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Is it time to change curriculum?

By Alan Peters,

24 Jan 2020

 (How curriculum change in the independent sector might improve maintained schools)
  1. Christmas over.

    New year, new resolutions.  Out with the old and in with the new.  Please can we add the word ‘curriculum’ after the adjectives in that last sentence?  Because, let’s be honest, most teachers feel, in their hearts, that it is time for change.  Not a tinker around the edges, not a few new words in a National Curriculum guideline, but a whole new way of thinking when it comes to what we teach.
Because our current curriculum is surely out of date.  It has not been helped by nearly a decade of Tory rule which has sought to take the classroom back to the past.  Tables, spelling tests, outmoded and unused grammar rules.  No doubt it will not be long before Greek becomes a core subject, along with beatings and getting poor kids into the factories asap (somebody has to replace cheap labour post Brexit). I’d love to write a thoughtful, intelligent piece on the curriculum change our young people need and deserve.  But I can’t.  Because I don’t know what it looks like.

Still, I have one small idea to share.  It begins in Northern France towards the end of the last millennium. Mutual Mistrust We were in beautiful Honfleur.

I had sent my party of thirteen year olds off to explore in small groups, and was making my way to the harbour.  I passed a fellow teacher, just casting away his own selection of similarly aged teens.  We stopped to chat, and found that we were both based in the borough of Barnet. We had a good chinwag, and soon exchanged the name of our schools.  At the time I was working in a fairly large independent school.  I identified it and was suddenly alone.  My new found friend had marched away, shaking his head. It works both ways – years later I was head of a village primary.  I was also an inspector with ISI, who inspect independent schools.  I was firmly of the belief that inspectors took more away from their visits than they gave, so was keen to continue with this aspect of my work.  The first clue that something was wrong was an email from the head of the service.  He informed me that I would be listed in my report as ‘Deputy Head of a Prep School’ (my previous job) rather than ‘Head of a Primary School’.  His pedantry made me smile, but that grin disappeared a couple of weeks later when I got a letter telling me my services as an inspector were no longer required.  Thinking I had done something wrong I contacted ISI, only to be told that working in a maintained school ruled me out.  ‘Inspection by peers, that’s the ISI way,’ I was told.  Moving to a school funded by taxpayer’s cash, rather than directly by fees, meant my peer-dom was lost! But education is not a War of the Roses, Independent Schools on one side, maintained on the other.

 This inspirational curriculum change I wish to share was born in the cloistered classrooms of a Prep School, but its relevance is not diminished because of this  – surely the best innovations deserve consideration, wherever they originate. Change Where It Is Least Expected When prep school children transfered to senior schools at 13, or increasingly at 11, they used to be faced with a series of exams called ‘Common Entrance’ (CE).  Many still are.  It’s just that the ‘entrance’ part no longer applies.  Most independent senior schools set their own entrance exam, usually two or three years before transfer will occur.  Still, these poor children face many terms exposed to an extremely difficult but hugely narrow curriculum, overwhelmingly knowledge based.  Prep school teachers will often proudly state that CE is like taking GCSEs three years early.  That is a way of boasting that the children they teach are cleverer than state school kids, and are taught by better teachers.  But they are wrong, as was I when I made the same claims myself.  CE is a hugely outdated exam which tests those with good memories more than anything else.  It is a cause of enormous stress to twelve year old kids, culminating in a week of solid exams – sometimes four per day – in their final term at Prep School. A New Curriculum In Prep Schools But a change is taking place.  I am proud to say I was there at the beginning.  A decade ago my Head was a true visionary – a man called Michael Spinney.  He saw the pain and pointlessness of CE, and introduced his own concept, calling it the Prep School Baccalaureate (PSB).  It would not be an entrance test – CE wasn’t either, it just liked to pretend it was.  It would celebrate talents beyond the classroom.  Community service, leadership, initiative, soft skills…  all learning, in fact, disregarded by CE and, more significantly, GCSE.  PSB’s academic content would be interesting, challenging and led by the students themselves. He hit problems.  Traditional prep schools were sniffy (or perhaps scared that their old fashioned methods might be exposed).

Senior schools generally cared neither way.  Common entrance was a pain to them.  A meaningless exam which took hours to mark and was then disregarded.  Ten years on and the PSB is growing.  It remains small, but each year more and more schools participate. I am not saying that the PSB is the right solution for curriculum change in the maintained sector.  But it might be.  What is needed is a visionary (a real one, like Michael, not a politician seeking a few short-term headlines) to challenge the existing curriculum, with GCSE at its narrow core.  And then slowly, painstakingly, bring in an alternative. Such a move could make schools relevant for all young people.  Think how good that would be.