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.