Will free schools adopt the progressive proposals in the new National Curriculum Review? Will Gove?

Francis Gilbert's picture
The more the new National Curriculum Review is scrutinised by teachers, the more it looks like common "progressive" sense. It is certainly not the step back to the 1950s that Michael Gove clearly wanted, but is actually a very sensible document which is full of ideas to make the curriculum much more "child-centred" and "teacher-friendly". Ironically, one of the reasons why it is so enlightened is because it's looked very carefully at the highest performing countries in PISA -- (Programme for International Student Assessment) which is an international study which began in the year 2000. It aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in participating countries/economies.

Michael Gove has consistently used PISA as a stick to beat the teaching profession with, saying we are slipping down the "international league" tables. However, it appears that the top performing jurisdictions are ones that have a very "child-centred" approach to education; where the onus is not on the teacher being a strict disciplinarian, leaping around in front of a black board, but where children are expected to discover knowledge for themselves within carefully structured and managed environments of learning. The new National Curriculum Review recognises this, putting "oral development" at the centre of the curriculum. It is very different in tone to many of the curricula that are being promoted on many new free school websites and, indeed, many academies, where there is a heavy emphasis on "chalk and (teacher) talk", rote-learning, and punitive discipline systems.

Furthermore, it is very sceptical of obsessively measuring children's learning. In Chapter 8, the report says: “constant assessment to levels is itself over-burdensome, obscures the genuine strengths and weaknesses in a pupil’s attainment, obscures parental understanding of the areas in which they might best support their child’s learning, and likewise, weakens teachers’ clear understanding and identification of pupils’ specific weaknesses or misunderstandings.” Does this mean that National Curriculum levels will be scrapped? I think many teachers would be happy about this; a system which wasn't so obsessed with league tables, exams and always measuring children's achievements in a somewhat nonsensical numeric form would certainly be a better and fairer one.

I attended a conference this Saturday given by the London Association of English Teachers (LATE) on speaking and listening, where some researchers from the University of East London spoke rather brilliantly of their research which shows that when teachers take a step back and encourage conversation rather than hijack and dominate it, then real learning takes place. They were recommending that teachers should video tape their interactions with groups of children and then watch the videos carefully, looking at the ways in which they were asking questions and fostering a debate. The conference conclusively showed that an overly prescriptive approach can shut down debate and thus inhibit learning.

At the end of the conference, the General Secretary of LATE, John Wilks spoke eloquently about the new National Curriculum, pointing out its progressive suggestions and wondering whether Michael Gove would actually adopt them. Many other teachers there were wondering this too. The teaching profession is holding its breath...What will Gove do? Will he decide to listen to the ignoramuses who blog for the right-wing press or pay attention to his panel of experts who actually know what they are talking about?

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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 25/01/2012 - 13:38

I posted this on an earlier thread which had unfortunately go bogged down in discussing items not connected with the National Curriculum Review. It's worth repeating here.

The Review found that high-performing jurisdictions make explicit the “practical and functional contribution that education makes to national development” and this is done by focussing on four “domains”:

“Economic – the education of pupils is expected to contribute to their own future economic wellbeing and that of the nation or region;

Cultural – the education of pupils is expected to introduce them to the best of their cultural heritage(s), so that they can contribute to its further development;

Social – the education of pupils is expected to enable them to participate in families, communities and the life of the nation; and

Personal – the education of pupils is expected to promote the intellectual, spiritual, moral and physical development of individuals.”

The Review suggested a fifth domain: environmental ‘stewardship’.

The Review noted that they had received submissions recommending a knowledge-based curriculum or one that developed learning skills. It concluded that both were necessary – one did not preclude the other. This has been discussed earlier on this site:


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 25/01/2012 - 14:42

The Review goes some way to halting the move towards the marginalisation of arts subjects, particularly with the introduction of the EBac and the threat to local authority music services posed by a large number of schools opting out of LA support thereby making LA music services unsustainable.

The Review highlighted the importance of “arts” subject and was concerned that “the role of art and music in a broad, balanced and effective education should not be lost.” In its assessment of international evidence, the Review found that out of the 14 jurisdictions surveyed, only four, including England, ceased compulsory provision of art and music by the age of 14. Two jurisdictions, Massachusetts (US) and Ontario (Canada) made art and music compulsory until 18. In addition, the Review recognised how wll art and music education contributes to pupils’ knowledge of cultural heritage(s).

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 25/01/2012 - 15:32

The Review thought that the four-year Key Stage 2 was too long and recommended that it be divided into lower and upper Key Stage 2. This has caused some consternation among primary school teachers who fear even more testing:


Katherine's picture
Wed, 25/01/2012 - 17:28

Interesting article. I hope they don't change the current structure -- my daughter is in year 4, and it's nice to feel that she is working methodically through the curriculum towards year 6 goals. It gives the pupils and teachers a sense of space, without any formal testing or review this year. And of course teachers have a very good idea how all the students are achieving at any given time, without publishing league tables!

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 25/01/2012 - 15:33

International evidence studied by the Review found the majority of high-performing jurisdictions require all students to study a broad range of subjects to the age of 16, including art & design, geography, history, modern foreign languages and music. In the light of this evidence, it proposed the following (all key stages unless stated otherwise):

1A National Curriculum Core comprising English, Maths and Science with detailed Programmes of Study and Attainment Targets.
2National Curriculum Foundation subjects, comprising Art and Design (key stages 1, 2 and 3), Geography, History, Modern Foreign Languages (key stages 2*, 3 and 4), Music (key stages 1, 2 and 3) and PE, would have “refined and condensed” Programmes of Study with minimal or no Attainment Targets.
3The Basic Curriculum: Design and Technology, ICT; Citizenship (key stages 3 and 4); the arts including music (key stage 4), would all be compulsory curricular requirements but schools would decide the content locally.
4Subjects not required (eg Art and Design at key stage 4; MFL at key stage 1) could be offered as part of a local curriculum.
Subjects already in the Basic Curriculum (Careers, Work-related Learning, Sex Education, Religious Education) would remain. These were outside the remit of the Review and it recommended no changes.

*The Review recognised that there was much debate about the best time to start teaching MFL and recommended further research about the teaching of MFL in lower Key Stage 2.

John Finney's picture
Tue, 31/01/2012 - 12:28

The sanctity of subject disciplines and their essential knowledges is upheld by the curriculum review while at the same time emphasising such matters as oracy and hinting at progressive pedagogies.

If we are reductive in the extreme then we have on the one side Matthew Arnold's 'best that has been ....' and on the other John Dewey's social democratic ideas. Michael Gove and Nick Gibb have made much of traditional methods as have some free schools. In this rhetoric 'thinking skills' have been singled out as the enemy of knowledge and traditional values. Knowledge good, skills bad. However, I was interested to read in the Cambridge Evening News, January 31st, Cambridge's Perse Junior School declaring a ''classroom revolution, where teachers are consdiered more of a mentor than a 'know-it-all' ...''. The school's approach is to disolve or at least weaken subject boundaries with the art of philosophical thinking permeating the way the children learn. The Stephen Perse Foundation, a collective of four independent schools, hope to help state schools introduce elements of this approach as well as influence government policy.

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