Curriculum Vital

    A summary of the new primary National Curriculum in England

    For some it is “tough,” “rigorous” and “flexible.” For others it is “too prescriptive,” better suited "to 1950" and leaves the country “doomed.” Yes, after a hotly-debated consultation period the proposals Michael Gove laid out in February 2013 have been amended – in some cases significantly – to leave schools with a new National Curriculum for England that takes children, according to the government, “back to basics.”

    NC levels have been phased out, and it will be left up to schools to decide how to evaluate pupil progress. The Key Stages have also been adjusted: Key Stage 1 remains the same, while Key Stage 2 has been split into Lower Key Stage 2 (Years 3 and 4) and Upper Key Stage 2 (Years 5 and 6).

    One of the common themes of the new curriculum is memorising, or, to give it a slightly more negative spin, rote learning. In English, children will memorise and recite their first poem in Year 2 and build on this practice throughout primary school. At the same time, memorising the times-tables is back in vogue, with children expected to reach the 12 times-tables by Year 4. This surely presents an opportunity for a bit of curricular crossover. Repeat after me:

    Come, then, children, let us delve
    Into the first dozen multiplications of 12.
    To beat Singapore
    By the end of year four
    You’d better know that one times 12 is… “13?”

    Yes, it is in English and maths that the greatest changes will take place. Mr Gove’s critics have long suspected that he secretly pines for the days when all schools were of the grammar kind. While he hasn't proposed any new grammar schools, he has loaded the statutory requirements for English with grammar terminology. Students will leave primary school able to use and identify the past, present and perfect tenses; modal verbs; and the passive voice. Quick - use them in a sentence! Er, OK, let's see... 'Grammar is an essential topic that was once rightly prioritised and ought not to have been forgotten'?

    Mr Gove has given punctuation a boost, perhaps driven by a fan's placard that was caught on camera at Centre Court during Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph the summer before last: 'Lets make history!' Let us, indeed. This tragic error lends weight to the realisation among punctuation aficionados that the healing effects of Eats, Shoots and Leaves have waned considerably. To give just one more example, take this recent tweet from Apprentice finalist Luisa Zissman: "Can you all help me out as I'm crap at grammar. Is it bakers toolkit or baker's toolkit is an apostrophe?! X" (sic). Don't panic, Ms. Zissman. Education Umbrella has the primary school resources to help you make sense of it all.   

    The word ‘poetry’ appears early and often in the 75-page English section. From year three onwards children will listen to, perform, recognise and learn a “wide range” of poems. As well as a good thing in itself, this new emphasis on reciting the most beautiful examples of the English language compliments the renewed focus on recognising standard and non-standard English. For anyone who has listened to an interview with a Premier League footballer this will be a welcome change. Meanwhile, in spelling, there is a required list of words for students to memorise in Lower and Upper KS2.

    On the history front (of which more later), Gove was roundly criticised for his desire (since dropped) to teach British history in all its glory. In English, though, there is no such British bias. No authors or even genres are specified. Children must simply increase their familiarity with, “fiction from our literary heritage and books from other cultures and traditions.” Having already prescribed all those hard-to-spell words and tricky grammar terms it was perhaps wise not to prescribe authors; many teachers will enjoy being able to draw on their own reading experiences. However, it seems odd to not include some mention of Shakespeare given that in KS3 students will have to read two full plays, and especially considering the obvious connections between mathematics and iambic pentametre.

    Maths sees the biggest doses of rigour. To address the apparent superiority of primary school students in Singapore, South Korea and Finland, Gove wants more times-tables and more fractions from year one onwards, and algebra at Year 6. As part of that renewed drive for children to make greater use of their minds, calculators will be largely phased out and will not be permitted in primary SATs.

    Author and maths teacher Ruth Mertenn, among many others, has expressed alarm at these changes. In her opinion,

    If it is broadly accepted that, in England, our strengths lie in originality, innovation and creative thinking, in mathematics as elsewhere, and that our weaknesses reside in a lack of compliance and an under-exercised memory especially on entry to school, then to adopt a curriculum based largely on rote-learning and procedural teaching in preference to one emphasising conceptual understanding and critical thinking may be to invite unintended consequences on a very large scale.

    There are a few major changes in science, including a greater focus on scientific enquiry across all areas and key stages. Pupils will begin learning about the origins of life in KS2 with the new unit ‘Evolution and Inheritance’. The 'softer' topics in biology, such as caring for animals, are replaced with an introduction to the systems of the human body. Physics won’t be taught in KS1, but when it is first introduced in KS2, it will be in much greater detail than before. For instance, pupils will learn about the properties of light and sound, and in Year 6 about the relative movements of the sun, moon, Earth and other planets.

    In history, the good news (for some) is that the big push to learn dates and names has been mostly replaced with a focus on historical enquiry. In terms of topics, the Romans, Vikings and Anglo-Saxons are back, as are the ancient Egyptians. The Tudors are out, replaced with one of the following non-European subjects: early Islamic civilization circa 900 AD; Mayan civilization circa 900 AD; or Benin from 900-1300. These should be taught to show a contrast with British history. Meanwhile, although the amount of British history has been reduced following the consultation, there is a new requirement to teach the history of Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. The latter two developments may have something to do with the accusations that the initial draft curriculum did far too little to acknowledge the contribution of non-whites to British society.

    Some have said that this new curriculum is drawn from somewhere between the Stone Age and Iron Age. Its supporters say that it takes Britain into the digital age by putting a renewed focus on ICT, which is to be renamed computing. At KS1 this means understanding what algorithms are, and at Key Stage 2 'designing, writing and debugging programmes that accomplish specific goals.' Word processing has been dropped in favour of computer programming. Internet safety will be taught from Year 1.

    Overall, there is more prescription for teachers and more rigour for children. Whether one agrees with the ideas or not, what one cannot say is that the government did not listen during the consultation period. The various online education forums have been abuzz with pointed and in some cases quite hysterical criticism. Look in a few quiet corners, though, and you’ll find that for some subjects there is contentment, even excitement at some of the new proposals.

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