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Richmond school abandons subjects for "topics"

Seaton Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education warns that subjects are being abandoned as the mush of the "Personalised Alternative Curriculum Experience" is embraced.

Local government's influence over schools has been weakened in recent years. But does that mean councillors should practically ignore this important area of policy and leave everything to Whitehall or their 'progressive' officials?  Richmond upon Thames is not a local authority where anyone would normally look for 'progressive' ideology.  But it is there.

Christ's Church of England School in Richmond has almost abolished subjects for at least one year group.  On the surface,  the school seems to be a moderately successful 11-16 comprehensive. Last year, 70% of 16-year-olds achieved 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs, though that drops to 53% when English and maths are included. This is above the national average but certainly not impressive.

Where the school does stand out is that it has introduced an integrated, theme driven curriculum that emphasises skills, not subjects. Instead of teaching subjects, each of which has a structure and a recognised body of knowledge, the school teaches a Personalised Alternative Curriculum Experience (PACE).

Pupils' weekly timetables include 11 periods of Performing Arts (apparently a misprint as even the staff didn't know what PACE stood for!) and only 3 of maths and 2 of science.  No identifiable geography, history or religious education at all.

By all accounts, the PACE reform is based on the 'Opening Minds' curriculum produced by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA).  This is now being tested in more than 200 schools around the country.

Meanwhile, the RSA, which is headed by Matthew Taylor, the former head of Blair's No 10 Policy Unit, has opened a new academy in Tipton, West Midlands. The RSA Academy will not only follow the Opening Minds curriculum, it will also train teachers from other schools to do the same.

As yet, no-one seems to have published any objective evidence to prove that PACE or Open Minds raise standards.  It is claimed that pupils enjoy the lessons and they have the approval of Ofsted – but didn't Haringey social services get a clean bill of health from Ofsted too?   

And as topic-based curricula creep into secondary schools, the latest shake-up of the primary curriculum by Sir Jim Rose also moves away from a focus on subjects and towards teaching skills and issues, such as climate change and healthy lifestyles.    

Writing about such changes to the national curriculum in The Sunday Times (2 November 2008), former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead wrote: "Academic standards? What a quaint, anachronistic ideal. This is a curriculum alive with real world topicality. 'Cross-curricular dimensions' such as cultural diversity and sustainable development are deemed to be more important than traditional subjects such as history or science. Indeed in this curriculum subjects have become vehicles for politically correct values...The idea seems to be that learning how to learn is more important than learning anything specific. Our children are going to leave school knowing less, even, than they do now."

Given the choice, how many parents would welcome these changes? 

Schools may need to pay lip-service to such nonsense.  They don't have to embrace it. So why aren't local councillors winning public support by exposing to media scrutiny any school in their area that puts Labour's political ideology above the education of  children?

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