AS most people attend only one primary and one secondary school, there can be an assumption that all other schools are broadly similar, run in the same way, and teach much the same content. The fact that, since 1988, England has had a law requiring schools to teach a “National Curriculum” might reinforce that view.
Yet this is far from true – and sadly in too many cases children are receiving a poor quality education. Rather than using rigorous textbooks and materials, most teachers are left to develop their own content – this sees many work late into the night and through the weekend, and the result is often not what it should be.
England’s schools have always been a diverse lot: divided between private and state-funded; some select pupils at 11 through tests, others take everyone who applies, some manage a mixture of the two; some are resolutely secular, others religious (and those divided between some which are “maintained” by the Government, and others which are just “aided”). And, since the early 2000s, academies and free schools, run by charities independent of the Government, have also become a key part of the school landscape.
Some of these schools must teach the National Curriculum, others do not have to, but research I have recently published with the think-tank Policy Exchange shows that even where schools are supposed to be teaching it, the resources they are using are not good enough to ensure children are getting their legal entitlement.
This is an enormous shame because the 2014 National Curriculum is an excellent document – guaranteeing children the basics of literacy and numeracy, but also an introduction to history, geography, art and literature.
A rigorous, knowledge-rich curriculum is empowering for young people, allowing them to understand and question their place in the world, and is also shown by research evidence to be an important tool for improving social mobility.
In seeking to improve the teaching of this curriculum in all schools, I do not think more direct government action is the answer. Instead, we should look to another sector which is also richly diverse and already involved in education: museums and other cultural institutions.
I was delighted that Dame Mary Archer, the chair of the Science Museum Group – which includes the National Railway Museum in York and National Science and Media Museum in Bradford – agreed to write the foreword to my report, urging government to support her own institutions and others in developing “coherent curriculum programmes”, which will include textbooks, lesson resources, assessments and training.
Building new relationships between the subject experts in our museums and learned institutions and the teachers in our schools could enormously improve the learning of our children. But it also has the advantage of reducing workload and pressures on teachers. I taught in state schools for a decade and I have enormous respect for my colleagues, especially those in primary school who teach all the different subjects in the curriculum.
Those teachers have often been told during their training that they should not use textbooks, that it is somehow cheating if they do not create everything themselves.
But this creates a punishing workload for them, and some of the places teachers go looking for support actually make the problem worse. We found that teachers often used online resource banks to download free resources, but many of these had no quality assurance mechanisms, and the “pick ’n’ mix” approach this led to meant there was no coherence in the curriculum children were receiving, which in turn made teaching harder.
No textbook or worksheet will ever substitute for a positive relationship between teacher and pupil, but the “oven ready resources” I recommend can underpin those relationships by reducing teacher time spent on activities which can be done effectively by external bodies, harnessing the expertise of the many respected institutions involved with English education beyond schools.
That will then expand the time and energy available to teachers to deploy their professional skills where they will make the most difference: in “the final foot” between them and their pupils, in the classroom.
John Blake is Head of Education and Social Reform at Policy Exchange and spent 10 years teaching in state schools.