With the introduction of Progress 8 it has become clear that Government policy has been couched in terms designed to minimise media or opposition criticism. The result is a lack of clarity, with schools trying to second guess any inferred intentions behind the words.
If you don’t believe me, think SATS – tests taken to provide a snapshot of where a child stands, so no need to specially prepare for those. Posed pictures are never as good as natural ones.
One of the latest examples of this policy as clear as cloud is the contradiction inherent in the introduction of Progress 8 with the national curriculum’s stated intention to offer a broad curriculum.
As Sir Humphrey Appleby said to James Hacker in ‘Yes Minister’, if you want a message to be believed, stick it in the title and then you can forget about it. (Although, he will have stated the point using far more mellifluous and meaningless language – the Government has tried to mimic this for years). National Curriculum – broad – phew that’s out of the way.
Or at least, this is one viewpoint.
Alternative to this is the view that learning can only be strong if there are prior knowledge and skills on which to build. Therefore, learning must be focused to be successful. This is, of course, the underlying principle behind the common core curriculum.
A trend amongst the faddiest schools in the 1970s, it is still a system used widely in successful education structures such as Japan.
The polarisation of such opinions does young people no favours and Progress 8 should be looked at from the viewpoint that whilst it creates a hierarchy of importance amongst subjects it also makes administration and teaching simpler for schools to organise.
Broadly, Progress 8 identifies three categories of subjects from which pupils take two, three and three options. Although not legislated, it seems pretty clear that a minimum of eight is the number the Government would like students to follow to GCSE.
From category 1, everybody takes English (literature or language) and maths. In no way attempting to suggest that these are more important, they carry double the merit of other subjects.
Next comes a category which, in best Humphrey style, suggests both the fulsome tradition of an English education system (ignoring, probably, the Welsh) and also a touch of European sophistication – the Ebacc. (You see, it’s all in the name). This contains most of the other traditionally academic subjects such as the sciences, languages, history and geography, from which students choose at least three and up to six. So, none of that fancy philosophical stuff in an English Baccalaureate!
Finally, all other subjects – to which the term ‘vocational’ is sometimes added, just to emphasise that they are not academic and therefore not that important (or, of course, that they will lead to a more rounded person full of creativity – it depends where you start from). A special term is applied to this group, stating that they must be ‘approved’ subjects. Oh, and when it comes to checking on a school’s progress, these will carry less weight.
From a teacher’s perspective, it is not hard to make the call that the future looks rosiest for those teaching the traditional academic subjects. Meanwhile, Drama, textiles, technology teachers and the like need to find a second string to their bow quickly. Probably that is easier for music specialists than others.
But if we take our own political viewpoints out of the equation for a moment, and begin to consider hard evidence, there is some sense – I know, I know – to the Government’s strategy. For the pupils who do find an academic route best, they could pick seven or even eight of this kind of subject – perhaps giving themselves one option that is more creative. And for those who find academic (please excuse the term, I hope you know what I mean) disciplines more challenging, they can take three creative options.
Further, in terms of learning, by narrowing the field all the evidence suggests better outcomes in terms of progress.
There is, therefore, within the system the potential for the best of both worlds.
But, as we said at the outset, schools are constantly trying to read between the lines, and all the inference is that the creative options are going to carry less weight with OFSTED, thus they are not as important, therefore they will be marginalised ergo their future is threatened.
And if this is the outcome that emerges, then teachers will not wish to train in those subjects, so we will have a profession unable to offer a broad range of experiences to our young people.
Lessons will be purely academic and learners who struggle with this will be on the road to failure.
And nobody wants that, do they?