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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 December 2007, 18:12 GMT
What will curriculum review mean?
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

classroom scene
Coming their way: another shake-up in learning
On the face of it the government's 168-page Children's Plan for England contains dozens of bullet points - but not many of them are new.

There is some rationale to this.

The 10-year plan provides an opportunity for the new secretary of state to set out what it is that his new department - Children, Schools and Families - actually does.

So the plan includes, for example, a review of the child and adolescent mental health service - underpinned by the alarming statistic that one in 10 children has what Mr Balls described to MPs as "a diagnosed mental health problem".

It embraces a review of provision for children with special educational needs.

There is a great emphasis on play - albeit controlled, structured and "safe".

Parents' views are to be placed "at the heart of government" and parents' councils - as well as the existing parent governors - will be set up in every secondary school.

Parents are to get more help to be parents. Families are seen as key - and parents who split up are to get more help in managing the process.

Ask a group of parents what they most want for their children and yes, they might mention wealth and health - but the priority is most likely to be that they should be happy.

The plan's stated aim is "to make this the best place in the world for our children and young people to grow up".

And there is a hill to climb there, as we all know from the damning Unicef report on children's well-being which placed the UK - meaning primarily England, analysts said - last out of 21 developed nations.

'Root and branch review'

But what goes on in schools remains at the centre of the department's work.

This is what Ed Balls said: "School standards are rising. But I want to accelerate the improvement.

"So I have asked Sir Jim Rose to undertake a root and branch review of the primary curriculum to create more space for teaching the basics - English and maths, a foreign language in all primary schools - and also to ensure all children start secondary school with the personal skills to succeed.

"And if our Making Good Progress trials are successful, we will implement 'stage not age' testing nationally - the biggest reform to national curriculum assessment since its creation."

By "national curriculum assessment" he means what are popularly referred to as the "Sats".

In other words the tests in English, maths and science taken mainly by children at the ages of 11 and 14, as the progress of seven-year-olds is now largely a matter of their teachers' judgement.

And by "biggest reform" Mr Balls is signalling an end to them.

Test changes

Making Good Progress is the (wishful thinking) title for a programme that is being tried in hundreds of schools, of assessing children "when ready" using what are called single level tests.

If their teacher thinks pupils are working securely at a particular national curriculum level, he or she enters them - individually or in small groups - for the test at that level, as a progress check.

This differs fundamentally from the existing Sats. They are delivered to everyone in a specific year group, and the results reflect a range of attainment across the levels.

The pilot tests are available in English (reading and writing) and mathematics.

But hang on, isn't there something odd about Mr Balls' list of "the basics"?

There is no pilot single level test in science - and nor is it in his list.

Instead, the primary school "basics" are now English and maths - and a foreign language.

Making languages compulsory in primary school was a recommendation of the review by Lord Dearing which followed the collapse in language study beyond the age of 14.

Another review

Make no mistake, if the rhetoric is to be believed they plan something big.

"This will be the most fundamental review of the primary curriculum for a decade.

"It will establish the essential knowledge, skills and understanding our schools will teach all our primary aged pupils for years to come."

The government does stress that a review of such significance must seek a wide range of views.

But look who it has appointed to carry it out: Jim Rose, former Deputy Chief Inspector of Schools in England - knighted this summer following his 2006 report into the teaching of early reading, with its emphasis on synthetic phonics.

Sir Jim, we are told, will be closely supported by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

The authority "will take the leading role in providing the evidence required for the review", the plan says.

One might be forgiven for thinking it was part of the QCA's job to review the curriculum, not support someone else's review.

Can it be that ministers have taken fright at the flexibility it introduced the new curriculum for the early secondary years?

And how independent can a review be when it is given such a specific remit?

We are told it will - not "might perhaps, after wide-ranging consultation", but "will" - "create space to better personalise teaching and learning, whilst ensuring an excellent grounding in the basics".

And so on (including - among other things - "reducing prescription").

Sir Jim will no doubt do his usual thoughtful, good-natured and conscientious job - but the end point is clearly set out in the brief.

Is it any coincidence that his report on early reading not only told teachers what to teach, but how to teach it?


On the other hand, do some schools get what they deserve?

A previous review led by the head of Ofsted, Christine Gilbert, recommended last January that the curriculum should be reviewed - in fact urgently, within eight months.

It noted, when it came to what is set down in the national curriculum: "Although it was never intended to describe the whole curriculum, many primary and secondary schools nevertheless perceive it as being too extensive and prescriptive, with too little scope for local flexibility.

"While considerable flexibilities exist, schools do not use these to the extent they might."

It is always striking that the most successful head teachers confidently adopt a "pick and choose" approach to government initiatives, and simply ignore the ones they do not think appropriate.

Given all the demands that are going to be coming their way through this Children's Plan, it looks as though head teachers are going to have to hold their nerves more than ever.

Play and learning children's plan
11 Dec 07 |  Education
'Dead parrot' curriculum replaced
13 Jul 07 |  Education
Primary curriculum to be reviewed
09 Dec 07 |  UK Politics

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