Review signals more change in our schools

STEVE DOWNES How can schools help their children to cope with a changing world? By changing, obviously. That is the theme of a review into the curriculum for 11-14 year olds. But does the system really need another overhaul? Education correspondent STEVE DOWNES reports.

STEVE DOWNES

It is said that a change is as good as a rest. But teachers may not agree.

For they are heartily sick of change. Barely a term seems to go by without another set of fundamental upheavals. They must long for a rest from change.

Schools are currently grappling with preparations for the 14-19 diploma, changes to GCSEs, new healthy eating rules, announcements about modern foreign languages and myriad minor edicts from the government.

Now we have proposals from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to shake up learning for 11-14 year olds - introducing flexible teaching apparently tailored to the needs of individual youngsters.

After months of rumours that heavyweight topics like the second world war, Shakespeare's plays and the wives of King Henry VIII would be sidelined, the QCA has clearly tried to perform a delicate balancing act.

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Speaking at the launch of the wide-ranging secondary curriculum review, Mick Waters, director of the QCA, said: "Anne Boleyn will still be beheaded, the Pennines will remain the backbone of England and Romeo will still fall in love with Juliet."

Still on the reading list will be a host of literary "untouchables", including Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Shakespeare.

But missing the cut are Joseph Conrad, Anthony Trollope, Christopher Marlowe, EM Forster, Harold Pinter, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Lord Byron and WB Yeats.

In their place come authors from "different cultures and traditions", including Maya Angelou, Anita Desai, Benjamin Zephaniah and Meera Syal.

According to the QCA, one of the main aims of the proposals is to give pupils "social and cultural flexibility". Hence the expanded scope of set authors.

And hence the introduction of a specific requirement for schools to teach about the slave trade, and the growth and ongoing impact of the British Empire.

Mr Waters said the new curriculum should promote such citizenship skills as "an ability to tolerate difference and the capacity to cope with change".

With growing cultural diversity in Britain - particularly in schools - and new technology making the world a significantly smaller place, the proposals appear to be long overdue.

There will also be an increased emphasis in schools on teaching all children to prepare and cook nutritious meals - despite fears that a shortage of food technology teachers may stymie the move.

And, with Britain's credit card debt reaching mind-boggling proportions, financial literacy will also be taught as part of personal, social and health education.

There will also be scope for more trips to museums, plays and art galleries - though cash-strapped parents may well ask how they will be expected to find the money for yet more extra-curricular activities.

Increasing the role of after-school activities, including clubs, music and sport, and play in learning is also proposed.

Teachers will be urged to collaborate more, for example science and PE teachers standing side-by-side to teach pupils about anatomy.

Whether food tech staff will join forces with history teachers to serve up a full medieval banquet, or French and design and technology teachers will pair up to make a working guillotine is unconfirmed.

In the area of languages, the traditional focus on French, German and Spanish will be given a new twist with the introduction of economically significant languages like Mandarin and Urdu.

Sue Horner, head of development for the QCA, said: "We are not saying the national curriculum is failing. But this is the 21st century and we believe what we have now needs some adjustment.

"Of course it is very important that the elements of British education that have always been there remain.

"I am sure neither parents nor employers would want us to cut aspects like Shakespeare's sonnets from what is taught in schools. But things do change and we need to be aware of that."

Though you might expect teachers to rail against yet another package of changes, the main unions have responded with guarded goodwill.

A spokesman for the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) said: "The opportunity to move away from subject boxes to an integrated approach to learning will be welcomed by students and teachers. We want flexibility to enable us to inspire learners.

"The right debate has been announced and now we need some deep understanding on the part of the government about how we will make it happen."

He said schools were "overwhelmed" by a host of changes, and added: "If the government wants us to do this, it must give us time to think, to develop and evaluate."

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "The proposed changes are a first step to the more flexible, teacher-led curriculum for which ATL has been fighting.

"But in the current climate any more changes will be seen by teachers as one more crazy imposition. Ideas about a new timetable must be allowed to develop from teachers and schools upwards, rather than being developed centrally and imposed on schools."

The QCA is asking people to complete an online questionnaire giving their views on what else can be improved. Final recommendations will be presented to education secretary Alan Johnson on June 5.

If the recommendations get the go-ahead from the government, training for teachers could begin as early as September.

The survey can be found at www.qca.org.uk.