Tweaks, not bangs - continuing curriculum review

by Tim Oates, 15 September 2016
Tim Oates argues that the curriculum isn't "all sorted", but a series of 'tweaks' rather than 'big bang' reform is what's needed. 

At this year's ResearchEd conference, I told a (relieved) audience of teachers and education professionals that I don't want people to think the curriculum is "all sorted once and for all" and I assured them that the government continues to be concerned with helpful refinements and necessary fine tuning. 

I've previously argued that the typical cycle of ten year 'big bang' reform of a national curriculum has a series of unfortunate consequences, and is not consistent with the rate of change of fundamental elements of subjects - which change much more slowly than this. This is entirely consistent with the principles for the review of the National Curriculum which were laid down by the government in 2010 when Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education. 

I argued that 'fine tuning', using feedback from schools, would be more appropriate; subject-level refinement rather than wholesale change every ten years or so. Just one example of what kind of changes might be affected under this approach would be the grammar requirements in years 5 and 6, which caused considerable problems in this year's National Assessments at KS2. Some pupils were indeed capable of responding to the most demanding questions in the tests, but we do need to look at the nature and basis of the concerns raised. 

The argument can be broken down like this: 


The teaching of grammar is vital. There is well-designed research that indicates children benefit from learning 'rules' of grammar (Myhill; Ellis; Tanaka) and this both enhances the quality of writing and raises the attainment of pupils most affected by problems arising from language deficits - those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. 


The question is not whether to teach grammar or not (we should) but whether the progressive listing of specific grammar 'rules' and terms set out in the 2014 National Curriculum is right. By 'right', I refer to Schmidt's second concept of curriculum coherence - that curriculum content should be in a coherent age-appropriate sequence. 


It is vital that all children, by the end of primary school, write to a high standard, quickly, and convey sophisticated content. The understanding of verb-noun agreement, tense agreement, use of apostrophes, etc. all contribute to this and should be applied in increasingly sophisticated instances of writing, including extended writing. 'Language about language' is a vital element of achieving this for all children. 

However, I argued that the progression in grammar theory in the primary specification somewhat took on a life of its own, and the pace of the final phase of development meant that too great a level of complexity entered the stand-alone 'grammar' specification. This took attention away from the approach used in some other jurisdictions, where repeated application of grammar fundamentals in writing lead to increasing sophistication in argument and content. 

I believe that evaluation findings should be used to refine areas of the National Curriculum which need fine tuning, effecting change only when necessary, ie: when it is abundantly clear something isn't working as well as it perhaps could. There should not be constant tinkering, but there should be sensible incremental refinement. These judicious refinements would remove some of the problems of a 'big bang' review of the National Curriculum, with all the attendant problems - which were outlined in 'Could do Better', in 2010. 

Tim Oates 
Director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment

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