The new National Curriculum - are you ready?

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Last week teachers and pupils all over the country returned to school ready to begin the new school year. However, many may have found it more of a shock than usual. For the education system underwent one of the biggest education shake-ups in a decade with the introduction of a new, “tougher” National Curriculum.

Schools in England are required to teach the new National Curriculum from the start of the autumn term 2014 and whilst, strictly speaking, it is only compulsory for schools still maintained by the local authority, many academies, free schools and independent schools are likely to use it to develop and benchmark their own curricula. It marks the culmination of Michael Gove’s (often controversial) four-year stint as Education Secretary; his lasting ‘legacy’. Despite his tenure abruptly coming to an end in July, his successor Nicky Morgan vowed that she would not slow down the programme of curriculum reform and would continue to push through the sweeping changes.

The rewritten National Curriculum sets out the framework for what children should be taught at key stages 1, 2 and 3, between the ages of five and 14, in schools in England (key stage 4 programmes of study for 14 - 16 year olds will be phased in over a three-year period from September 2015 when the new GCSEs are introduced). It features a number of significant changes (you can see a summary of these here) at both primary and secondary level - some which have been welcomed and others which have been derided.

The government’s aim has been to slim down content in almost all subjects, with the exception of primary English, maths and science. They say the new curriculum does not tell teachers "how to teach", but concentrates on "the essential knowledge and skills every child should have" so that teachers "have the freedom to shape the curriculum to their pupils' needs". Certainly no-one can deny that it is an ambitious curriculum that sets high expectations and which is designed to raise standards.

However, many teachers are sceptical about adopting all the curriculum's major changes at once. There have been accusations that the new programmes of study are too traditional, over-prescriptive and place an undue emphasis upon knowledge rather than concepts, skills and attitudes which could lead to an over-reliance on rote learning at the expense of understanding and critical thinking. Furthermore, experts have complained that the new primary curriculum requires children to cover some subjects up to two years earlier than their peers in top-performing nations. Heads and teachers have been concerned about their lack of consultation. Teachers’ leaders said that the timetable to implement the changes was unrealistic; it failed to consider lead-in time, training and development of staff, curriculum capacity and teacher supply.

Despite these criticisms the Department of Education maintain that the 2014 National Curriculum is a “rigorous”, “forward-thinking”, “world-class” curriculum designed to “prepare children for life in modern Britain”. I guess time will tell, but right now, as schools start implementing the new curriculum, the key question must surely be: “Are they ready?”

Not according to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and ITV. The study of 618 primary and secondary teachers found that more than 60 percent believed that their school was not “fully prepared to teach the new curriculum”. Just two out of 10 respondents said that their school was fully prepared for the changes, while more than eight out of 10 (81%) said that they did not think teachers had been given enough time to implement it.  Furthermore, almost 90% of teachers described the way the Department for Education approached the changes as either “chaotic” or “flawed”. Many, it is reported, are also worried about the removal of assessment levels and are unaware of the help and support which is available.

Our own recent survey of the EdComs Teachers community showed that the introduction of computing in the new National Curriculum is also being greeted with mixed feelings – whilst just over half of the teachers believe their school is prepared for the introduction of a computing curriculum, of those who feel prepared, only 15% are very clear about the requirements of the computing Programmes of Study. 

The Department of Education have responded by saying: “We believe it is right that changes are made as soon as possible to benefit the most young people…we are confident that all the reforms can be implemented within our planned timeframe which is a testament to the dedication of our high-quality teaching profession." To help with the implementation of the new curriculum they have issued the following guidance which contains information about assessment and the support and resources available to schools. There is also a timetable detailing the primary curriculum changes.

Do you feel prepared to teach the new curriculum? How are schools going to assess now the NC level descriptors have been removed?  Share your thoughts below!