National Curriculum – Why the new curriculum is not grounded in reality

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COMMENT – I decided to wait a while before writing about the new National Curriculum, because there are times when your own reactions need to be measured against those of other, possibly less ‘feisty’ people.  I’m self-aware enough to realise that I’m inclined to rant a bit and also tend to shoot from the lip.  There’s also so much to read, digest and examine with the new National Curriculum that it was hard to know where to start.

The draft document lists as one of the aims of the curriculum, at 3.1, to provide “pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens.”  In addition, it claims that this new curriculum “introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said“.  That last part, in particular, was so intriguing that I had to check for myself to see exactly what  constituted “the best” that has been “thought and said,” because I know what a minefield of differing opinions there would be on such a topic if I were merely out with a random couple of teacher friends.

Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather when I found that having made such a claim, there was little guidance within the draft document as to what “the best that has been thought and said” is deemed to be.  Shakespeare gets a mention, of course (successive governments have clung passionately to the belief that children cannot get through life without studying Shakespeare), but I looked in vain for just a few of the names that I would include – Aristotle, Plato, Alan Bennett, Hilary Mantel, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Russell T Davies and Victoria Wood – who didn’t get a single mention in the entire 183 page document.  My point here, of course, is that we all have our own ideas about the “best” that has been “thought and said” and offering too few suggested names is even worse than offering too many, because I know young primary teachers who would include Matt Groening and Lady Gaga in their own list.

I was staggered, however, to see that one of the few names mentioned – and this under history at KS1 – was Christina Rossetti, who is described (alongside Brunel) as a “creative genius.”  Now, I like some of her poems quite a bit and a couple of them go down very well at funerals, but I’d baulk at the term “creative genius” and I’m still puzzling as to why she pops up in key stage 1 history.  The only conclusion I can possibly draw is that whoever was put in charge of assembling the history curriculum ‘experts’ had a particular penchant for the carol “In the bleak midwinter” and decided slyly to crowbar Rossetti into KS1 history.  I’m open to other suggestions, however.

Focusing on history offers me most scope for a good old, breathless rant, because it’s easily the most prescriptive and bizarrely stupid of the draft subject documents.  If I were to tell you that KS2 orders for history contain around 40 topics or themes, you’d be forgiven for suggesting that covering all of these in four years, on an hour a week, might be a bit of a stretch for primary teachers.  If I pointed out to you that some of them include such topics as the Crusades, Plantagenet rule in the 12th and 13th centuries, including: key developments in the reign of Henry II, including the murder of Thomas Becket, Magna Carta, de Montfort’s Parliament , relations between England, Wales, Scotland and France, including: William Wallace,  Robert the Bruce, Llywelyn and Dafydd ap Gruffydd and the Hundred Years’ War, you’d probably raise an eyebrow at the fact that these topics are meant to be taught to year 4 children, who are 8 or 9 years old.  I know that we didn’t do a lot of history when I was at junior school in the sixties – largely because a relentless focus on English and maths sent our whole class of 48 children on to secondary with very high levels of attainment in each of these subjects – but I do know that in our second year we did some topic work (again, the relentless focus on English) on the Egyptians.  We didn’t do any history at all at infants school – the head teacher presumably deciding that small children needed that “relentless focus” I described earlier, in order to be able to read and write a bit more coherently when the time was right for them to study history.

The politicians’ delight in meddling with education, which began with Thatcher/Baker and has continued unabated ever since, has meant that they cannot – simply cannot – stop themselves inflicting the great list of subjects on 4-7 year olds.  Thereafter, they spend countless hours wondering why 25 years of the National Curriculum has left generations of children and young adults less literate and numerate than their predecessors.  The notion that it might be the result of their meddling and interference where it is neither needed nor helpful just doesn’t occur to them.

Children in infants’ schools need a lot of English and a lot of maths, together with some nice (unprescribed) music, PE and art.  They need structured play areas in which they can practise the soft and hard skills they are learning, especially how to talk to and play with other children.  I went up to infants school at Easter (I’m a June baby), already able to read and write, and loved the six weeks they allowed me access to the Wendy house, the sand pit and the water play area before I was shunted off to Y1 where that – yes, you’ve guessed it – “relentless focus” began in earnest.  In all classrooms up to and including year 2, however, were pretend shops in which we handled money and weights and measures, nature tables, pretend offices, etc. at which we could develop and refine essential skills.  Moreover, our teachers in infants and juniors knew that they could use the topics they knew well and in which they had greatest expertise, together with ‘topical’ issues that arose:  I recall with joy and pleasure the use of the topic ‘Tokyo Olympics 1964’, which explored a wide range of geographical, historical and cultural issues, all the while contained within that same “relentless focus.”

The draft National Curriculum document (see it and wonder at its depressing prescription here) states at the beginning that it “prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.”  Unfortunately, it prepares them only to be the latest in a long line of generations since 1988 derided by the right-wing press, the CBI and politicians on their pins in the House of Commons as “functionally illiterate/innumerate” or lacking in whatever thing it is that children “ought” to know, but don’t.

Please submit your comments below.

Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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