A solid primary curriculum is essential for GCSE success – but what does that look like?

The expanded GCSEs may seem tough, but once pupils have been through the new primary curriculum, they will be much more accessible, writes Tim Oates

We have new, demanding GCSEs at 16. Combined with all the other stresses in the system, it’s clear that our schools are feeling the pressure. However, I’m confident that, supported by current systemic changes, they are up to the challenge.

The BBC recently featured a pen-pal scheme between Franche Primary School in Kidderminster and local care homes. The item, on Radio 4, showed year 4 pupils discussing language forms, expressive style and clause structure, entirely at ease with the formal aspects of “language about language” in the 2014 national curriculum.

The school has not done anything expensive or wrapped in complex technology; it has supported very young children in writing letters, and done some brilliant formal teaching of grammar around it – and the children love it.

Curriculum development in schools is essential and needs to be supported

So should all schools do exactly what Franche is doing? No, that’s missing the point. It has engaged in a complex and effective exercise in curriculum development, identifying an activity that is simple in form, not complex to manage, but educationally and socially rich.

It works brilliantly in this school but in a different context, with different pupils, it may not be the right activity. And that’s the key point: the importance of curriculum development results in turning the national curriculum, which isn’t a curriculum at all so much as a list of desirable outcomes of schooling, into a compelling and engaging school curriculum.

The 2014 national curriculum was internationally benchmarked through extensive scrutiny of other frameworks from around the world. It wasn’t an exercise in naively borrowing things from other systems; it helped inform what was humanly possible for all children to attain at specific ages.

Analysis suggested that we should increase expectations in key areas of the curriculum, which was put in place. It was inevitable that the national curriculum should look like a list of expectations – that’s desirable, not a problem. It is for schools to turn these statements into compelling activity. That’s a large curriculum development load, but it’s the right approach in every setting to get to a school curriculum that links to the interests and needs of all children.

Developing a school curriculum can and should be supported by a variety of processes – spontaneous innovation by teachers, digging out forgotten things that worked brilliantly in the past, sharing practice within and between schools, polishing existing learning activities through lesson study and observation, using paper and digital resources of the highest quality, and working in a context supported by inspection and targets.

This last point is vital.

The very best systems align all their parts: curriculum content, textbooks and materials, assessment, funding and inspection. Curriculum development in schools is essential and needs to be supported, not contradicted by the accountability framework.

The very best systems align all their parts

That’s why the chief inspector’s focus on curriculum is so heartening. Amanda Spielman absolutely understands the relationship between the national curriculum and a school curriculum, and wants England to achieve the kind of “curriculum coherence” we see in high-performing systems. Curriculum development in schools is essential to achieving this.

Franche is a great example, and it’s not a one-off. I have been into primary schools where children are reading earlier and more competently, and love it. I have been into secondary schools where teachers are saying to parents “…we have had to increase our expectations of children in key stage 3, but we have been surprised by how pupils have been able to respond; we may have set targets too low in the past”.

Children taking the new GCSEs have not benefitted from experiencing a pathway through the entirety of the new national curriculum and its accompanying assessments. Not every part of the system is yet in sync, but we’re getting there. We have started on a process of improvement, and initial signs on standards and learning are really positive. Of course there remain many controversial and pressing issues in education but what’s happening in the school curriculum, as a result of the national curriculum, feels like a reason to be cheerful.

Tim Oates is director of assessment R&D at Cambridge Assessment

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  1. If the English exam system had truly been benchmarked against other countries then the emphasis would have moved to graduation at 18 as is the trend elsewhere. Exam reforms at 16 have been, and will continue to be, a considerable waste of effort, time and money.
    This was known at the time. In 2011, the NFER was commissioned by the DFE to review curricula and exam systems in several benchmarked countries. I summarised their findings in 2013 when Michael Give inexplicably asked Ofqual to repeat the NFER research. http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/faq/what-are-examination-systems-other-countries

  2. Reading the above you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the experts appointed by Michael Gove to help draft the National Curriculum resigned when they saw what was in it. One of them, Prof Dylan Williams, told the Observer ‘he believed the principle of learning from the best education systems in the world had been “lost” during the creation of the proposed programmes of study’.
    The departures left just the Chair of the expert panel – Tim Oates.