interdisciplinary collaborations in curriculum design; for example, linking aspects of science and geography, or history and English. Additionally, the 'universality' of the national curriculum acts as a barrier to schools and teachers feeling able to engage at an intellectual level with the specific nature of their local contexts (e.g. local histories and geographies, dialects etc). This means that many students, irrespective of ability, find it difficult to engage with the content of the curriculum. A national curriculum that is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as highly prescriptive has led to teachers increasingly having to "deliver" content and knowledge, and for students to experience it passively. This means that students are not able to develop the skills and attitudes of active and participative learning-rather, they are learning how to internalise enough content to pass tests.

 

4. The current testing and assessment regime is restrictive. Despite (or perhaps because of) year-on-year improvements in SAT and GCSE passes, schools are too narrowly focused on tests and examinations. This prevents teachers from developing activities and focusing on areas of content and knowledge which fall outside of what is to be tested. Assessment is of course essential to gauging children's progress. It needs to be performed sensitively and in ways which provide children with clear routes to improvement, and intellectual and social development, rather than to be restricted to the assessment of knowledge acquisition. There should be a re-emphasis on the role of schools and teachers in developing their own criteria for evaluation where possible.

5. The national curriculum should evolve to allow more local flexibility at school and classroom level. While it is obvious that all students require familiarity with the conventions of distinct disciplines, this does not militate against the idea that schools may then take responsibility for defining aspects of the content and knowledge which their students will investigate. In line with this, the national curriculum should set out a broad set of entitlements for all children, with responsibility for defining the content, processes and outcomes deferred to teachers and schools. In this way, the National Curriculum would be prevented from being regarded as a fixed body of content to which children are able to gain different levels of access; instead, teachers and children would be involved in studying diverse forms and sets of knowledge while using and developing their skills of enquiry and analysis.

 

6. Knowledge and skills must be seen in tandem, not as separate entities to be treated independently of each other. In the best teaching, the development of knowledge and skills are integrated. The experience of dealing with a range of knowledge types, from across the subjects, and through imaginative teaching, requires students to use and refine their skills; tutoring students in these skills separately is nonsensical.

 

7. A personalised approach to the National Curriculum is to be welcomed. It is necessary, though, to be cautious about the extent to which personalisation is understood and conceptualised. The approach to seeing students as customers in a marketplace of learning opportunities should be resisted. Instead, a truly personalised approach to the curriculum would regard children as taking some of the responsibility for defining what and how they learn through constructive conversations with teachers. The 'subjects' of the curriculum may be seen as perspectives that can be used by teachers to respond to children's needs, interests, and experiences. Through the Enquiring Minds project, Futurelab has empirical evidence that demonstrates the value that students and teachers attach to this sort of flexible and adaptable approach to curriculum development. Over 100 schools have attended workshops in March 2008 to ascertain how Enquiring Minds might impact on their own practices. This suggests strongly that many teachers are willing to take more responsibility for working out the content of the curriculum and for devising strategies and practices to ensure the engagement and progress of students.

 

8. Teachers are central to the development and design of the curriculum at the school and classroom level. However, the skills of curriculum design and deliberation have been marginalised in recent years, so that the fundamental question about what to teach has been out of their hands. Rescuing these qualities will require increased training and professional development for teacher in developing their own curriculum design expertise, as well as support to modify their existing classroom practices. The proposed Masters programme for all teachers has the potential to support this. However, the initiative must be focused on the development of teachers' capacities as curriculum designers and not just curriculum deliverers. It is also important to stress the value that children and young people can bring to conversations about the curriculum, and the increased engagement and motivation which can be brought about by involving students in decisions that affect their own prospects as learners.

 

Note

 

We have included a copy of a recent document we have produced for the Enquiring Minds project. This document was sent, in print form, to every secondary school in England in January 2008. Consequently, we have run workshops with staff and leaders from around 100 schools during March 2008. An additional document, reporting interim research findings, is available at: http://www.enquiringminds.org.uk/our_research/reports_and_papers/year2_research_report/

 

March 2008