Parallel Systems Political Interference And The New National Curriculum

gove09:08 Tuesday 9th July 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[A]NDIE HARPER: Fractions for five year olds, the theory of evolution for primary school children, and computer programming for teenagers. These are just some of the highlights of the new National Curriculum for schools in England. The Education Secretary Michael Gove says he believes it will make young people in England the most productive and creative in the world. Clare Blair is the Chair of Governors at Orchard Park School in Cambridge, and she’s been a governor in schools around the County for the past eighteen years or so. Clare, good morning to you.
CLARE BLAIR: Good morning.
ANDIE HARPER: So first things first Clare. Do you think there was anything wrong with the current curriculum? Did it need looking at?
CLARE BLAIR: Well I think in the whole time I’ve been a governor almost every year somebody’s looked at the curriculum and tweaked it in some way. So there’s always room for continual improvement. But it is worrying, the scale of the wholesale changes that are coming through the whole education system. In terms of how we will handle this one, well I’m a governor in the primary sector, and we always do our best to comply. But I think at first glance it does worry me that we’re moving to a “learning by rote” methodology of teaching, which can be difficult for some children. We start formal education at five, and for most children that means they’re four. In countries that Michael Gove considers are very successful like Sweden and Finland, they don’t start their formal schooling until about seven. In Finland they don’t get tested at all until they’re sixteen. So there are concerns. We will try to comply, but there’s absolutely no doubt that there are concerns about this.
ANDIE HARPER: Do you not on the other hand think that whilst maybe completely returning to learning by rote, as was the case in Victorian days, there is a case to be made for children to learn certain things, and the best way to learn them is by rote. I was a primary school teacher for twenty six, twenty seven years, luckily at the time when it was important to learn your tables, it was important to learn spellings. And I saw the way things changed. Is there anything wrong with learning your tables?
CLARE BLAIR: Learning your tables. Children learn their tables now. I think it’s a little bit disingenuous to say that instead of learning up to ten, learning up to their twelve times table is actually going to help improve standards. Are we looking to return to pounds, shillings and pence for example? The key issue is being able to learn the tables, and to use them, and to be able to apply them. Again, one of the worrying things about this is it’s called the National Curriculum, but it’s not a national curriculum. This only applies in the UK. It doesn’t apply to academies, free schools and independent schools. In the secondary sector, nearly all secondary schools which are now academy will be free to completely ignore this if they wish. Latest Government figures say there are 3,049 academies in England. There are only 3,127 secondary schools. It’s a conflicting message that comes from Government. On the one hand they want to centralise and control everything people are teaching. On the other hand if you’re an academy, you can be trusted to teach. We need to trust teachers more, and as an ex-teacher yourself I’m sure you’ll agree, within the school, knowing your pupils, working with the Head Teacher and governors, just give us a little bit of trust and a little bit of respect that we can teach children.
ANDIE HARPER: When the curriculum came in, there was a need, wasn’t there, for a level playing field, going back to the days of the ’70s when I was teaching. I taught in a very formal primary school in Norfolk, and the children had a very rigid education. They would then go on to secondary school, and be alongside pupils who’d come from a completely different education background, more play, more freedom if you like. And so you could see that they were differences. So a level playing field was essential. What I think the big issue is is what should be included in that level playing field?
CLARE BLAIR: Yes. I agree. We set up a new school of course at Orchard Park, which is part of the urban extension, and it gave us the opportunity to be quite creative in how we developed our curriculum. And I certainly believe in giving schools freedom to innovate, and freedom to check the curriculum from year to year, because you get different cohorts. But there is at the moment, appears to be nationally, a distrust of the professionalism of teachers. It’s good that Michael Gove has listened, particularly about the History curriculum, and about IT and some other ones. But we’ve got to get a message out that teachers are professionals, and we need to work with them and with schools, and not constantly be telling everybody that we have a dreadful education system. In fact we don’t. We’re sixth in the world. There are things we can do to improve it, but we need all to work together, and it’s not a level playing field when this only applies to those of us who have chosen to remain in the maintained school, and are not an academy.
ANDIE HARPER: So do you suspect political motives here? Primary schools in general across our county are still run by the County Council, aren’t they? But the point you’ve just made is there are very few secondary schools that fall into that category now. So is there political motivation here, do you think?
CLARE BLAIR: An awful lot of people will say there’s been a lot of straight political interference in education over tha last two or three years. Michael Gove is a man with a vision, and I understand that. I think his vision is the Harry Potter style of education, where everybody goes to Hogwarts and wears cloaks and is in classes. I don’t believe that that’s the correct way. I think that our education system needs to be based on very good assessment of a child, ensuring that children know they can succeed, and enabling them to succeed. And that’s not necessarily best achieved simply by teaching children what I learned when I was at school, which was how to decline in French, which I can still remember. But I’m not entirely certain has served me in brilliant stead.
ANDIE HARPER: Just finally though, returning to the whole issue of the teachers, they will with their usual professionalism institute whatever they are requested to institute,
CLARE BLAIR: Yes. Teachers always do that. It’s going to be particularly difficult next year, because they want to introduce this from September 2014. They’re disapplying the existing national Curriculum, but the children will have to be assessed against the old one. So we’ve got a couple of years which, when you include the fact that the whole way that we assess children and examine children in also going to be changed, it’s going to be a couple of years of real difficulty for all schools. And I think if I was to plead anything at all to the Government, it’s call a halt now so that we can have a period when everything settles down. And stop changing it, so that we can bed down and look at how it works.
ANDIE HARPER: Clare, good to talk to you. Thanks for joining us this morning.