Oak National Academy

Oak is a symptom of curriculum mediocrity, not the treatment

Off-the-peg curricula are the wrong answer to a problem caused by political failure and will only perpetuate the perma-crisis, writes Carolyn Roberts

Off-the-peg curricula are the wrong answer to a problem caused by political failure and will only perpetuate the perma-crisis, writes Carolyn Roberts

14 Nov 2022, 5:00

Arms-length isn’t far and, as anyone who’s been in a hot year 10 classroom after lunch knows, it’s not the distance but the cause that’s the problem. I’m not worried about Oak being arm’s length – I’m worried about the argument that puts it there.

When we wrote Knowledge and the Future School eight years ago, we wanted subject knowledge back at the heart of schools, dislodging testing as a proxy for learning. We tackled the question of whether children just needed ‘downloading skills’, or were entitled to make a relationship with knowledge for themselves. Our work perhaps helped turn the tide, but now different waves chill the feet.

If deep knowledge and time to think are important for children, what about teachers? Do they need the ability to plan and design rich and powerful learning? Or have we compromised by accepting that teachers just need ‘downloading skills’ – because we don’t have enough of them and schools don’t have any money, so those we do have don’t have any time? If we accept that recruitment and funding are perma-crises, off-the-peg curricula are the answer to a question we should never have needed to ask.

Good schools inspire talented young people to study deeply and become teachers in their turn, changing the world with their learning. Their training should burnish this desire; their early career enabling them to put scholarship to the service of the next generations. As they develop, they design and refine curricula; when they lead their own schools, they build success on scholarly foundations.

But if we’ve reached a stage where schools are denigrated as clinging to mediocrity as did Kit Malthouse, the former education secretary, or where teaching is matter-of-factly presented as unendurable for more than a few years, then which young people would want to try teaching, let alone stay for 40 years? And who can blame those who do for using off-the-peg solutions bearing the department’s or Ofsted’s imprimatur?

Instead, we could reboot curriculum expertise

Teachers in England spend about 20 hours a year fewer than the OECD average on CPD. The Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) April 2021 report, The Effects of High Quality Professional Development on Teachers and Students suggested that an entitlement to 35 hours a year of quality PD could retain 12,000 teachers a year. While Oak calculates impact in teacher minutes saved (8.4 per teacher per week), EPI reckoned that over 10 years, a £4 billion investment in CPD could yield £61 billion returns – principally from the increased earning power of better-educated children.

The PTI commissioned the Pro Bono Economics report, Learning to Save. It concluded that this same 35 hours of good PD for all teachers would be significantly cheaper than training up teachers to plug recruitment gaps. The Wellcome Trust’s CPD Challenge demonstrated that the 35 hours makes teachers feel able to teach their subjects more effectively, grow in confidence and manage behaviour and attendance better.

As we need 12,000 more teachers now as well as about 15,000 a year,  this should be the priority. PTI’s own 15 years of evaluations demonstrate that teachers given rich, deep subject and curriculum training are more likely to stay in teaching.

It’s a downward spiral. Because we don’t have the teachers we need and we can’t afford to give them time, we look for solutions to help do the best we can. But all that happens is that we attract fewer and lose more of them, along with their expertise.

Instead, if we funded schools properly and inspected subjects meticulously against a rigorous compulsory National Curriculum, we could reboot curriculum expertise in every school. Teachers could choose how they worked, using quality external provision if they wanted. We wouldn’t worry about the creeping de-professionalising of a weakened workforce, because we’d be investing in the thinkers our children need.

Teachers are public intellectuals with advanced interpersonal skills and patience with the young. Off-the-peg curriculum solutions badged by the government might be wonderful or they might be another cheap way of undermining the scholarly foundations of our schools.

Either way, eight years on I’m still asking: where is knowledge in our future schools?

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One comment

  1. Yes. And well stated.
    Off-the-peg does not fit all, nor can it. Some of us need alterations to off-the-peg to get a good fit. Others of us need bespoke design.
    The gradual scripting out of the teacher as curriculum designer risks excluding many pupils from creating their own unique mental maps of conected knowledge and understanding.