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Chris McGovern: The dictatorship of the curriculum is a dead end. Pupils need regular tests


Dame Sally Coates had a formidable track record as a head teacher. Most notably she turned the disastrously failing Burlington Danes Academy into one of the best state schools in London. For Michael Gove she was a true super head –  “a model of autonomy and strong leadership”. This was not enough to persuade him to send his own child to her school, of course, even though it is close to the Gove home.

The ideas of Dame Sally carry weight, not least because she is now a director of United Learning, a major academy chain. We need, therefore, to take seriously her recent call for “every child from age 4 to 14 to study the same curriculum at the same time in schools across the country”.  She told The Times that this “would drive up social mobility and allow schools to concentrate on teaching rather than struggling to devise what to teach”.

Something similar to the centralised and uniform system of day-to-day teaching being proposed by Dame Sally is characteristic of other countries, including France. And in the Asia-Pacific superstar education systems a high degree of centralisation exists about what is taught, even if the emphasis is on regular assessment rather than hour-by-hour uniformity.

Regular assessment, indeed, was a characteristic of the ‘revolution’ in learning brought by Dame Sally to Burlington Danes Academy and it is common enough in our independent schools. It is surely in that area that future reform of teaching should be directed. For too long teacher training and the assessment of teaching quality has been focused on the ‘process’ of teaching and learning rather than its product. The Ofsted inspector’s view has too often been:  “Never mind that the kids did not learn anything in that lesson. Was it child-centred and exploratory. Did it employ the right method?”

Daisy Christodoulou’s survey of inspection reports has shown (Seven Myths about Education) that it is rare to see traditional whole class teaching methods being given approval by inspectors. The “good” and “outstanding” grades for teaching are reserved for group work and ‘personalised’ learning. For sure, the didactic, whole class methods used by the Chinese teachers who appeared in the recent BBC TV series teaching in an English comprehensive school, would have been graded as ‘unsatisfactory”. The fact that the pupils they taught trounced their peers instructed by the school’s own teachers in the end-of-experiment tests, counts for nothing these days if the methods used are not “best practice” child centred “active learning”.

As a head teacher I never sought to impose a single so-called “best practice” teaching method on my staff. I simply required them to ensure that the pupils progressed from A to B in the course of the year. This was formally tested at the end of the school year with intermediate testing along the way. It was up to the teacher to decide, within reason, whether to deploy traditional whole-class teaching or a more child-centred approach, or a mix of the two. Teachers invariably perform more effectively when they feel comfortable with the teaching style they are using.

An over-prescribed curriculum, such as that suggested by Dame Sally, would run into the danger of being backed up by a single method of teaching.

She wants the Government “to gather a panel of experts to design a model curriculum.” Sadly, it has been the continuing reliance on ‘experts’ that got us into this educational mess in the first place. Dame Sally’s proposal is naïve. Her solution is likely to compound the problem it is meant to solve. After all, who brought us the ‘bog standard’ comprehensive school, the ‘bog standard’ GCSE exam and the ‘bog standard’ National Curriculum that has seen us plunging down the international league tables of educational attainment?  Who brought us the disastrous phonics-free ‘real books’ approach to the teaching of reading, tables-free arithmetic and knowledge-lite lessons in history and so on? The ‘experts’, of course – the Blob, the educational establishment! Trust the experts? Never! As Churchill once commented, they should be “on tap” but never “on top”.

It is a damning indictment of our schools and of our new National Curriculum that Dame Sally considers it necessary to prescribe a new hour-by-hour curriculum. Even the best education systems in the Asia-Pacific have not gone quite that far and their curricula are rigorous to the extent of placing their pupils up to three years ahead of ours by the age of 15. In addition, these Asian curricula are dependent on tried and tested whole-class teaching methods that are anathema to most schools here. In England and, indeed, elsewhere in the UK, a new heavily prescribed curriculum would be another vehicle for imposing the Blob’s skewed and failed dogmas of what constitutes ‘best practice’. Forget it Dame Sally! We need to focus on assessment just as you did when you were a head.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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