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A new national curriculum

Yesterday the government published the new National Curriculum that will be statutory from September 2014 in state maintained primary schools.

There is certain to be much debate about the content of this new National Curriculum. I would encourage the public, but teachers also, to look and make up their own minds. The national press is already buzzing with ‘what is in’ and ‘what is out’. These are comments that colour this curriculum as extremely political. However, I think what we have here is more of what the National Curriculum was intended to be. What I see as ‘in’ is a bare bones curriculum that should provide a framework for schools to devise their own contextually relevant curriculum for their own children. What I see as ‘out’ is the guidance on how to teach. What we are left with is a national minimum entitlement and it is with this approach that I believe schools will be able to move forward most positively.

There are criticisms. We are told that this curriculum comes on the back of an intensive world tour studying the most effective jurisdictions. I don’t believe this as the curriculum we have does not reflect that of the most effective jurisdictions. Indeed, there is some debate as to whether it is the curriculum that drives the success or whether there are other cultural effects at play. Even last year, Chinese students in the UK outperformed other students in the UK by a statistically significant amount.

(www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-assessments-at-key-stage-2-in-england-academic-year-2011-to-2012)

So, regardless of curriculum studied pupil success is in part due to ethnic background which strongly supports the suggestion of a cultural effect. Also, there is the ongoing debate as to the credibility of some measures used to compare educational systems internationally. One of the most comprehensive studies, that carried out by Pearson, ranks the UK as sixth in the world.

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20498356)

Back to the new curriculum. Publicly disputing the worth of the curriculum is certain to have a negative effect on the attainment of pupils. If teachers can’t present the curriculum positively then why should pupils commit to studying the curriculum? It is equivalent to the teacher that stands in front of the class and begins with “You’re not going to like today’s lesson but I have to teach it anyway!” We must be careful that teachers don’t deliver this message on a national scale as to do so will dampen the natural enthusiasm children have for learning.

At the school level we need to study this curriculum and use it as the framework for our own more detailed units of work. This isn’t about knowledge or skills. When the curriculum was heavily skills based the most effective schools still layered on interesting and relevant content for their pupils. Now the curriculum doesn’t directly reference pupil skills schools must begin from the given content and layer on the skills that makes this content relevant in a modern society. The same is true of teaching strategies. If the curriculum is being less prescriptive then schools should be active in encouraging the strategies that are most effective in their own context.

Thank you to Mr. Gove and his team for their important first steps with this new National Curriculum, but now the real work will begin in schools as the teachers develop this curriculum into a vibrant and engaging school experience for the children they teach each day.

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Endings and beginnings

June 22, 2013 Leave a comment

In the last few weeks I have had opportunities to reflect on endings and beginnings. One week before the end of the school term we moved house. In amongst all the activities of a school term ending it has made for a busy few weeks.
The house moving preparations began about a month before we actually moved house. There were two clear strategies in place. I was applying a pure energy to moving everything from one house to the other. With two weeks overlap where we had keys to the new property and were invited to move what we wanted prior to the official moving day, time around my working hours was filled with physically moving as much as possible to facilitate the final move. This was my strategy. It involved getting up at five thirty most mornings and taking a car load of hastily filled boxes from the old house to the new house. I succeeded in moving at least two car loads each day, one before work and one after work. My wife meanwhile was applying her own strategy to the moving preparations. It began in her own wardrobe with each item of clothing being reviewed, tried on if necessary and then a decision made as to whether it was to be packed, or put into a black bin bag and thrown away.
Both strategies for a new beginning in a new house are valid but arguably the strategy employed by my wife is more deserved of the ‘new beginning’ title.
And so we come to the end of the term. The last task for me was to deliver the whole school assembly to our primary pupils. The school has just received the data relating to the pupils completing their final year and again is sitting considerably above the best of the rest in the region. I started the assembly by inviting three final year A’ Level students to explain their own aspirations and then provided the link between hard work and the options that are available to us in our lives.
The assembly went well with input from our Year 6 pupils moving to secondary and time to say goodbye to the departing deputy head. As is customary we talked about ‘moving on’ and ‘new beginnings’.
Next week we have two non-pupil days to wrap up the term. In talking about ‘new beginnings’ in respect to a new school year I think we have the same two strategies available to us as we did when I moved house a week ago. We could blindly pack up all we have been working on this year and unwrap it all to start afresh in September. However, as with moving house, I’m not certain that would give us the energy that comes with a ‘new beginning’.
The other option is that favoured by my wife when moving house. To review each item before carrying over. I think my house move has taught me that the second option is more refreshing in creating that ‘new beginning’ and therefore at the start of next week I am going to invite an open feedback on what should be in the boxes that we pack for September. Which of our whole school strategies and systems have been effective and which do we need to review or discard before we move into the new academic year. With the School Development Plan reviewed in January this should provide an opportunity to check that we are moving in the right direction and that our plans are having the intended impact on teaching and learning. Hopefully, September will bring a new academic year that provides a genuine fresh start. Strategies that are effective in enhancing teaching and learning will be strengthened and those that are not having the desired impact will be left behind in the move.

If I call a Ford Fiesta a Lamborghini Gallardo does it then go faster?

January 12, 2013 Leave a comment

If I am disappointed with the speed my car moves will it go faster if I call it a Lamborghini Gallardo? Perhaps if I get it a shiny new badge that covers the old badge and maybe even give it a re-spray?

Over six hundred failing primaries in England are to be converted to academy status. That will be six hundred schools with the same children to educate, on the same sites, with often the same staff, teaching the same curriculum. Or will it? One academy in Bristol managed to dramatically increase the standards despite having the same site, staff and one would think the same pupils. However, a little scratching of the service reveals an admissions policy taking 80% of pupils from a more affluent neighbouring post code. The result I suspect is that those children who used to attend before the academy nameplate was nailed up are now being pushed out into LEA maintained schools and are disproportionately reducing the LEA results. Clearly then, academies work because in this area of Bristol the academy is considerably out performing the nearby LEA schools. Except, of course, nothing has changed. Taken as a big picture the standards in this area of Bristol have most likely not changed at all. Children are in different schools. Children working against social disadvantage aren’t affecting the statistics of the flagship academies, but they are still there, hiding below the surface, missing out on education because the real cause of low attainment was ignored in favour of a headline winning national strategy that now publishes the improvement that the local community wanted, even if that community are now prohibited from attending their local school.

Schools need to be allowed to focus on their core purpose, teaching and learning. Rebranding, even if it comes with a new letterhead, school badge, uniform or multi-million pound privately financed building can’t improve standards, at least not without a little behind-the-scenes manipulation, such as an admissions policy. Focussing on teaching and learning is what will improve standards.

It is refreshing to be able to sit back and watch developments in UK education with a critical eye before adopting them into school. Certainly I oversee the National Curriculum being taught in the schools that I lead but with the facility to dictate the ‘how’ from a basis of sound teaching and learning as opposed to needing to respond immediately to non-educators stipulating ‘how’ the education should happen.

Most effective strategies for school improvement focus on the process of learning and move away from the product. Why then is the UK determined to try and find a just method of measuring affectiveness of schools based on product. We can talk about value added, contextual value added, mix in some poverty factors, employ teams of mathematical graduates to crunch the numbers and convert the raw statistics into pie charts for the tabloids, but the real measure of schools comes from an evaluation of the teaching and learning. For that, the inspecting body needs to turn the focus away from judging teachers and look more closely at the learning taking place in school. I can make a judgement on the standards within a classroom fairly accurately and fairly quickly by talking with the pupils about their learning. I don’t need an analysis of how many are claiming free school meals, how many are diagnosed with a behaviour problem or what proportion of those pupils appear to move two percentile points when I look at the teacher assessment data. The teachers are responsible and must be held to account for the quality of their teaching but to improve schools we need to focus on the aspects of teaching and learning that have the most impact and not be pushed into manipulating statistics to attempt to demonstrate improvements.

It will be interesting to watch in a generation’s time and see whether or not the millions poured into the rebadging of ‘community primary schools’ as ‘academies’ has made a real difference to the educational attainment of the nation. We won’t be able to see that until a generation of pupils has been through their education and then we will discover the truth not by looking at the output of the academies in comparison to the remaining maintained schools, but by looking at all pupils and comparing to the previous generation.

In the meantime, I am happy to sit outside the direct influence of state controlled schools and lead learning that makes a real difference. Positions available in September for anybody needing to get back to real teaching. In the meantime, I am off to paint my car and rebadge it, just in case despite my cynicism, it can make a difference.

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