In the course of my deputy headship, the original National Curriculum was introduced. For a few years prior to that, we had been developing a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum for the school, with writing supported by the National Writing Project (see specific blog), so that, when the curriculum was specified, our audit showed a 95% correspondence.
A few tweaks were needed, so it was largely life as usual, except for one key area. The National Curriculum also introduced a national approach to describing progress, as level descriptors came into the vocabulary and in the beginning they were seen as generalised progress/capability descriptors. This introduced the potential for detailed moderation, which we did, and in so doing, raised the expectations of everyone, to a point where, as a First School, transferring after year 3, we were sending in excess of 50% to the Middle School achieving level 3 or better, with evidence. However, the Middle School staff were less than willing to accept the outcomes, despite the evidence.
In the same way, Secondaries did not accept the Middle/Junior School outcomes.
It was the best of times…
I became a headteacher in 1990, taking on a school that might now be termed as “coasting”. Early introduction of rigorous moderation activities quickly showed that expectations were not sufficiently high. As a result, one or two felt a need to move on, which created the space to build within a revised vision and outlook.
Sir Ron Dearing was asked to review the National Curriculum in 1993/94, so this gave a new chance for audit and reflection.
A significant focus on topic detail, working with County inspectors and advisers, created what became known as “Topic Specifications”, ensured coverage and appropriate depth, but also within an annual plan, which ensured that topics took an appropriate amount of time, rather than becoming extended to fill the space.
Maths and English were twin needs, with each receiving considerable attention, the former in supporting clarity in expectation, with the latter ensuring high quality reading approaches and incorporating the best of the National Writing Project outcomes, culminating in the two page approach to writing.
Sport, outdoor activities, extended school days with multiple club offerings were put in place to enhance opportunities.
The evidence of success was two-fold. We retained children who might otherwise have gone to local private schools at 8 years of age, and also into year 6, where bordering county admissions at 11 could mean a drain. We grew from 140 children to 270, with early admission changes. The second success was moving steadily upwards from a start point of 65% level 4+ at KS2 SATs. The school had a good reputation, for giving broad opportunities and getting the best out of children.
It was the worst of times…
Will always go down as my annus horibilis, as it brought both the rapid decline and death of a well-loved, then year 2 teacher, to be followed a few months later by the terminal decline of my wife. That year, our year 6 SATs scores were in the mid-90% level 4+, but the school was not in a place to celebrate, after such an unpleasant period and as was highlighted, year 2 showed “decline”. I stopped being a head in January 2006.
The past ten years have offered a broad range, a portfolio, of opportunities to work across a range of schools across the country within different remits, each enabling new insights into practice and restrictions. I have seen a great deal of wonderful practice, but often with a health warning that it might have to change.
Thirty years on, what’s changed?
In general, I would argue that, compared to 28 years ago, children achieve at a higher level that they did before. Whether this is down to better understanding of how to pass tests, I am less sure, but there has been a level of improvement across that time.
Teachers are still very keen to improve their practice, but now do so additionally with weekend conferences and twilight teachmeets. Those who participate celebrate the profession. Blogging and tweeting enable roader thinking and dialogue, across the country.
A new, “rigorous” approach to the curriculum that threatens many subjects that add considerable value to Primary learning, with a “relentless” focus on maths and English and an assessment expectation at eleven that would challenge children several years older and even many adults. The downside, as far as I am concerned, is the diminishing of many subjects through over-emphasis on English and Maths.
Many Secondary schools still less than willing to accept the outcomes from Primary feeders. With no national language to even partially describe current capabilities, this will become an issue at every stage where a child moves school. I predict that testing on arrival will become the norm in many settings, during any transition.
Levels were sacrificed on the altar of the new curriculum. During their lifetime, they too were tweaked, from reasonably simple beginnings that supported moderation discussion, through sub-levels into the APP scheme that became a significant millstone to many, to the point where they became almost meaningless guesswork as teachers sought to evidence ever more minute points of development. This had an impact on planning and dynamics as teachers sought to teach very fine points securely, but lost sight of the big picture. Too many approaches then became stereotyped and shared as bright ideas.
Listening to Tim Oates speak at a conference where I was also presenting and paraphrasing part of his message; the current curriculum is easier to test than recent incarnations. Even Dylan Wiliam has said the original levels were ok. I predict that there will be a call for a national system within a couple of years, but fear that this will be based on “yearness” statements, with some children described very clearly as not achieving. Advancement and holding back will become a part of the political rhetoric.
Some, more experienced schools and teachers, will have the skills to make the new “freedoms” work for them, many will not. New teachers will probably have to struggle with a new scheme within every move.
Moderation discussions, even with Ofsted, will require the specific of each scheme to be explained, so that there is a common language to support the dialogue.
I anticipate that during the next four years, as with the NHS, the education system will show signs of cracking, not least as a result of teacher shortage, putting extra pressure on “career teachers”. Shoring this up will put the onus on the schools rather than the national system to address their needs, which will add pressure to headship.
Coherence, cohesion and collegiality may well diminish as schools enter a bit of a free for all, seeking “bums on seats”; children, who bring in the money and in staffing, with more poaching between schools.
Why am I angry?
Quite simply because the profession that I love and have loved throughout my career (41 years plus 3 training) is being pulled in too many directions with little, if any, coordinating thought and support from the centre. Where it was built on a significant level of certainty, as in 95% correspondence between curriculum changes, it offered a firm base upon which to found children’s learning careers. Uncertainty, as currently being experienced, is in danger of offering children a lesser education in the name of “higher expectations” and “rigour”.
Schools and individuals are being set up to fail, as all are deemed capable of being above average; many children will learn at the age of seven that they are behind their peers, which makes a mockery of all the talk of not labelling, as with levels. Better to be a level 1 than not good enough?
There is a lack of joined up thinking which allows disparate elements to pick and choose a focus for improvement, without seeking to explore the impact on other areas.
Children still have to live in the real world, not in some literary game like “Brave New World” or “1984”. It will be their world in due course. With a clutch of grandchildren, I have their best interests at heart.
Children deserve the best start. We may be creating less than the best. The world is not just maths and English.