Lessons in curriculum reform

Another week, another curriculum reform proposal. This one comes from an independent committee of business leaders and academics chaired by Sir Roy Anderson, Rector of Imperial College. The Committee has recommended the gradual phasing out of A levels and their replacement with a baccalaureate style qualification examining a broad range of subjects and non cognitive skills such as team working, emotional maturity, and empathy. The driver for the change is a concern that too many sixth formers are leaving school with poor levels of literacy and numeracy and a limited capacity for critical thinking, problem solving, time management and independent work.

Debates about curriculum reform inevitably focus on the reform proposals rather than the process behind them. However, given that we have experienced so many curriculum reforms in recent years with so few apparent benefits, it is sensible to look at the process behind the recommendations to see if they are fit for purpose and stand any chance of generating the desired improvements.

The Anderson Committee has a good starting point, comprising independent experts who do not have any party political points to score. They are academics and business people who sample the products of UK education on a daily basis. University admissions tutors and graduate recruiters are well placed to judge what skills and knowledge school leavers do and do not possess. Their focus is on improving education rather than gaining column inches, impressing political peers or winning votes.

However, as with many such groups what the Anderson Committee lacks is significant representation from the teaching profession. It seems odd, even negligent, that debates about educational reform should take place in the absence of teachers. Anthony Seldon made this point over the Christmas break when Start the Week on Radio 4 held a lively discussion on the teaching of history in schools with a panel of academic historians and authors; not a history teacher to be heard.

One of the problems of the educational reform process is that too often the views of the teaching profession are ignored or overlooked. True, there are a lot of teachers with different views, and no single union or well established professional body to speak for them, all of which makes listening to the profession challenging.

Yet it is essential that teachers are actively engaged in the reform process. They understand the practicalities of working in schools. They can see the unintended downstream consequences of change. Without their support reforms peter out. Reformers need to involve teachers in the consultation and implementation process; the result will be better thought out and more cohesive changes which stand a greater chance of success.

The Anderson Committee is however spot on in two aspects of the reform process. Firstly it recognises that educational reforms take time. The committee suggest six to eight years to allow for development, trialling, teacher training and implementation of new qualifications. Too many reforms have been compromised because they have been rushed, often to fit electoral cycles. Education is a complex and cumulative process with long lead times; the pace of change must reflect this. Secondly the committee called for an independent body comprising of teachers (hurrah!), employers, universities and political parties to be created with a focus on establishing a long term consensus to protect education from the political cycle and the short termism of Education Secretaries whose mean length of service is just two years.

For the record and almost as a postscript I do not support the central proposal of the Anderson Committee that A levels should be replaced by a baccalaureate. The shortfalls in education identified in the report have their origins in pre-16 education. Basic literacy and numeracy will not be improved by post 16 action, instead we must target the primary and early secondary years. We should be demanding more of students in the years up to 16, so we can take them further thereafter. Students can successfully specialise and follow demanding A level courses in the sixth form provided they have received a rigorous and broad based education up to GCSE.

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