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National Curriculum Review?

10 January 2012

What does the National Curriculum need to look like?

We are in the middle of another review of the National Curriculum. All new governments feel the need to assert their beliefs on the education system as soon as they can after taking office. Which is fine, because part of the reason that they were voted in was that citizens made decisions based on what they think our schools should achieve.

So, the government is starting to publish, bit by bit, its thinking around education.

What would you do if you were Secretary of State for Education?

It is really tempting, and understandably so because we are all human after all, to come to a view that the beliefs one espouses are the right ones.

I think there are several phases of wisdom. Firstly, one acquires facts and skills and can use them in a way that they have been shown. Then experiential learning leads to these being applied in ways that are effective. These then become embedded behaviours and people live within their own experiences. This, I guess, is where most people stop. These behaviours become beliefs, fundamentals, foundations, that shape our lives. We espouse these because we have internalised them and experienced their repeated impact.

But going beyond this, one can step out of one's own experience, as though looking at oneself through the eyes of an alien anthropologist. One can observe and notice oneself and the impact that one's actions have. Further still, one can detach oneself from belief systems and look at the evidence to be gleaned from others' experiences. Allowing these to challenge one's own knowledge and understanding. This journey never ends. It is this ability to go beyond one's own experiences, to critically analyse evidence and to continue to evolve thoughts and beliefs, that also allows one to say without fear, 'I don't know best'.

I believe that no Secretary of State for Education knows best. They can't. And that is a good thing.

But what if they don't realise this? What if they have not moved beyond espousing their own beliefs that are based purely on their own experiences?

Well then that could lead to a situation, understandably as I said, where a Secretary of State for Education believes that they know the right medicine to give the patient (to paraphrase Thatcher!) It could lead to a situation where they feel they should (and have the right to) prescribe in detail a National Curriculum and the methodology by which it will be delivered. This is a dangerous position. To dictate a system based on a sample size of one person is obtuse.

So what would I do if I were Secretary of State for Education?

There are conflicting pressures. Firstly, to not fall in to the trap as outlined above, secondly to serve the public who put you in office.

I believe that the public are asking from politicians for the schooling system to achieve certain things, and that as a democracy politicians are duty bound to deliver those. But they are asking for the outcomes, not prescribing the journey. At a local level they may wish also to do the latter.

So what I would do is this: I would work with the community to define the end points, the outcomes, the goals, the purposes. This could be as a set of criteria for students to achieve at the end of their schooling.

And then?

Well, that's it.

I would then leave it to those professionals working with children to define the paths that get them there.

At school level, headteachers and teachers would map out the journey children would take from entering the system to leaving it so that they have the best possible chances of achieving the national goals.

Secondary and primary schools would work together in doing this. Schools might want to form larger support networks too so as to share knowledge.

In otherwords, I would trust the schools entirely. Scary, eh?

A National Curriculum is in place so that children across the country receive a consistent offer, and I understand why this is desirable, but I think that centralisation has lead to a massive de-professionalising of the profession. By handing back true developmental issues to schools, by asking each and every person working in a school to contribute to creating the learning pathways and growing their own pedagogy, then the probability of students having a school experience that will lead to greater life chances greatly increases.

Autonomy for schools and for their communities.

With this, though, I would also insist on absolute accountability. Part of the reason that no Secretary of State has ever taken an approach such as this is because they fear that individual schools will fail due to poor leadership.

But true education improvement is, terrifyingly for a Secretary of State with an eye on remaining elected, entirely a leap of faith.

There are failing headteachers, this is true. Sack them.

But I think there would be fewer failing headteachers if their job were to lead rather than to respond to initiatives and whimsy. If they had autonomy, if they were able to feel and observe the impact in their driving learning, if they were able to focus on their learners and invest in their staff.

Because a handful of headteachers might not rise to the role is not a good enough excuse for controlling at a national level 25,000 headteachers. They know best. That's the point.

The Secretary of State could work hard to ensure that the route to headship actually leads to the highest calibre of candidate. They could ensure that serving heads are constantly engaged in learning networks. They could put in place rigorous accountability measures. They could give power to the local community. There are all manner of means for ensuring the quality. But treating a headteacher or school like a puppet on a string is not the way to achieve the most from out schools.

Secretary of State: go beyond your experience, try to see that the knowledge of those who have dedicated their life to education is valuable. Trust.

Take a leap of faith.

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