7 Dec 2020
Zoe Enser’s review finds a book on curriculum with too much breadth and too little depth
Secondary Curriculum Transformed begins with the premise that secondary schools in England are currently getting their curriculum wrong. Our system of a “knowledge-rich” national curriculum leading to a “gold-standard Ebacc”, they argue, limits “human skills” of creativity and critical and conceptual thinking. This potentially disadvantages, marginalises and excludes students from their learning.
This is not my understanding or experience of a knowledge-rich curriculum, so I approached this text with some trepidation. However, I was equally interested to discover how the authors’ international perspective would frame the issue and what solutions they would offer.
The book is divided into seven core sections for ease of navigation. They range from student voice and careers to “mandatory key skills” and “redefining disadvantage”. These are weighty issues for a book fewer than 250 pages in length.
The text is filled with examples from a range of different contexts, providing insights into how schools have approached these themes with their cohorts. These are always interesting and do make you reflect on why and how you might make changes in your setting. However, some of these approaches are not as radical as suggested. For example, using word-processing and voice recognition with dyslexic students has been pretty standard as far back as 1997.
The drive towards tech is a persistent theme. Regrettably, it is framed in a way that feels like an effort to return to the fruitless mantras of the early Noughties. For example, the World Economic Forum’s oft-repeated 2008 suggestion that “65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist” makes an early, disheartening appearance.
Nevertheless, there is still a lot to agree with in terms of curriculum. The desire for all students to achieve regardless of background is unarguable. The idea that the secondary curriculum is a five-year journey with a clear route and room for some student agency is a strong one. The authors’ concern about a narrow curriculum is widely shared and their consistent emphasis on pupil voice is commendable.
It is on the practicalities that the book is sadly lacking
It is on the practicalities of delivering these sometimes conflicting priorities that the book is sadly lacking. The topics are so far-reaching that coverage is at times rather superficial, as opposed to anything that might bring about meaningful change. Metacognition is decoupled from subjects, becoming a generic “learning to learn” tool. The authors do state that knowledge and skills rarely if ever work in isolation, but I was left wondering what it is we want students to think critically and creatively about if we don’t arm them with the knowledge needed to do so. And meanwhile, the teaching of reading and vocabulary – fundamental to everything else – is awarded only a few pages.
Most interesting perhaps is the idea we could be using a different range of assessment tools to support intervention. I was particularly taken with the suggestion that resources like GL Assessment’s Pupil Attitudes to Self and School could guide the provision of appropriate mentoring and lead to improved educational outcomes.
There are some practical tools in the text that could allow schools to explore putting some of its ideas into practice. The best are focused on the Gatsby benchmarks for careers guidance and effective transition. However, I was again left questioning how useful and effective these could really be, given the lack of depth on offer. A narrower focus on transition or aspirations may have made this a more practical read.
The authors’ basic premise is that the purpose of schools is to enable students to have the skills to enter a post-Brexit global marketplace. If you agree, then you may find this book helpful to consolidate some of your thinking. If, like me, you are not convinced this tells the whole story, you’ll only be left with more questions. Either way, it’s hardly a transformative experience.