If we are to enable all learners to achieve, the system must be sustainable. A child who started nursery at three in September 2014 will leave education aged 18 in 2029. They will have started school at the end of this coalition government and will then experience three potential changes of government and no end of changes to Ministers in charge. Each one of these could make changes to direction or priorities. This means not only that we can’t know what these children will be expected to learn and how that will be measured, but more damaging that those children could experience massive changes midway through their educational journey. A change made today won't improve economic performance tomorrow. It won't improve it in this parliament without a vast amount of heartache for pupils who once again are told they don't know enough or haven't learnt the right things.
Young children in primary schools are at the mercy of a new, ‘more rigorous’ curriculum, which means that many (if not most) will experience ‘interventions’ to help them to catch up with learning that, last year, nobody knew they were expected to have done. Young people beginning their GCSE courses now will be learning new syllabuses, and assessed with new grading systems in some, but not all, of their subjects. How students, their parents, or indeed employers are expected to make any sense of these changes is anyone’s guess. How does that help all learners to achieve?
We need a coherent curriculum and assessment system that values what is valuable, and not just what is measurable. We continue to have announcements that bemoan the lack of state school pupils reaching Oxford and Cambridge, but no corresponding concerns about the lack of independent school pupils taking apprenticeships. Our accountability system takes data in English and maths, and uses it to describe the success or otherwise of primary schools and their pupils. In January the secretary of state told an audience at the BETT show that we should ‘try to link qualifications to tax data too in order to demonstrate the true worth of certain subjects’. Is that how we measure the value of the subjects we teach? My A levels include religious studies and maths - I wonder what I would have been encouraged to pursue if my school had worried about my possible earnings.
We need a system that is properly flexible. A national system can’t change every five minutes. Or I’ll rephrase that. A national system shouldn’t change every five minutes, if we really care about learning. But knowledge changes. Landing a probe on a comet can change the face of science; new evidence uncovered can change our perceptions of our own history; new understanding of food, exercise, sleep can change the messages on health and well-being. The economy changes, those things that workers need will change, new types of jobs become available and others are obsolete – we’re all typists now. So a curriculum, and its assessment system, needs to have planned systems for change. At the moment, changes are too often politically driven, politicians use the lever of accountability to make quick changes, which makes the curriculum subservient to assessment and qualifications.
In a national system then, we need to agree what it is that we’re trying to achieve; to have aims for education that all can subscribe to, that shape the curriculum and its assessment in the long term. We need an independent body to take responsibility for national curriculum development, that will agree a slim curriculum identifying key skills and concepts that are needed by young people in the world (and the economy) in which they will come of age. And that body should build in systems of review, over the long term, which consider evidence about subjects, pedagogy, the economy and children themselves, and make changes with planned trialling and implementation strategies.
Nansi Ellis is a member of the panel for ATL’s pre-election debate on curriculum, “In a fast-changing world, how should a curriculum and assessment system enable all learners to achieve?” which takes place in London on 11 February.
In this, the fourth in a series of free discussions about key education issues, our panel will question whether in the rush to push through its untested reforms the Government is at risk of creating havoc for students, teachers, schools and universities with confusion over grades.
There are limited number of places still available – to find out more, see the ATL website.