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Saturday, 3 August 2013

Does the New Curriculum Aim to Improve Standards?

Examining curricula in different countries, it seems that there can be a gap between what the curriculum prescribes and what is actually being taught at the class level.  This discrepancy is mainly down the fact that at the grass-root level, teachers are predominantly concerned with how the examination boards examine different parts of the curriculum and their teaching is focused on what is required to pass examinations successfully.  In this sense, the high stake assessment drives the curriculum content which is being taught to students, especially if the programmes of study are not sufficiently linked with attainment targets.

This concerns me as we are currently on the brink of introducing the new national curriculum content aimed at raising educational standards.  The policy makers appear to be convinced that the new national curriculum with its greater focus on early knowledge acquisition will be a driver for much needed improvement in educational standards. So far, the curriculum content has been emphasised with little reference to aims and purposes, despite the recommendations by the Expert Panel (James, Oats, Pollard, Wiliam) who stated in their report[1]

We believe defining curricular aims is the most effective way of establishing and maintaining coherent provision.

If the Government is sincere in its desire to reduce central prescription, we need to evaluate the goals implicit in our current practices and select only those that provide a sound basis for the future. In other words, we need be very clear about the particular aims and purposes of the school curriculum and the justification for them – bearing in mind the needs of society, the nature of knowledge, and the needs of pupils, as well as comparisons with other jurisdictions. Then we need to be thorough in our analysis of what content will serve them best.

The Expert Panel also advised about a proper consultation process with all stakeholders involved and cautioned against the pace of changes:

...we believe it is right that there should be a period of engagement/consultation on the key decisions that have the potential to radically change the National Curriculum, beyond changes to the content. This is important given the pace of the review. In             Hong Kong, a review process extended over a decade[2].

So far, most of the recommendations have been ignored. Although Programmes of Study for some subjects have been published, they are being developed as-we-go-along and it would seem without much considered attention to aims and purposes, as the only aim seems to be the rush to push the changes through.

Do the policy makers really believe that the new framework has the “potential to result in radical change to the National Curriculum, beyond change to curriculum content” (Expert Panel Review)?  The risk could be another missed opportunity and that risk seems very real indeed.

If the Programmes of Study are not sufficiently linked to effective assessment that defines the expected standards, the danger again is that the new curriculum may fail to raise standards – the raison d’ĂȘtre behind driving all the changes.  The experts agreed:

We emphasise the importance of establishing a very direct and clear relationship between ‘that which is to be taught and learned’ and assessment (both formative and ongoing and periodic and summative).

The threat still remains that if these direct links between what is being taught and assessed are not established at the onset, high-stake testing developed by examination boards to serve the new qualifications may be the real driver for what is being taught and learnt.  Unless there are well developed, explicit Programmes of Study clearly linked to Attainment Targets defining expected standards, the danger is that teachers will teach to-the-test and schools will deliver irrelevant qualifications in the quest for satisfying self-manipulated accountability aims (in the high-stakes accountability game of meeting required standards), despite the Panel recommending to, “reduce the flexibility schools currently enjoy to ensure that the Key Stage 4 curriculum meets the vocational and academic aspirations of their students at the time”.

The students only have one chance – let’s give them the best chance possible.

[1] Department for Education, (2011). The Framework for the National Curriculum. A report by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum review. (London: Department for Education).
[2] Kwok, S., (2008). New Horizons in Cultivation of Talents: a decade of education in Hong Kong. (Hong Kong: Education Bureau).  



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