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Curricular freedom or a poisoned chalice?

news | Published in TES magazine on 16 March, 2012 | By: William Stewart

'Deskilled' teachers could struggle with greater control, RSA warns

Teachers will soon have "greater control over what is taught in schools and how it is taught", ministers have promised. But that may prove, at best, a mixed blessing unless the profession is given more support, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) warned in a report released this week.

The organisation said that evidence it has gathered from its own school curriculum projects suggests that this new freedom may provoke anxiety and diminish confidence among teachers when it finally arrives.

Indeed, the society is calling for all newly qualified teachers to be given extra training in how to design their own school-based curricula. It says that teachers have been "deskilled" in this area in the decades since the national curriculum's introduction in 1988.

"The implications of devolving curriculum powers to schools without enhancing the capacity of teachers to engage in a meaningful way with curriculum design could have real consequences for the quality of curriculum offered to students," RSA senior researcher Louise Thomas wrote in the report.

The government is not discarding the prescribed national curriculum, although the rapidly growing academy sector will be free to ignore it. But it does want to strip it down to "only the essential knowledge", allowing teachers "a greater degree of freedom in how that knowledge might be acquired", because "teachers, not bureaucrats or ministers, know best how to teach".

The idea is that they will also have more space outside a slimmed down national curriculum to decide what to teach.

The RSA is already encouraging schools to work with their communities to design curricula based on their local areas. It has found a general enthusiasm, but also "significant challenges".

Some secondary heads of department were reluctant to try new approaches. Other teachers were anxious about how their projects would fit around Ofsted and national curriculum requirements. And in some primaries there was a "lack of confidence" about teaching without established curriculum resources.

The society suggested that "commissioning or regulatory bodies" may be necessary to form an extra layer between schools and central government - a role once played by the recently abolished Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.

It also warned that if teachers lack the capacity to develop their own curricula, they will turn to resources developed by private companies. "This could mean that the devolution of curriculum powers to schools ends up as little more than an exercise in timetabling and commercial solution delivery," the report said. "The requirements of school-based curriculum design ... require more of teachers than just subject knowledge and classroom techniques."

But it is ministers, as well as teachers, who will have to do more if their plan is to work, according to the RSA.

And the report noted that the government White Paper that first proposed curriculum freedom for schools contained "no guidance as to how teachers might be supported to take on the role of curriculum developers".

TES revealed in September that it is expected to remain that way, with subjects associations warned by government that there was unlikely to be money for extra training in the new national curriculum or any non-statutory guidance.

At the time, a government source warned: "We have not got it (the money) as a state. We just don't have it."

The RSA claimed that ministers' rhetoric has not always matched their stated policy. Michael Gove, education secretary, has complained that the current national curriculum patronises teachers by telling them how to teach, and also that it "doesn't mention any historical figures", Ms Thomas noted.

"There is a contradictory implication here in the suggestion that teachers are perfectly capable of determining everything about how to teach, but that they are entirely incapable of using their discretion to judge what to teach," she added. "This denial of the potential role of the teacher as a curriculum creator (rather than simple transmitter) may stem from a view of knowledge as a fixed, static body of content that is so obviously important that the role of the teacher can only ever be to absorb and then to inculcate that knowledge in young people."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't on education reform. Teachers have been crying out for years to get rid of the prescriptive straitjacket the current curriculum bound them in - that's why we're going to free them up to get on with the job. The National Curriculum Review is yet to give us its final recommendations. We will look at the findings in detail and consult the profession in detail about how it will be implemented."

A matter of opinion

Will teachers need extra training for the new national curriculum, and how should it be delivered?

John Dunford, chair of the Whole Education campaign group: "You only need big money if you have a very centrally driven, prescriptive system. But we are not in that world now."

Annette Smith, chief executive of the Association for Science Education: "You might want teachers to be creative. But if there has been prescription for every minute of the day for years, then you have to support them to be creative."

Professor Mick Waters from the University of Wolverhampton, who introduced the revised key stage 3 curriculum in 2007, believes that training could be delivered within schools if they stopped allocating existing training days to subjects such as performance management and health and safety.


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