People say we’re in a time of opportunity, a time when we can shape our educational future like never before. I hope that’s true. It has caused me to reflect a little on what has gone before and there are some underlying themes throughout our recent history that are worth considering.
In his book ‘Unfinished Revolution’ John Abbott asks do we want ‘battery hens or free range chickens?’ This strikes me as a good metaphor for our curriculum journey. It gets to the heart of the debate about whether the curriculum develops independent thinkers, confident learners who are resilient, reflective and like taking a risk, or whether it sacrifices these qualities for coverage, pace and shallow learning experiences. Education is contstantly at the forefront of political debate these days, it’s a vote winner if the cards can be played to suit the electorate. The curriculum was firmly grasped by government in the late 70s. The Tyndale affair and Jim Callaghan‘s subsequent Ruskin college speech led to a standardised model which meant schools could no longer follow their own teachers’ interests and enthusiasms. Callaghan claimed the landscape was uneven, the quality of provision too variable. The National Curriculum followed and with it a whole raft of new powers for government. It saw the end of a long period without government intervention and heralded in the 1988 Education Reform Act and a period of constant tinkering and meddling. Subsequent governments have not been bold enough to go the whole hog in terms of reform and for fear of losing anything (and upsetting middle England) they simply added more and more content to an already overcrowded curriculum.
The 1988 Act introduced us to the ‘Kentucky Fried Curriculum’ (you run the restaurant, we’ll set the menu) and ‘karoake teaching’. It ushered in an era of mistrust and misgivings about the profession to such an extent that a DfE spokesman in the early 1990s saw fit to announce:
‘We have set out arrangements for what is effectively a ‘teacher proof curriculum’. Centrally dictated, centrally controlled and centrally monitored.’
Such sentiments hardly imbue you with the belief that teachers were going to be treated with any professional respect! That lack of trust has been a constant over the last 30 years. A time where politicians have intervened with the electoral clock ticking behind them as they unleash one masterplan after another bent on winning votes and keeping them in office. The problem with political interference is it has a short shelf life, and education needs time – long term solutions not quick wins as Andy Hargreaves so convincingly argues. It is no good for policy makers to continually look back at their own halycon, often privileged education and use it as a benchmark for taking us forward. We need more than this if we are to meet the needs of learners for an uncertain future.
If this is the time of opportunity we’re being told it is, then policy makers have to show a some professional respect for educators, some trust in our ability to know how to develop learners and some faith in us to plan a curriculum that meets children’s needs.
Sources: Unfinished Revolution – John Abbott, Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching – Bangs, Macbeath and Galton