Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Perpetual motion

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Greater flexibility for teachers or more curriculum control from the centre - the arguments have raged since the 1970s and centralisers have had the upper hand in recent years. Are we now moving towards a better equilibrium? John Dunford hopes so.

Dr Peter Andrews, president of the Secondary Heads Association in 1982 (my first year as a member), contrasted the amount of curriculum change in that era with his earlier career as a classroom chemistry teacher, during which just one small change was made to the A level syllabus in 11 years. I have often recalled this remark when considering the manic speed of curriculum change in the UK.

The academic year 2009-10 has surely broken all records for secondary schools and colleges with a new Key Stage 3 curriculum, changes to GCSE specifications and a new-style A level that will catch teachers and students unawares in A2 examinations unless they have prepared for the different type of questions being set.

The rate of change has been one of the curriculum trends since I started my teaching career in 1970 but not the only one. Trust in teachers has declined and the quality of the debate about the curriculum has become poorer and more government-centred.

External examination syllabuses have led the secondary curriculum, as they did in earlier days, although there was one golden era when the curriculum came first and assessment followed. More of that anon.

As a mathematics teacher in the 1970s, I taught O level to the top sets and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) to the others. We could choose between a CSE mode 1 syllabus, set by one of the dozen regional CSE examination boards, and CSE mode 3, set and marked by ourselves. The syllabus was approved by the board and the examination marks were moderated externally.

Like most schools at the time, we chose mode 3, giving us the freedom to create a syllabus that was appropriate for the young people in our school. It was the school's own curriculum and we designed and taught it, set the exams and marked them. We enjoyed teaching this curriculum and it was always my aim to ensure that the young people enjoyed learning through it too.

There was another benefit: grade 1 at CSE was equivalent to a grade C pass at O level. Consequently many students got their five O levels (the precursor to the current school performance indicator of five grade A* to C passes at GCSE or equivalent) who might not have otherwise done so and were thus able to proceed to A level and the full range of courses in further education.

Romans overload

The proliferation of examination boards was a less positive aspect of the system at that time. In addition to the regional CSE boards, there were half a dozen boards setting O and A level papers and there was no central body to ensure that all boards set examinations of the same standard. Everyone knew that some boards were easier than others.

There was no National Curriculum, so a young person moving from one part of the country to another could find it very difficult to catch up. In history, children did the Romans several times and most secondary school subject teaching assumed no previous knowledge at 11, since the children had covered very different work in their various primary schools. There was little or no curriculum planning between schools and very little whole-school curriculum work within schools.

At what we now know as Key Stage 4, 14 and 15-year-olds had a high degree of choice, generally being offered six subjects in addition to English, mathematics, physical education and religious education.

Although some schools ensured that 14-year-olds chose a balanced range of subjects, many did not, with the result that some young people had a very unbalanced curriculum for those two years. Woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing as three options out of six left some boys with even less opportunity for a balanced education than the girls who were doing home economics and needlework.

The extent of this curriculum imbalance and gender stereotyping was noted by HMI in 1984 and the inspectorate called for more whole-school curriculum planning and development work.

So all was not well, as was recorded in the Times Educational Supplement that year: "Whole-school planning and development work need time and energy. When teachers are having to work beneath leaking roofs, patch and stretch scarce teaching resources, produce their own textbook substitutes and, in practical subjects, scrounge consumables and do the work that should be done by technicians, they do not have much of either to spare."

Teacher control

The early annual reports of the senior chief inspector in the 1980s stated that 30 per cent of lessons were poor and HMI began to play an increasingly strong role in the national debate on curriculum issues.

In 1946 HMI had produced a Handbook of Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers that was "not intended to impose uniformity of practice, because teachers must think for themselves". There followed the era of teacher control (some would say, lack of control) of the curriculum, with only O level syllabuses and the 11-plus to influence what was taught.

HMI, whose secondary members were then mostly ex-grammar and independent school teachers, had little inkling of what should be taught in technical or secondary modern schools. Indeed, one senior HMI described the technical school of the day as "a grammar school without Latin". No wonder vocational and technical education has always been given second-class status in the UK.

The major national reports during the 1950s and 1960s - Percy, Crowther, Plowden - favoured a child-centred approach to the curriculum, which created huge variety between schools. HMIs rejoiced in being "the Queen's servant, not the ministry's" and saw their role as "lifting teachers' sights and making them find gifts they didn't know they had".

The start of more central direction for the curriculum came from the Conservative education minister, Sir David Eccles, who did not like the 'secret garden' of the curriculum and established a high-powered Curriculum Study Group to "identify curriculum developments that might be of help and interest to schools". It was succeeded by the professionally dominated Schools' Council, which covered both curriculum and examinations. The Schools' Council had a smorgasbord approach to curriculum development with poor dissemination of research findings, and ministers were still content to take a laissez faire attitude to what was taught in schools.

The authors of the so-called Black Papers, which challenged this progressive ethos, had a sympathetic audience from Margaret Thatcher as Conservative education secretary in 1974. But it was a Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, in his Ruskin College speech in 1976 who argued for a common core curriculum.

HMI began to gather evidence in 1978-79 of the extent of curriculum variety and produced three 'red books' on the curriculum, which were a strong sign of things to come.

The debate on what would eventually become a National Curriculum had now really begun. HMI set out an 'entitlement curriculum' based on eight areas of experience - aesthetic and creative, ethical, linguistic, mathematical, physical, scientific, social and political, and spiritual. A ninth area - technological - was subsequently added.

Progress was slow and variable, but I recall that some of my most informative meetings on curriculum involved discussing how to base a school curriculum on these areas of experience. Today they remain an excellent basis on which to design a broad and balanced curriculum.

Golden era

In 1984 Sir Keith Joseph concluded that "there is now no serious dispute that the school curriculum is a proper concern not only of teachers but of parents, governing bodies, LEAs and the Government". Joseph was starting to trample over the flower beds of the secret garden.

Better Schools in 1985 set out the content to be covered in primary schools. HMI produced a series of 'raspberry ripples', a reference to the two shades of pink on their covers. These booklets set targets for achievement at seven, 11 and 16.

The GCSE was successfully introduced in 1986 with the subject syllabuses being decided bottom-up, instead of the top-down, universitydominated O level syllabuses that preceded the GCSE. The type of assessment in each subject was decided on the basis of what was appropriate for the content. This golden era was, alas, the only time in my career when, at a national level, curriculum led and assessment followed.

With the Education Reform Bill of 1988, the curriculum genie was firmly in the government bottle and the National Curriculum and associated national tests began. I was part of a SHA delegation that told Kenneth Baker that we could not get the quart of his Key Stage 4 National Curriculum into the pint pot of the teaching week, but he wasn't listening.

Successive secretaries of state danced on pinheads to make it fit, but the problem remained until Estelle Morris abandoned compulsory technology and modern languages, thus creating a new set of problems.

ASCL has consistently argued for a National Curriculum framework without the centrally imposed detail that has ossified the curriculum and de-professionalised teachers. With the loosening of the bonds at Key Stage 3, secondary teachers have become curriculum developers again.

Too much flexibility was as bad as too much centralisation and I hope that we can now see the pendulum swing to a more sensible place. The ASCL mantra of 'national framework, local flexibility' has never been more relevant.

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