The Frantic Curriculum

I attended a curriculum meeting at my children’s primary school recently. It was presented be a couple of school leaders and it soon became clear that the new (2014) National Curriculum had made them frantic.

The frantic was subtle at first. Just undertones of frantic like an out-of-tune bassoon at the back of an orchestra. Little dissatisfied notes like ‘I don’t know why they put that statement in there…’ and the like.

By the end of the meeting, the whole wind section was off with comments like ‘Gove didn’t know what he was doing’ and ‘ this bit is just too hard.’

Personlly, I quite like the 2014 curriculum. I included it in 4 posts I wrote some time ago about the broad and balanced curriculum I think school should follow. At the time I categorised these into 4 strands:

But I was clear then, and I’m still clear now that the National Curriculum is not the only determiner of what should be taught in schools. Education is broader than that.

And I think that part of the growing sense of frantic in UK education is because teachers can’t see past the National Curriculum. This is certainly true of what I heard at the meeting at my children’s school.

Aside from the fact that most people don’t like change, so change in itself can be a frantic event, there is the issue that some parts of the curriculum are genuinely harder.

This means if you’ve been teaching in one year group for a while and it happens to be a year group with some significant changes, the likelihood is that you’ll need to look at your subject knowledge. This is fine, if schools recognise the need and calmly set about training teachers in the right areas. But I can see that where schools don’t put time and energy into developing the subject knowledge of their staff, then the curriculum will be just one more thing tipping teachers over the edge.

The coming mathematics apocalypse

I am tremendously excited by the current maths curriculum in English primary schools. The expectations are higher by at least a year. It is a no-nonsense raising of standards.

I’m excited because if we can find a way of teaching the curriculum successfully, then our students will have levels of maths previously unheard of in this country. They will be on top of the mathematical world. The average will be above average. They will have the skills and knowledge to found an empire of learning.

Not only is the curriculum at a standard that is a year higher than the previous curriculum, but there is talk of the floor standards, already raised from 60% to 65%, to be raised further to 80%. This means that schools will have to find a way of getting more of their students to a far higher standard. What a fantastic aspiration.

But it’s the ‘if’ I see as being a problem. Let’s face it: we don’t currently have the maths specialists we need in Years 5 and 6 – the upper years of primary school. Secondary school maths departments complain of misteaching, cramming for the end-of-primary-school SATs and students without the knowledge they need. What will it be like with even higher standards, both on the level that children must attain, and also the number of children that must attain it?

I see three options:

  1. Success – we achieve the ambition. We find a way of teaching more of our children to a higher standards than previously attained. A golden age of knowledge is ushered in.
  2. Cheating – we pretend to achieve the ambition by blurring further the grey line between supporting students and telling them what to do in tests. The nation lurches towards a moral crisis.
  3. The Maths Apocalypse – We ramp up the stress. School leaders put the pressure on their teachers with the higher expectations. The teachers crack under the pressure and shout things at their students like: “why don’t you just get it!” A generation is turned off everything to do with mathematics. It’s a maths apocalypse.

The problem with raising standards for students is that we also need to raise standards of teaching. Many primary teachers have a ‘C’ grade GCSE in maths, yet the maths expectations now required would go a long way towards achieving one of those ‘C’ grades.

The clock is ticking. In 2016, the first cohort of students will be tested on the new curriculum. Only eighteen months away and staff rooms across the country should be buzzing with conversations around how we teach maths and the subject knowledge we need. Networks of maths co-ordinators will right now be exemplifying the standards – turning the words into maths that can be taught and practised. Experts from teacher training will be working closely with schools, finding ways of bringing their new trainee teachers up to the required standard and sharing some of their training expertise with teachers who are struggling with their own maths. Teaching schools will be focusing on developing their Specialist Leaders for Education in mathematics so that schools within their networks without maths specialists have a means of accessing their expertise.

We have time to prepare and to succeed. Doing nothing will only prepare us for the mathematics apocalypse.

The Coverage Curriculum

The coverage curriculum is the one that has us all running scared.

It’s a bit like the ‘health and safety’ of the curricula world. You must know that moment when you’re losing an argument that you desperately want to win and so you say, “but… Health and Safety…” Suddenly your opponent’s arguments come crashing down as you play the ultimate trump card. Well, ‘Coverage’ is a bit like that.

The thing with the coverage curriculum is that it is what is generally defined by Government. It’s the thing that civil servants print in black and white and subsequently ministers approve. It is the bottom line – the statements that set the learning objectives for the coming year. It is the mother ship of medium term planning: a hive-mind structure with hordes of little alien fighters that dart out to inflict teaching upon unwary students.

And so the Coverage curriculum begins its life already feeling superior to the three other curricula – Standards, Preparation and Education-for-education’s sake. In fact, given an intergalactic battle, ‘Coverage’ probably thinks it can take all three of the others put together. But it is not that kind of fight. In fact it shouldn’t be a fight at all. If teachers are not weighing up the standards their children need to achieve, with the preparation they need for the next stage, alongside the things that they love teaching about, then coverage will just become a meaningless exercise in box-ticking. And coverage will just drift off into the stars, its once mighty engines slowly being overcome by entropy.

That is what happened to the old National Curriculum. As a coverage document it was set up to be enhanced by the other three curricula. But when it didn’t work initially, or quickly enough, government concluded that they needed more coverage – so they designed National Strategies and other initiatives. They sent out more paperwork, often in fancy plastic boxes, sometimes with videos or CD-ROMS included. Each of them accentuated the coverage. Now you could cover citizenship, and problem-solving, and safety, and, lots of other things… But a trick was missed. More coverage was not what was needed. It was not the big issue.

And it has been interesting over the last year also. A new curriculum has been introduced at the same time as new teacher standards, new ways of funding schools, new legislation for special educational needs, new legislation for paying teachers, new frameworks for inspecting schools (at least two of these)… the list goes on. And yet the new thing that has caused most conversation and concern amongst teachers has been the new (coverage) curriculum.

It is important, but it isn’t the most important thing. It is September 2014 and the new curriculum is already two weeks old. Anyone noticed any really significant changes yet?

The Education-for-Education’s-Sake Curriculum

The most esoteric of curricula, the most elusive and probably the hardest to define. Education for Education’s sake is a strange notion in a sharply pragmatic world. Imagine learning something just because you can… Imagine teaching something because you are interested in it…

This is the curriculum that (I think) drives most teachers. It is the idea that Education itself has its own value – it is worth something all by itself. Set against other curricula, it defies the notion that education has a purpose other than just becoming more educated – it’s not for work, or for standards, it’s not to prove anything or to achieve a goal – it just is. Education for its own sake.

For teachers this curriculum is highly motivating. Teachers released to teach what really interests them fly. PE specialists teach their children to dance, run, compete; musicians teach their pupils to play, hear and compose; artists teach their children to appreciate the aesthetic, whilst RE teachers teach students of the ascetic.

Blended with the other 3 curricula that I am writing about, these highly motivated teachers will enable students to make great academic progress, be prepared for their next stage of life and cover all the necessary objectives required by local and national bodies.

Myself I feel I grew up with a curriculum that majored on Education for Education’s Sake. There were no SATs in the 1970s, yet despite no standards agenda many of peers did really well at school. There were no web designers or mobile phone engineers back then either, yet, despite this lack of specific vocational preparation I have friends who have become both. There was no National Curriculum either – no coverage agenda.

Each teacher was different too. Each had their strengths and weaknesses, but I learned something from each of them. Was this because they were allowed to teach with an emphasis on what interested them? I’m not sure. And I’ve tried to be clear in my previous posts that none of these curricula can exist in isolation.

But I think there is a danger in some schools that we try to clone a particular teaching style, or even a particular teacher. A strength of our education system is not merely the autonomy of each school, but also the autonomy of each teacher – each teacher’s strengths can make a big difference to a student’s prospects – if we clone teaching than we deny students a richness and a breadth that we might otherwise have had.

Education does exist for its own sake. This curriculum is important to blend in with the others that I am writing about.

The Preparation Curriculum

I am making the argument that there are 4 curricula that drive the broad curriculum in schools. This is the second: preparation.

Preparation for the next stage; or for the work place. This is the preparation curriculum. Back in 1870, the first Education Act was driven through by industrialists who were fed up of the Church having all the action in the education business. They said they wanted to prepare children for the workplace, although some would argue that they wanted a share of the growing national pot of money assigned to education. What has changed?

In Early Years, teachers prepare children more formal school by teaching the children phonics and the beginnings of maths. In Key Stage One children are taught to read securely to prepare them to use reading across the curriculum in key Stage Two and to do increasing amounts of work without support. Each stage has its own challenges and the Preparation Curriculum has the task of providing the knowledge and skills to meet these challenges.

The Preparation Curriculum is sometimes at odds with the Standards Curriculum that I wrote about yesterday. For example, when children are boosted to perform at their absolute best In Key Stage 2 SATs and perhaps score a slightly higher mark in reading than they regularly work at, it can be misleading for the Year 7 teacher who then takes on that child in September. Similarly, the current National Curriculum level descriptors at level 2 are often accompanied by the phrase “with support”, yet during the assessment period for Year 2 children Level 2 assessments are accorded the same amount of support as level 3 assessments (and of course, there is no “with support” phrase with any Level 3 descriptors).

This means that schools that are doing their utmost to enable their students to achieve the best standards possible are not always preparing them for the next stage.

Of course, the ultimate preparation is for the ‘workplace’. The Preparation Curriculum would advocate practical and vocational lessons that give students the knowledge and skills for jobs in the real world. In DT, use this glue gun – you might be a carpenter. In Computing, learn this html – you might be a web designer. In science learn about Darwin – you might be a biologist. Some of these jobs will exist in the future, some of them won’t. The challenge of the Preparation Curriculum is to have the right lessons that will prepare children for the workplace.

An advantage of being mindful of the Preparation Curriculum is that it can mitigate against the gaming that I mentioned in the last post: if you are desperate to prepare your students for the next stage of their education or life, that you won’t let them cheat at tests. However, the Preparation Curriculum is predicated on knowing what the future holds and so it is limited by our prescient ability and the stability of our society.

 

The Standards Curriculum

I am making the argument that there are 4 curricula that drive the broad curriculum in schools. This is the first: standards.

The National Curriculum for September 2014 has provoked a lot of debate since its inception by the current government. What should be in it? What shouldn’t? How should geography be taught? Why change ICT to computing? And so on…

While this debate is purposeful, I believe the new Curriculum has and will have only a marginal impact on what is actually taught in schools. A far more significant impact is that of the Standards Curriculum. This is the curriculum to do with the standards that students reach in various subjects: in reading, writing and maths at the age of 11; in GCSE subjects at the age of 16; in ‘A’ level subjects at the age of 18.

It is the teach-to-the-test curriculum. The curriculum that grates on most teachers. We didn’t come into teaching for this, we say. And yet year after year, we prepare our children for the tests. We cram, we boost, we plan intervention groups. We ensure that our students perform at their absolute best in their assessments.

And with ever greater accountability structures for schools, the tests that drive the standards curriculum become less about what a student can do and more about what a school can get their student to do. There is the temptation, some would argue the tendency, to ‘game the system’ – to take steps that make the school look the best in tests, irrespective of the performance of their students. Some call this cheating.

No one would argue that raising standards for students is an important goal – all schools need a curriculum that does this. But a curriculum that only focuses on standards in tests is a frightening prospect. The question to be asked is how reliable are the standards? Have the students just crammed something for a test only to forget it the next week? Will that teaching stay with them for life? A standards curriculum relies on the performance of its students: if that performance has been over-supported by the school, then students may come out with grades that they cannot sustain and therefore don’t prepare them for the next stage.

However a curriculum that doesn’t focus on standards is also frightening. Imagine a primary school where the teaching of reading didn’t matter. Imagine a secondary school where academic ability was laughed at. We test students for a reason and that is reason is that academic standards are important. Students who are better readers and better mathematicians have more opportunities for themselves and more opportunities to make society a better place.

For me, the Standards Curriculum is the most important of the 4 curricula that make up a broad curriculum within a school. But the other 3 curricula are important too and need to be blended with standards to suit the needs of the school. The New National Curriculum is a useful starting point for standards, but in reality schools will be looking for what is in the tests that will be coming out from 2015 – these will be the driver for the Standards curriculum in the future, not the National Curriculum itself. Imagine the Year 4 teacher in 2016 looking at how to teach her class – will she mainly look at the National Curriculum or the tests she will have to administer at the end of the year? I suspect the latter.

I’m aiming to look at the Preparation Curriculum in my next post.

The 4 Curricula

What I like about the new UK Curriculum (the one that becomes statutory in September 2014) is that it’s a bottom line. It isn’t an aspirational curriculum like the old one used to be – it just provides the basics for what schools should cover. I think this is important, because it is the role of schools to encourage the aspirations of their pupils, rather than national government. How can a national government in a multi-cultural society encourage the aspirations of every student, given the huge range of backgrounds and expectations that exist? Schools are much better placed for this job, and within each school, each teacher using their amazing skills to educate their students.

I think the broad curriculum that a student is taught at each school is made up of 4 separate curricula:

  1. The Standards Curriculum
  2. The Preparation Curriculum
  3. The Education for Education’s Sake Curriculum
  4. The Coverage Curriculum

I would like to spend the next few posts exploring these curricula and unpicking my claim that schools with more autonomy are better for students than schools with less autonomy

What AfL is for

Rob Coe recently posted an interesting essay about how AfL might well be over-rated.

I broadly agree. And of course I’m in no position to argue against him – my experience only relates to the impact of AfL on 12 teachers in a small primary school of around 240 children. However, my experience of AfL has been really positive and I’ll explain why…

Everyone knows that there are only 4 things that improve teaching, and one of them is subject knowledge; the purpose of AfL is to increase subject knowledge.

Teachers have curriculum strengths and weaknesses – this is particularly apparent in the upper reaches of primary school, where the required qualification in English and maths for a teacher is a ‘C’ grade at GCSE. There are significant numbers of children at this level who may be working close to that level, hence the teacher’s subject knowledge may simply be not high enough to meet the needs of the students.

This is where AfL comes in. Assessing the children closely against rigorous banks of knowledge statements such as those found in the APP materials for English and maths, means the teacher discovers holes in their own subject knowledge – they find out what their students can do, they can see the next steps and they can determine whether they have the subject knowledge to teach those steps. At this point, if they don’t have the subject knowledge, it’s either time to panic, or seek help from their senior colleagues.

It is exactly at this point that things go wrong – senior colleagues (in other schools, I might add) are often keen to tick the AfL box rather than address the underlying problem. Unfortunately it is far easier to make things look like AfL is happening than to actually increase the subject knowledge in your staff – this involves a level of skill and compassion that is beyond many senior leaders in our education system. In this culture, rather than seeking the improvement they need, teachers who need to develop their own subject knowledge will develop all sorts of strategies to conceal it. In fact one of those strategies is writing the letters WALT and WILF on your whiteboard – a point that Professer Coe alludes to.

It is the culture of the school that makes a difference here. In my school we are all learners and my headteacher repeatedly reinforces a ‘no blame’ culture. Only yesterday, my year 6 teacher (whom I line manage) was teaching me what modal verbs are. Similarly we are all happy to educate each other so that we increase each other’s subject knowledge. We have found systems such as APP and Incerts (an online assessment system based on the old National Curriculum) really useful because they have helped us identify what we are good at teaching and which areas we still don’t know much about. We use them as assessment for learning, but really that means increasing our own subject knowledge so we can teach better.

It’s all about the curriculum, isn’t it?

If you’ve spent much time reading the educational news over the last few days you would have seen and heard lots of debate and discussion around the curriculum. The DfE’s consultation on the new programmes of study is out. It is important yes. But it is not the main thing.

What we teach has a significant impact on our young people, but I would argue that it is not as important as who teaches it. Evidence presented to parliament back in 2012 shows the importance of having the best teachers in front of children, and conversely the negative impact of the weakest teachers. We all remember the best teachers, not the idiosyncracies of the curriculum they were teaching.

Yet the people who make money from education – publishers, advisors, subject experts – they all have a vested interest in the curriculum. And so we hear more debate about the nature of the curriculum, not the quality of teachers who teach it.

The teacher standards that became law in 2012 are an incredibly ambition document. Personally, if I had been under those standards when I started teaching I wouldn’t have made it through my NQT year – it was a few years before I became better than ‘satisfactory’. However, now, the old ‘satisfactory’ means ‘requires improvement’. Newly Qualified Teachers aiming to pass this year can’t do it unless they’re ‘good’. The standards are a real statement of intent – “we want the best teachers in this country.”

This means that the processes within schools have to be really good at developing teachers. Performance management, CPD, monitoring all have to contribute to developing our competence. And with Ofsted now looking at performance management when they inspect schools, headteachers now have two reasons to make sure their performance management processes are working.

So here’s what I suggest if you’re in school leadership: put the new programmes of study in your staff room and collect a school response to the DfE consultation. Don’t rush out and spend a load of money on the latest materials to teach the curriculum. Remember, the effectiveness of your teachers is governed by their own confidence, their motivation, their pedagogy and their subject knowledge. Will Ofsted be most concerned by us rigorously sticking to every clause of the new curriculum, or will they be more impressed by amazing teaching.

Yes, understanding and getting to know the new curriculum will help, but it’s not the main thing.

A greater stretch in mathematics? If only.

I read the letter from Michael Gove to Tim Oates about how the new National Curriculum Review would affect the Programmes of Study within Primary Schools with a great deal of anticipation, and then a growing feeling of disappointment. There are various areas that disappoint me, but the area of maths teaching is perhaps the greatest. I read:

In mathematics there will be additional stretch, with much more challenging content than in the current National Curriculum. We will expect pupils to be more proficient on arithmetic, including knowing number bonds to 20 by Year 2 and times tables up to 12 x 12 by the end of Year 4. The development of written methods – including long multiplication and division – will be given greater emphasis, and pupils will be taught more challenging content using fractions, decimals and negative numbers so that they have a more secure foundation for secondary school.

Minor Disappointments

Let me break this down then. Here are some of the minor points that disappoint me:

  1. Knowing number bonds to 20 by Year 2 – this is already the case. How can it be more stretching to maintain an expectation – surely the bar should be raised somehow.
  2. Times tables up to 12×12 by the end of year – this is a slight rise in expectation as children are currently expected to know up to 10×10, but in my experience it is not the knowing of extra times tables facts that hold back children in the latter part of primary schools, it is the lack of knowledge of corresponding division facts (which happens to be part of the current national curriculum).
  3. Greater emphasis on written methods (like long multiplication and division) – this sounds good, but it’s already in the current programme of study. Just saying something more doesn’t make it more rigorous, nor does it necessarily raise expectations. In addition, I’m all for children learning skills in school such as the skill of performing long division, but I had been under the impression that the new curriculum would be more knowledge based.
  4. Pupils will be taught more challenging content using fractions, decimals and negative numbers. Again, these are all in the current programme of study for children from the age of about 7. Whether children are taught these are up to their teachers and their schools.

So when I read the phrase “much more challenging content“, and put it next to the above examples of challenging content, I’m struggling to see the giant leaps in standards that Michael Gove would be hoping for when his new National Curriculum is implemented.

A medium-sized disappointment

A greater disappointment is to see the phrase “more proficient in arithmetic” without any reference to algebra. As I have written before, children start learning about algebra from a very young age when they start investigating concepts such as larger and smaller. It is the concepts involved in algebra, often linked with precise language teaching, that I think are under-taught or mis-taught at primary level. Teachers shy away from this vocabulary-driven area because it doesn’t feel like maths to them – there aren’t numbers and operations written in children’s books – it doesn’t look as good as arithmetic. When children leave primary school I think they are often under-prepared for algebra – it is in this area that I was hoping for higher expectations within our new National Curriculum.

If you’re good at arithmetic you can go to the shops. Or maybe become an accountant. If you’re good at algebra you can become a rocket scientist. Not that education should just be about gaining a decent job – Gove himself says he wants “a love of education for its own sake” – but I have a feeling that for many algebra isn’t the elegant thing of beauty that I perceive it as, but is a rather lumpy, ugly thing, ringed with fire and tears.

A major disappointment

Aside from my algebra foibles, there is a further disappointment that I think will have a wider implication on maths teaching: teacher subject knowledge. No matter how detailed a Programme of Study or a National Curriculum might be, neither address this problem: we have many teachers within the primary sector who do not have sufficient subject knowledge to teach mathematics effectively. Many primary teachers only have a grade C at GCSE and have had to repeat their mathematics test required by teaching training in order to pass their course.

I have no problem with teachers teaching mathematics concepts that they’re not to sure about, so long as they know what to do when they’re stuck. There should be an expert teacher within each primary school – the maths co-ordinator or similar – who can share their knowledge and expertise when others don’t know the next steps. Too often less-skilled maths teachers don’t seek help from their more experienced colleagues, but struggle with the text of the National Curriculum and any scheme books that support it. Not knowing what to do, they either miss the tricky areas or teach it badly – characterised by repeating themselves more loudly and more slowly, a bit like the traditional Englishman abroad.

It is not a new Curriculum that is going to improve standards in mathematics. We will stretch primary mathematics only by increasing subject knowledge within our teachers.