It is back to school this week and the introduction of a yet another new national curriculum in England. It will apply to all local authority schools. While academies are free to set their own curriculum, most lack the courage to do so and are happy to use the Government’s version, safe in the knowledge that it will ‘pass muster’ with Ofsted inspectors. The previous versions of the national curriculum from 1988, 1995, 1999, 2002 and 2008 all fell by the wayside. Is this one going to be any more successful?
According to the Prime Minister, it will be “rigorous, engaging and tough”. The intention is to match the best education systems around the world. In practice, this means the teaching of more demanding topics at an earlier age. In mathematics, for example, pupils will be introduced to simple fractions (halves and quarters) from the age of five. They will be expected to know their ‘times tables’ by the age of nine.
So far, so good, then! But we should not get too excited. When I taught maths to younger pupils in the independent sector, it was more or less taken for granted that pupils would know their ‘times tables’ by the age of seven; two years ahead of this new, ‘tougher’ national curriculum. Without the use of a calculator it is, of course, not possible to do multiplication and division without knowing one’s tables. Nevertheless, any attempt to introduce a little more rigour into the classroom should be welcomed.
Significant problems remain, however. As with so much in education, things are rarely quite what they seem. The new national curriculum for history is illustrative. Almost all of the content is defined as “Examples (non-statutory)” that “could” be taught. In reality it is a ‘free-for-all’. There is no requirement to teach anything about the world wars or Churchill, let alone landmarks such as the Norman Conquest, Magna Carta, the Reformation or the British Empire.
Nelson, Wellington and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) do not even get a mention under the list of non-statutory examples of what “could” be taught. Prescribed, instead, are topics from world history such as Benin and Baghdad. Significantly, the curriculum promotes the seductive idea that all knowledge of the past is provisional and that children should construct the past for themselves; a ‘fake’ and impossibly time-consuming process for children. History teachers are delighted. Our past belongs to them.
More generally, and for all its good intentions, the new national curriculum faces a real problem of implementation. How can pupils in Year Five, for example, be expected to start the new curriculum having missed the preceding four years of it? What about Year Nine pupils, who will be taught the new Year Nine curriculum having missed the previous eight years of that curriculum? There is some overlap of content but teachers will have reason for feeling aggrieved.
The Government is looking overseas for support. Maths teachers from China are now arriving in England to show our teachers how to teach maths to a higher level than that demanded by the previous curriculum. Back in the 19thcentury we used send religious missionaries to China but now, in the 21stcentury, they are returning the ‘favour’ by sending mathematical missionaries to us!
How much easier life would be for Government if it could solve deficiencies in our education system by the stroke of a pen, by publishing yet another version of the national curriculum. As Nicky Morgan, the new Education Secretary, is about to find out, the success or failure of any reform will depend on the cooperation and capabilities of those who have to implement it.
I sense that there may be trouble ahead.