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What's in or out of the national curriculum isn't the point: leaving space for creativity and communities is

Comment | Published in TES Newspaper on 8 April, 2011 | By: Joe Hallgarten

A primary school in Tower Hamlets wants cameras to play as great a role in children's lives as pencils. With the help of filmmakers and parents, teachers are immersing their curriculum in film opportunities. In a Nottingham comprehensive, Year 8s are learning mathematical and design technology through the creation of fashion products and a show. And in a special school in Wolverhampton, students have been exploring their identities as "superheroes" with support from disabled and able-bodied artists.

I have recently witnessed these practices, and many more, having spent March visiting Creative Partnerships' Schools of Creativity. Their approaches to curriculum development are both inspiring and, I believe, not atypical. Throughout the country, schools are designing rigorous new curriculum models with their communities, giving weight to literacy and numeracy equal to other areas of knowledge and skills.

I have never felt a greater contrast between the optimism of what I have been seeing and the pessimism of what I have been reading. I wade through emails from various alliances, campaigns and consortia, exhorting me to support causes that must be included in the new national curriculum.

I understand their rationale; even with an "entitlement" curriculum of 10 subjects, many areas of learning have been squeezed out of all but the most confident schools. The arts were marginalised, often becoming a poorly taught Friday afternoon "reward" for good behaviour. Citizenship education, although statutory since 2001, has never quite taken off. If that is the picture when subjects are compulsory, how will they fare if removed entirely?

However, these campaigners are missing the point. The most important message in the curriculum review's remit is that "schools should have greater freedom to construct their own programmes of study in subjects outside the national curriculum and develop approaches to learning and study which complement it". The national curriculum is not the whole curriculum; it may not even be half of it, and, regardless of ratio, it isn't necessarily the most important part.

My belief is that children should be political animals, sharpening their elbows to prepare for the Big Society. I would love all children to enjoy at least 50 cultural experiences a year, although my list would extend from education secretary Michael Gove's 50 books to a broader canon of literature, theatre, visual art and the odd '80s album. But I also believe that when it comes to the national curriculum my views are irrelevant.

So, instead of pleading for the maintenance of the current curriculum or the addition of new content or skills, I ask those in power to commit to four things.

1. Keep it slim - you did promise

The Finnish national curriculum fits under a door. This should be our role model. If we keep to the four subject areas proposed, we have a chance of achieving the brevity required. However, there is a risk that the national curriculum could still expand to fill all the time available. For Government to define how much time should be spent on it wouldn't be an act of prescription but of bravery. Sir Robin Alexander, who led the Cambridge curriculum review, has proposed 70 per cent. In private, Mr Gove has apparently suggested 50 per cent. I will split the difference: schools should spend three days of every week, or three hours of every day, on the national curriculum.

2. Demand breadth and balance, but don't define either

Ofsted frequently confirms that the most successful schools offer a broad and balanced curriculum. Unfortunately, that has never stopped our least successful schools from moving in the other direction in an attempt to improve results rapidly. However, it should not be the job of a national curriculum to define the boundaries of breadth and balance. Schools and their communities can do this themselves.

3. Make sure schools are accountable for their whole curriculum

This would require a real rethink about the accountability and assessment regimes that underpin and sometimes undermine the good intentions of most curricula. We need an equal status between the curriculum defined nationally and what emerges locally. The proposed new Ofsted framework will be the key factor here.

4. Once it's done, step away

When the review has been completed, Government must resist the temptation to interfere. At that point, schools have to be free to do things that Gove and others might hate; from the way the national curriculum is delivered, to the addition of new subjects, skills or areas of learning.

The importance of the curriculum can sometimes be overstated. It is just one lever in a complex machine of control mechanisms. However, this Government's approach could witness the greatest devolution of power to schools for a generation.

One member of the review's advisory committee has described this great curriculum giveaway as "a hell of a gamble". Although many fear whether teachers have the skills to become curriculum creators, and others doubt whether policymakers have the willpower to stand back, I am keeping the faith. The collaboration, courage and creativity of teachers can make this a gamble worth taking.

Joe Hallgarten is director of programmes for Creativity, Culture and Education and an associate fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. For more on Schools of Creativity, visit www.creative-partnerships.com/about/schools-of-creativity/.


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