Education & Family

Schools 'in a curriculum vacuum'

girl counting
Image caption The primary curriculum was going to be overhauled

Which is more important: what children learn or the type of school they attend?

The question arises because, so far, the new coalition government has devoted most of its energies to the latter.

We have heard much about the creation of new academies and "free schools".

But there has been precious little about the curriculum. Schools in England have been left in a vacuum.

Where we have had announcements, they have been mainly to say what schools will not be doing.

'Pointless'

So the planned reform of the primary curriculum in England, based on last year's review led by Sir Jim Rose, has been scrapped.

Primary schools are still completely stunned by this. Teachers had been working hard, absorbing the Rose Review into their planning, and were gearing up to deliver it.

Then, at a stroke, all those months of preparation were rendered pointless.

So, for now, schools have been told to carry on teaching the current primary national curriculum until at least July 2012.

This means two important elements from Rose have now been put on hold. First, there was the requirement for children to learn a foreign language from the age of seven. And second, was the plan to make ICT a "core" part of the curriculum alongside numeracy and literacy.

Remember that the Rose Review was the first fundamental review of the primary curriculum for more than a decade. It had spent over a year gathering evidence.

Then, because it was associated with the previous government, it was simply discarded.

Another area in which schools have been left in a vacuum is over the future of the diplomas for 14 to 19 year-olds.

So far, 10 diploma subjects have been introduced in England. A further four start in September.

However, the government has said the final three diplomas, planned for 2011, will not now happen.

While there have been relatively few tears over the scrapping of these final diplomas, which covered academic rather than vocational subjects, there is deep anxiety about what will happen to the remaining 14 subjects.

What exactly is the government planning for these? Parents, students and teachers need to know.

Ministers have not actually said they want the diplomas to end, but nor have they said anything enthusiastic about them. Their position seems to be to leave it to the market to decide whether they have a future.

However, their actions seem to send out a different message. Financial support for diplomas has been one of the hardest hit areas in the spending cuts announced so far.

So, for example, in a letter to local councils this week, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, revealed that he was cutting £13.2m from support funding for delivering the 14-19 reforms.

The Education Secretary had already announced the abolition of the role of 14-19 regional advisers and a whole range of other "efficiency savings" in the reforms affecting students in this age range.

Diplomas are more expensive to teach than other subjects. Removing financial support could cause them to wither on the vine.

If that is the government's intention, it should say so.

Compulsory languages

Meanwhile, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said this week he wanted a "properly international curriculum".

He did not say whether that included compulsory foreign languages in primary school, as happens in many other countries.

He did say he wanted to learn from the best curricula in the world, "from Massachusetts to the Pacific Rim". But he did not elaborate on quite what that involved.

However, it is worth noting that a foreign language has been part of the curriculum in elementary schools in Massachusetts since 1996.

And in primary schools in Singapore, another country praised by Mr Gove, they have just started to put a greater focus on life skills, oral skills and arts, music and PE.

Singapore's education ministry has also recently urged schools to "move away from an overly strong emphasis on examinations" in the early years.

Although he gave few specifics, the Education Secretary repeated his desire for a compulsory curriculum reduced to a "simple core".

If that means giving greater curriculum autonomy to schools, that sounds like a good thing.

It was also encouraging that he said he wanted more "evidence-based policy making", where academic research helps to identify what works and what does not work in schools, irrespective of ideology.

Image caption Michael Gove says there will be a one-off review of the curriculum

These are positive, forward-looking messages. Yet, at the same time, it is worrying that Mr Gove has said he wants a one-off review of the curriculum and that, after that, it should be left alone.

The world is changing all the time. Schools need to respond constantly to changes in technology, in society, and in the workplace.

That is what Singapore is doing, even though it already leads the world in educational standards.

The curriculum will always need to change and adapt. Take ICT as one obvious example.

A few years ago, pupils hardly needed to know about how to use e-mails and podcasts. Now they do.

The Jim Rose reforms would have up-dated the ICT curriculum.

If we are to keep up with countries like Singapore, China and India, we need young linguists. We also need pupils who will develop their academic and practical skills in a vocational environment.

If Mr Gove does not want these things directed from Whitehall, that is fine.

But he also needs to send some positive signals about foreign languages, ICT and diplomas so teachers know the new government is not interested only in phonics, grammar and historical dates, important as these certainly are.

Mike Baker is an independent education journalist and broadcaster.

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