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The National Curriculum is ambitious for our children - good

BaldJohn Bald on a revolution for rigour

After what seems like endless toil, sweat, blood and a few tears, we have the final version of the revised national curriculum (NC), in the form of a draft parliamentary order here.

The most important document is the Framework, downloadable from the right-hand side of the page, which contains the complete programmes of study. The current National Curriculum is suspended from September to allow schools to get to work at once, a thoroughly good idea, which will no doubt pass without comment from our opponents.

It's worth pointing out, though, that previous versions of the NC have never been fully established outside English and maths, and that even these were overridden by Labour's national strategies, which ignored the last Conservative government's provisions for phonics in teaching reading, and instituted completely useless methods of teaching children to calculate. The evidence for this lies in their production of materials to teach the two times table to eleven year olds, when children were supposed to know it by the age of seven.

Then the strategy masters (and mistresses) began to gobble up more and more school time for English and maths in a desperate attempt to undo their folly by subjecting schools to more of it, so that there was no time for anything else. Even Labour eventually saw the monster it had created, but too late to do much about it.

So, will this curriculum fare better? Against all odds, I think it will. Sir Keith Joseph, taking office as Secretary of State, said that "the influence we have depends on the sense of what we find to say," and this NC meets that test. In fact the more I read it - and there are 226 pages in the main document, the more I think it really does justify the Prime Minister's description of it as "revolutionary".

In fact, it is so good that it should properly become a programme that academies aspire to rather than want to opt out of. One small but, for the pupils concerned, crucial detail from the English curriculum shows the level of thought that has gone into the work, by the civil service and by everyone consulted - Left-handed pupils should receive specific teaching to meet their needs. This is the first time I have seen this provision included in any country's NC, and it will end much misery if it is put into practice.

History, the most controversial area of the first draft, has been slimmed down and remodelled so that its principles are very effectively built into each topic, with good intellectual challenge for the highest- attaining children, and a topic from local history, chosen by the school, at each stage.  Michael Gove's critics have always remarked on his intelligence - an easy concession for them, as they don't much approve of intelligence - and Elizabeth Truss, who has had much to do with this draft, is no slouch either.  

Here are the opinions of three professors:

  • Professor Jeremy Black, University of Exeter: "You can’t debate our sense of national identity and our national interest unless you understand our national history. This curriculum puts British history first as well, which I think is right. It kicks out the woolly empathy in favour of giving children more of a sense of where we are at that moment between the past and the future."
  • Professor David Abulafia, University of Cambridge: "I admire the flexibility, breadth and inclusiveness of the new curriculum. While keeping the British Isles at the centre of attention, it places Britain in its wider context. I am enthusiastic about the spread of the curriculum over many centuries, indeed several millennia. It allows teachers plenty of choice, while providing a framework that is neither rigid nor flimsy."
  • Professor Robert Tombs, University of Cambridge: "Those of us who teach history, and have long been worried about the lack of a coherent vision of the past even among the highest-achieving school leavers, should welcome this new curriculum.  It makes it possible to study a broad and connected account of change over time.  At every stage it leads children to think over a long chronology and to consider both the local and tangible and the global and general."

The switch from ICT to computer science was welcomed in The Guardian from the outset, but once again it does no harm to hear from experts:

  • Andrew Eland, engineering director, Google: "We welcome the introduction of the new computing curriculum, and hope that it will inspire many children to create amazing things with technology, and eventually help close a critical skills gap."
  • Ian Livingstone CBE, founder of Eidos Interactive, co-author of the Next Gen skills review: "A computing curriculum is likely to be transformational for this country. Children can now go beyond digital literacy and use of technology, enabling them to not only have a cultural understanding of the digital world in which they live, but also to operate as active participants within it. From computational thinking and problem-based learning, to coding and creativity, children will learn to innovate and direct technology as digital makers."
  • Bill Mitchell, Director, British Computer Society (BCS): "It’s extremely welcome that the Department for Education has produced a new Computing curriculum that has computer science at its heart whilst also ensuring all children become digitally literate."

Now it seems a similar transformation has been worked for design and technology, a subject of national importance, and too often a Cinderella.  Here is a sample:

From seven to eleven

Children will research and develop designs for innovative, functional and appealing products. The new curriculum will introduce children to more challenging design techniques, such as pattern pieces and computer-aided design. They will learn about strengthening, stiffening and reinforcing more complex structures. They will be taught to understand and use mechanical and electrical systems – such as series circuits incorporating switches, bulbs, buzzers and motors.

Children will be inspired by successes of the past as they learn about how great designers and engineers have helped shape today’s world.

Out: pupils ‘develop ideas and explain them clearly, putting together a list of what they want their design to achieve.’

In: pupils ‘generate, develop, model and communicate their ideas through discussion, annotated sketches, cross-sectional and exploded diagrams, prototypes, pattern pieces and computer-aided design.’ ‘Exploded diagrams’ are a type of technical drawing used in industry to show how the different parts of a product fit together.

And some more expert opinions:

  • Sir James Dyson: "The revised curriculum will give young people a practical understanding of science and mathematics, where they design, make and test their own product ideas – real problem solving. Michael Gove has listened to industry and teachers, and created a curriculum that will develop the skills required for the inventive jobs of the future."
  • Richard Green, Chief Executive, Design and Technology Association: "This is a curriculum that challenges young people to design and innovate - essential skills for them to participate in an increasingly technological world. We know this will be well received by teachers and schools."
  • Professor Matthew Harrison, Director of Engineering and Education at the Royal Academy of Engineering: "It is great to see D&T strengthened as a subject with real purpose and substance in the new National Curriculum. The partnership between the design community, the engineering profession and government has produced something that will help young people interact more knowledgably with the world around them."

Of course, we can't please everyone, and there is certainly no pleasing the NUT, which wheels out its ritual denunciation of everything the government does, from reforming GCSE (which relieves its members of the coursework treadmill) to multiplication tables, to early phonics (not that most of its spokespeople have ever taught anyone to read in their lives).

Their deputy general secretary, Kevin Courtney, was nevertheless knocked off his stroke by BBC interviewer Emily Maitlis asking him if the NUT had ever welcomed curriculum changes from any government. He bumbled along before admitting that, yes, five year-olds could do fractions if they were sensibly presented to them. The question of whether he would disagree with the requirement to read two Shakespeare plays and two other authors by fourteen, and to know how to discuss a topic and debate, led to this:

KC:  Not particularly.  The, it shouldn’t be just Shakespeare. You need to have the work that engages the children that you’re dealing with but debating and, and around topics is stuff that already happens in schools …

EM:  Okay.

KC:  … that we welcome.

EM:  What, what about pupils will begin learning simple fractions at age five, the first year of formal schooling, and they’ll be expected to know their twelve times- table by nine?  Nothing obvious to object to there, right?

KC:  No, there are things to object to in that.  The, the question of learning fractions at age five is not a problem it depends on what degree of specificity you’re making on that.  Half a cake plus a half a cake equals a whole cake is something that you can do with, with almost every child at that age. If you’re talking about two fifths and four fifths, how many fifths is that?  Then that’s something that not all children will access at that age.

Now you can, with some children you will, you will work on that and that’s fine but you have to remember that when you’re talking about five year olds some of the children became five in the September and some of them became five in the August of the following year. They’re nearly a year younger …

EM:  Sure.

Mr Courtney went on to remark when asked if we did not need to inspire all our kids to feel ambitious about learning, that: "There is no-one more ambitious than the NUT."

I can think of three people. Michael Gove, Liz Truss and David Cameron.


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