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Last Updated: Friday, 13 July 2007, 23:25 GMT 00:25 UK
'Dead parrot' curriculum replaced
Mike Baker byline graphic
By Mike Baker

Muslim with British flag
Children will discuss the UK's ethnic and religious identities in citizenship lessons
The old curriculum is dead; long live the new curriculum!

Yet, as the fanfare fades, how should we judge this new curriculum for England's secondary schools?

Is it a radical and experimental shift - a real break with the traditional subject-driven timetable - as the curriculum experts argue?

Or is it just a gentle nudge on the tiller, cutting away a certain amount of "waste and duplication" in order to find a little more space for teachers to focus on the basics, as the government wants us to think?

I believe it is the former and that the government has either been hoodwinked by its advisers or, more likely, is too nervous of being accused of going all soft and trendy to be really honest about the radical nature of this change.

The old curriculum is dead, it is no more, it has dropped off its perch!

At the launch of the new curriculum, held at Lord's Cricket Ground, schools minister Lord Adonis argued that the setting was symbolic, showing that the "traditional is alive in the curriculum".

His take on the new curriculum was that it would give schools a bit more space to deliver "catch-up" lessons to those falling behind and a bit more "stretch" to those pushing ahead.

I thought he protested a little too loudly.

Yes, as the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Dr Ken Boston, insisted, the curriculum will still contain the essentials: grammar, Shakespeare, the British Empire and algebra.

But Dr Boston also stated, quite unequivocally, that "the traditional approach to covering the syllabus has been exhausted, it has delivered all it can, it will work no more".

I was reminded of Monty Python's dead parrot sketch: the old curriculum is dead, it is no more, it has dropped off its perch!

I think the government knows this.

'Hostile bouncer'

But it is too wary of those sections of the media and public opinion that remain wedded to a 19th century model of the curriculum to embrace publicly something that could be labelled - horror of horrors - "progressive".

Even Dr Boston was, most unusually for an Australian at Lord's, on the back foot.

The new curriculum was not "new age" or "trendy", he insisted.

I suppose he has faced hostile bouncers from the press often enough to feel it necessary to strap on the pads and helmet first.

The essential point about the new curriculum is that it gives teachers much more flexibility about how to organise learning.

They do not have to be trammelled by subject labels. They do not have to plod methodically through programmes of study.

Instead, they can pursue learning through cross-curricular themes. They can adapt the pace and content of learning to the needs of individual pupils.

In short, the new curriculum is designed to permit something the government has espoused - without really defining - "personalised learning".

'Loosening the ties'

As one curriculum expert put it, this whole vast exercise of revising the curriculum has really been about one thing - giving teachers permission to use their own professional judgement.

I think the interesting question will be whether, after 20 years of being told what and how to teach, enough teachers will have the confidence to strike out on their own.

And, of course, the old habits of prescription die hard, with the government adding new requirements to teach cookery, financial capability, and personal well-being.

Not to mention the other major constraint - the national tests and the need to score well for league tables.

So, I fear, schools will feel themselves caught between two contradictory pressures: from the QCA to push ahead with personalised learning and from the government to keep delivering better results in the maths and English tests.

Nevertheless, this is a very interesting time in curriculum development. The QCA may have released some new energy in schools by loosening the ties on the curriculum strait-jacket.

Once more in education it seems that things have gone full circle

We may, finally, have moved beyond those now rather stale arguments about traditional content versus personal development, subject-centred versus child-centred teaching, or, more concretely, Shakespeare versus creative writing.

It took the poet laureate, Andrew Motion, to put this with the greatest clarity.

Creativity, he told the curriculum launch, is as much about creative writing as it is about reading the classics. It is not one or the other, but both.

By having a go at personal expression themselves, he said, pupils also learn the principles of good writing. They may not produce masterpieces but they will learn how to analyse classical literature more effectively than through traditional methods.

Almost 20 years ago, when the national curriculum was first being discussed, the schools' inspectorate, HMI, urged an approach that moved beyond traditional subjects and organised learning by "areas of experience".

It has taken 20 years to happen but, finally, it seems to have arrived.

Similarly, in 1987 the early proposals for the national curriculum suggested that 20% of the school day should be left to schools' discretion.

Now the government is claiming a huge advance because 25% of the timetable has been freed up. Once more in education it seems that things have gone full circle.

Let us hope though that, rather than a circle, this is an upwards spiral and that some of the essential rigour of the national curriculum has been retained whilst allowing some much-needed flexibility for teachers and learners to go at the pace, and with the content, that suits them.

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Curriculum to be 'more flexible'
12 Jul 07 |  Education
How will flexible curriculum work?
05 Feb 07 |  Education
Views on the curriculum changes
12 Jul 07 |  Education

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