Monday, 18 June 2007

Colin Christie ponders the educational jargon and flawed proposals in the Secondary Curriculum Review

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) in its Secondary Curriculum Review presents us with a bewildering range of new educational jargon: ‘curriculum lenses’, ‘importance statements’, ‘curriculum dimensions’ and ‘key concepts’ among others. As so often, teachers are expected to embrace a whole new vocabulary and frame of reference. Familiar ideas are not developed and expanded within current frameworks but repackaged and relaunched to maximise impact. The result is confusion.

At the heart of the review is the aim of a more flexible curriculum where content overload is reduced and pupils and teachers alike have more room to explore areas in depth and make links between subjects. The implementation of this aim is flawed in several ways.With attainment elevated to such a key indicator of a school’s, and government’s success, published in league tables, one would expect any curriculum review to address the issue of how it will improve and measure attainment. The secondary curriculum review, however, appears to treat curriculum and assessment of learning as two entirely separate issues. The proposals highlight changes to the programme of study (what should be learnt) but nowhere propose revisions to the descriptors of the levels of attainment (what aspects of that learning must be demonstrated).

The argument may be advanced that the level descriptors themselves are in many cases very general and allow for a variety of content. However, this hardly represents a systematic, coherent approach to curriculum planning, whereby new syllabus content has to be grafted onto pre-existing assessment criteria.

Even if one accepts that the existing national curriculum assessment criteria can be fitted into the new curriculum, two questions remain.

Firstly, the backwash effect of the GCSE examination. The current national curriculum for modern foreign languages (MFL), for example, already allows teachers to stipulate content. It has, in effect, been content free since the areas of experience were removed in the last review. In practice, however, teachers import the GCSE specification into KS3. This has the demotivating effect of the KS3 topics being revisited (often in their entirety) at KS4. It is, in other words, the GCSE specifications which drive the KS3 syllabus for MFL as teachers seek to give learners an ‘early start’ to GCSE, taking the long view on maximising examination results. It seems totally irrational not to review the GCSE specifications at the same time, taking the KS3 outcomes as stepping stones to KS4 outcomes.

Secondly, the review states: ‘By its very nature, most assessment is not one-size-fits-all but must be specific to the learner, personalised and therefore inclusive, that is, relevant to all learners in the class’. This statement is simply at odds with the current national, centralised GCSE assessment regime. Alternatives, such as the German Abitur, where teachers submit locally devised assessments for approval by the regional education minister are not discussed. Instead, teachers and senior managers are encouraged to plan the detail of what is taught and how. It is highly questionable as to whether the job of curriculum planner, isolated in a department or even as a whole school, is a teacher’s role. If this is a valid role, it is doubtful that teachers will be given any extra quality time to fulfil it. In the field of MFL, in the late 1970s, teachers came together at grass roots level, in regional groups, to devise graded objective tests for learners. This was a successful enterprise, which formed the basis of the GCSE examination. It will take a similar time commitment for teachers to be able to work together to produce meaningful curriculum documents. Furthermore, it is important for teachers to work within the framework of a shared approach to subject-specific pedagogy, building on effective practice. The development of curriculum programmes on a school-by-school basis will lead to a further erosion of this shared understanding.

Finally, if it is the role of government to establish a coherent curriculum which teachers can then adapt, that coherence is missing. Teachers still have to work with different frameworks which are independent of each other: QCA schemes of work; subject-specific teaching frameworks, programmes of study, attainment descriptors and GCSE specifications. Only a review which considers all of these together would be one worthy of the word ‘coherence’.

Details of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) Secondary Curriculum Review can be found on the QCA web site: