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Debate: How do government policy makers view the curriculum?

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By John CoeGeneral Secretary of the National Association for Primary Education

Teachers see the curriculum as subjects, to children it is simply ‘what happens’. But do government policy makers see this?

John Coe

I could not believe my ears. A government spokesman at the UK Education Forum had just offered a view of teachers that likened us to operatives on a production line. ‘A teacher is a supplier of a product to the end user,’ he said, ‘the product is the literacy hour and the end user is the child.’ This was a few years ago and since then, by small incremental steps, there has been a retreat (partly concealed from the public and the media) from such crass and inappropriate attitudes held inevitably by those who themselves have never taught. And of course, the literacy hour – that weapon of mass instruction – has vanished like so many other short-lived initiatives with which we have had to deal with and that too often got in the way of our work.

Classroom realities

The obsession with teaching subjects remains, however, and we must continue to remind the policy makers about the facts of primary classroom life. Subjects are a convenient way of organising our thinking as we plan and later evaluate our teaching. They are wholly acceptable tools for us to use as we seek to provide broad and balanced learning. For young children, however, it’s another matter. For them, subjects as separate entities are irrelevant. Children learn from the totality of their experience that often embraces several subjects at once.

Learning is everywhere

The message for policy makers is that subjects are fine for teachers, but not for children. In the classroom, it is better to devise ways of describing what happens that match how children learn. That is why it was wrong to confine literacy to a set hour. Children are learning the skills of literacy every moment of their lives, both in and out of school. Every teacher, whatever the focus of the lesson, is teaching literacy.

For (primary children), subjects as separate entities are irrelevant’

The confused thinking about the curriculum persists. For teachers, it is a list of subjects, but for children, the curriculum is what happens. It is vital to the quality of primary teaching that this distinction is fully appreciated and that it characterises our practice. Otherwise, we will be reduced to the level of many secondary colleagues whose children spend a long time practising stuff in order to pass examinations – in subjects, of course.

Teach the individual

Similar confused thinking has led to the imposition of ‘expected’ levels of performance in basic skills for all children born in one academic year. What nonsense this is. Level 4 for one Year 6 child could be a relative failure. For another, Level 4 could be a supreme achievement. Expectations should be related to individual children and their particular circumstances and should be formed by our knowledge and understanding of each child.

A last word about mugging up on subjects for examinations. We have all done it – and forgotten much of our revising as we walked out of the examination room. I cannot tell you anything about the Treaty of Utrecht (I could once) but I can still remember everything the brown-eyed girl from Year 10 taught me during a conversation on a walk home.

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