Tag Archives: National Curriculum

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.

Filling in Forms

One of the unexpected side effects of having a baby with Down Syndrome was that I spent the first eight or so years insulated from the kind of playground competition that is the bane of many parent’s lives. I don’t know if it was that Sam was particularly cute (he was), whether I am blessed with especially wonderful friends and family (I am) or whether I give off the kind of vibes that stop people from boasting about the achievements of their progeny in case I either burst into tears or punch them in the face (possible), but whatever it is, there is a tacit acceptance around him and me that making comparisons with his ordinary peers doesn’t work.

I really enjoyed being in this protected space, partly because it made such a refreshing change to the world I inhabit as a teacher. Education operates within what we call a ‘deficit model’, you see. We teachers have in mind a set of skills we want to teach our charges, a destination towards which we are journeying, and, in order to get there, we constantly assess what the children can’t do yet. When we mark their work, we always point out the things that they got wrong, or could change to make their work even better; very little unalloyed pleasure and celebration in their achievements is allowed.

When I had a baby who needed me to teach him almost everything, I found that, all of a sudden, I wasn’t working to this model any more. Anyone who has ever held a little baby in their arms, regardless of disability, knows instantly that they are an empty book, an unwritten page – there is not a lot of point in listing what they don’t know, because they don’t know anything yet. When I learned that my baby had a serious learning difficulty, correcting mistakes wasn’t part of the equation; celebrating the small steps along the journey of child development was.

I think that’s one of the reasons why I quite like the ‘levels’ we use as teachers, in order to describe the stage at which our charges have reached in their educational journey, even though Sam has spent most of his educational life on P-scales (they are a set of descriptors used by teachers to assess the learning of a child who hasn’t made it onto National Curriculum levels yet). In the day-to-day work of a classroom teacher, we can get very bound in tracking the progress that children make in their learning, but when it comes down to it, when the children we have nurtured throughout their primary years leave us, we give them a number, something that indicates to them, their parents and their next teachers, in broad terms, what they can do.

It’s all set to change, though, along with the new national curriculum in September 2014. Instead of levels, we will be working with ‘below’, ‘at’ and ‘exceeding’ ‘age-related expectations’. In a way, I can see what the Department for Education (or whatever it is called these days) is trying to get at. Most parents want to know that exact thing that my friends so sensitively refrain from discussing with me – how are their children doing in relation to their peers. This is all very well when your children are at the top of the class (who doesn’t like basking in a bit of reflected glory?), but my heart aches for those who are bumping along at the bottom.

As a teacher, I have always known that kids with SEN know very well where they sit in the class pecking order, and that the very last thing they needed was to have it shoved down their throats all over again that they were well below where they should be. It’s one of the reasons I detest those beautiful little wall charts that many teachers spend so long creating that aim to show the progress the children are making, as they shoot up into the stars, or over the rainbow; because there are always the same little faces who never reach the crock of gold, there, for all to see. Sometimes they don’t even make it off ground zero.
So when I hear that the new way to measure the progress our kids make in school is to put them into some sort of public ranking order, I feel disturbed.

One of the first things I discovered, when I started on my journey towards being a fully-fledged teacher, was the power of self-belief, of motivation. I vividly remember the little girl, who, according to her reading level, shouldn’t have been able to tackle the book of bible stories she determinedly read to me, because someone had forgotten to tell her that she was working at well below the expectations for her age. I took this lesson with me (along with a lot of other ones, I freely admit – maybe one day I’ll write about those too) when Sam was born. If he believes he can, if he really, truly wants to, then he can, as far as I’m concerned. (I would put whatever it is here, but I am wary of making such a broad statement. He might want a tattoo.)

Many people will accuse me of living in a state of perpetual denial, I’m sure. But when the future is a scary place I find it a much safer thing to live in the present, and take each day as it comes. Which is why filling in forms like the application for DLA (Disability Living Allowance) is such a difficult thing to do. In it, I have to put down in black and white all the things that my son can’t do, all the times I have to help him with something his peers can do, all the ways in which our lives are made more difficult by that tiny little extra chromosome. Instead of joyfully celebrating the fact that he can read the instructions on the Wii, or the Sky+ menu, I must engage fully with that deficit model. I must broadcast to all and sundry that my son, my beloved boy, is far exceeding his peers in his lack of progress towards, well, everything.

So that’s my big problem with the new way of assessing children, of assessment without levels. To hell with the fact that we teachers will have to invent a new language with which we can speak to each other, another layer of obfuscating jargon so that we can understand what we mean when we pass a child along to the next in the line. To hell with the parents who insist on engaging in a pissing contest in the playground over which colour label book their child is on, or which spellings they are doing, or which classroom they go to for Maths. At the heart of my disquiet lies the child who will be told that they are not good enough, that they are below the norm; the child for whom below expectations is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because, as I once said to the late John Peel, there is no such thing as a normal child.