Know nothing, Know-all

This isn't the original.
This isn’t the original.

I remember the first National Curriculum, or I should say, the first primary national curriculum (secondary remains a ‘here be dragons’ kind of place to me, a mystery full of grey corridors and children wearing blazers).  Introduced following the Education Reform Act of 1988, the year of the GCSE, it was rolled out in primary schools in 1989.  By the time I started my PGCE in 1993, teachers were getting the hang of it, even if it was an extraordinarily cumbersome document.  I remember the day I took my copy home from college, so that I could read and inwardly digest; I struggled down the road with two carrier bags and a couple of folders tucked under each arm.

Now, I have to admit to a certain weakness for stationery.  I used to spend hours, as a teenager, choosing my new pencil case and the ring binder I would hug to my chest in the way of teenage girls before the start of the school year.  I was secretly envious of my sister’s collection of smelly rubbers in the shape of fruit, even thought I had a collection of my own (mine were from National Trust properties and museum shops, the only thing, bar the bookmarks, that I could ever afford to buy).  I stacked the brightly coloured folders (one colour for each subject, English was yellow, maths blue, music pink, geography brown) (actually, now I come to think about it, this is probably the reason why I am always disconcerted if maths and English exercise booked aren’t blue and yellow respectively) on my student desk and sighed a deep sigh of satisfaction.

I used to know it well.  Every half term and holiday, I would consult it, just to check that I was teaching what I was supposed to; I would enter in, on the planning form we used, exactly which points I was covering, down to the a,. b. and c.  I filled in Modbury books, and highlighted handwritten objectives, to show what was covered.  When I (hand) wrote reports, I would pore over the level descriptors, to make sure I knew where the children were at in terms of their progress, and what I could usefully tell their parents.

That said, I was glad when it was slimmed down a bit.  It took up a rather large amount of space in my teacher cupboard (along with all the things that everyone else was looking for and that I had forgotten I had stashed in there).  Doing my planning became a lot less complicated (especially maths, I recall, with its pull out diagram of what went where), although every little tweak and change made you feel like you had to work from scratch all the time.  They kept the colours though.  That was nice.

These days, the National Curriculum is a very different document indeed.  Gone are the colours (it’s serious knowledge, after all, none of this playfulness associated with children, please), and in their place are lots of important sounding words, like narratives, summaries, linguistic knowledge, transcription, morphology, geometry and algebra.  It feels aspirational and…muscular.  There’s a lot of Knowledge in it, dressed up in those important sounding words.  So much, in fact, that spelling, vocabulary, grammar and punctuation have two statutory appendices of their own.

Now, I know it feels a bit like having a moan a long time after the event, in the manner of shutting the door after the horse has bolted, but still; and I’ve got nothing against knowledge – there are lots of interesting things in the world, and I am interested in lots of them.  But it seems to me that in our quest for knowledge, and the kind of National Curriculum Knowledge we statutorily strive for, in the seriousness of the document (despite the odd ‘joy’, ‘treasure house of wonder’, ‘imagination’ and ‘curiosity’ here and there) that we have forgotten something really important.

Maybe it’s the layout.  I’ve been reading it again this afternoon (as you do on your day off), checking it out and comparing it with curricla (curriculums?) that have gone before, and there is something about it that troubles me.  It’s not so much the hierarchical nature of it, the way that English and maths are prioritised, which is entirely appropriate in the primary school, as the way it is presented, almost as if it is a list of Things To Learn, and you start at the top and you carry on working away until you get to the bottom.  And that knowledge about writing, and words to describe words, are somehow more important than the things we ask children to write about.  (When you read the document like that, what other conclusion can you come to?  The foundation subjects are lucky if they get a couple of double spaced pages per key stage.)

Maybe primary teachers feel like second class citizens, constantly constructed in the popular imagination with glitter and glue, as if all we do is play at teaching, and we leave the hard stuff, the stuff of subject domains, the treasure trove of facts and knowledge to our secondary colleagues.  Maybe it’s that we wanted a bit of the seriousness of the endeavour to be placed upon our shoulders too, I don’t know.  No pictures or colours here.  This is Serious Knowledge that needs Serious Learning.

The thing is, though, that I know that many primary teachers are not happy with the Way Things Are in their classrooms.   They aren’t happy at being forced, by overly prescriptive assessment criteria that drives what ends up being taught, to teach things they know are wrong, or silly (exclamatory sentences, anyone?).  I’m not happy with the things I’ve seen, when I’ve been driving round the county, reading the books, full of what the children wrote.

But maybe the solution lies with us.  Maybe we ought to have a bit more professional confidence.  Maybe we ought to say a bit louder that if children are going to be asked to write, then they need something to write about.  Maybe we ought to point out that the primary curriculum has art and music and science and technology and computing and foreign languages and RE and all sorts of other lovely things in it that would do that very job.  If only we had the time to teach it.  Or the time to think about how we would do it in a meaningful and joined up way that makes sense to the developing child.

It strikes me that if we don’t, if we do the compliant thing that answers the order, ‘jump1’ with ‘how high?’, if we can’t find a better answer to the accusation that we are against knowledge and against learning than treating children to a narrower and narrower curriculum – for everyone, not just those with SEND – in order to justify ourselves, to prove that we are Serious Creatures, not frivolous ones in love with fun, then we are in danger, by forgetting that you don’t have to learn ‘this’ before you can learn ‘this’ (i.e. the ‘treasure trove of wonder’ is to be found in the primary school too), of creating children who appear to know it all, but actually know nothing.

And in the meantime, while we struggle to keep up, we are distracted from commenting on the funding bubble that is about to burst and the slow but steady creep of the neoliberal trap.

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7 thoughts on “Know nothing, Know-all

  1. I think that there is a lot of scope for the things you want to see happening BUT I don’t think schools were given enough time or guidance to structure their curriculums. I think many are trying to tie the old and new together too much. I was lucky that I was given time to do a lot of work on the New Curriculum because I was doing an NPQML and my headteacher let me run with it, gave me time off to do some aspects of it. That was not the case in most of the primaries we were collaborating with. It also exposed the fact that not enough subject leaders had the time to develop their abilities to lead rather than manage the subjects they were in charge of prior to the introduction. The capacity wasn’t there and the support wasn’t either.

    1. I agree with every word. Every single one. I would also add that there were some primaries the new curriculum just seemed to ‘happen’ to – they relied on their bought in schemes and tracking systems to ‘do their thinking for them’ which, imho, wasn’t really the intention.

  2. Teaching RE this afternoon (a random one off supply thing btw!) , it was clear it had no priority. (Tacked onto a Friday pm for a supply teacher to do) And yet…the discussion which came from both sets of year 6 children (in an area of high social deprivation/ high PP FSM etc etc..m I might add) was astonishing. They want/ need the broad curriculum brought back to yes, give them something to write about, to talk about. Otherwise what’s the point?
    Sad what’s happened to out primary school
    Curriculm, but then I’m a rebel; I teach with my common sense. Not by all the new National Curriculum dictates.

    1. Ha! Me too! I’m glad to hear you are keeping your hand in – and yes, this is what I have always found too. Primary children are hungry for knowledge about the world, and if we concentrate too much on the mechanics of writing, we don’t have time to give it to them. Which then has a knock on effect when they go to secondary school – and the teachers there assume that they are know-nothings. Which, in part, we have made them to be. Argh!

  3. Indeed. And as you know, I said as much to the enquiry. I was discussing a case in point today, as a matter of fact. This week we tackled the Y6 unit on electricity. It’s minimal. I noticed that one of my pupils had labelled the battery (or ‘cell’ if you like!), as ‘capacitor’. I asked him why and he said, ‘Well aren’t they the same?’. Now, how exciting it would have been if we could have given time to explore why batteries and capacitors are similar but different. That would have been real science knowledge. That would have been RESEARCH! Of course I did tell him that it would be a good thing to find out and report back to me; the thing is, I didn’t feel we had time as a class to pursue an interesting thread beyond the prescribed material, in a subject which is already marginalised by the backwash of the high-stakes accountability testing of the megaliths of English and Maths. There’s no point in arguing that I shouldn’t allow this to happen. I know that – and yet I do. Now hand in your books and go to your maths lesson.

    1. Well, this is the thing. As classroom teachers, we are powerless to effect change – we can’t break the law, can we? And, although I like blogging, it doesn’t feel a very democratic way to get our point across, because you never know whose blog is going to get read – and whose views will be taken seriously.

      It seems to me that we are in a phase where the views on education are driven by a secondary viewpoint which doesn’t take into account the knowledge and understanding of primary.

      I secretly hope that the college of teaching can do something to address this, leaving the unions to deal with workplace issues.

      Well, sort of!

    2. And then (I am quietly ranting now), what happens to the send children? Not just those like Sam, with ehcps, but those working at ‘just below’ too. At what cost to their education is this drive for ‘standards’ in English and maths? They do lit and num all morning – and then again in the afternoon (in intervention), that’s what. Nothing in their science books, nothing in any of the books. But that’s ok because they can read and write and do sums now, all caught up – aren’t they? A view which seems to ignore the very real possibility that, in order to keep up, they will need the same level of intervention support in the secondary phase. And so the curriculum for these children, the very ones we are purportedly giving a knowledge curriculum that will somehow close a cultural gap, continues to narrow to dry dullness that continues as far as they can see.

      And breathe.

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