No, it’s not OK to butcher the curriculum and blame the government

Miles Berry tweeted an image of a timetable for a UK Year 6 class. The timetable almost entirely English and Maths, save from three periods of PE. I have no way of judging the authenticity of the image but the ensuing discussion was extraordinary and that’s what I want to address.

Clearly, it is wrong to inflict such a timetable on students. I am an advocate of explicit instruction but even I will accept the argument that we should avoid using explicit instruction 100% of the time on the grounds that students should experience some variety. Different subjects naturally introduce variety into a school curriculum. Maths and English with just a little bit of PE is cruel and unusual.

Yet, rather than outright condemnation, there were those who agreed that such a timetable was wrong but sought to rationalise it as a response to accountability measures and the ‘current climate’. In the UK, Year 6 students have standardised tests in Maths and English at the start of May. The authors of this timetable, if it is genuine, are somehow trying to game this system by cramming English and Maths in the preceding weeks.

E D Hirsch has written about a similar issue in the US in response to the No Child Left Behind legislation in the early 2000s. He noted the number of elementary schools that were denuding their curricula of science, the arts and humanities and argued that this is self-defeating. Reading comprehension is best served by growing students’ general knowledge through the teaching of these subjects rather than endless drills in ‘finding the main idea’ of a text in metastatic guided-reading sessions. I would suggest that the same goes for writing. Instead of constantly performing to inane prompts, it would be better to practise writing about proper subjects.

Yes, it is a good idea to practice questions of the same style as the standardised test and to rehearse the conditions: we want these tests to give us an accurate reflection of what’s going on rather than simply freaking-out kids who haven’t seen anything like them before. And it’s a good idea to practice some grammar in the weeks leading up to a grammar test, otherwise it will just tell you that many students struggle to remember something they haven’t done for a while and you don’t need a standardised test to tell you that. But distorting – butchering – the curriculum so that it pretty much only contains English and Maths is plainly, morally wrong. If I were a parent then I would alert the authorities which, in the case of England, would probably involve a complaint to Ofsted, the schools inspectorate.

I find it odd that evidence of these sorts of practices leads some to conclude that we need less accountability. What on earth would the a curriculum look like that was designed by such teachers in the absence of accountability? I suspect it wouldn’t be up to much. Unprofessional behaviour is seen by most people as a reason for more regulation. When bankers rigged the LIBOR interest rate, nobody concluded that this was evidence of too much accountability. If the fault was with the system then that fault was that the system wasn’t regulated well enough.

If we wish to be considered a profession then we must be seen to act with constancy and in the best interests of students. Instead of blaming mum and dad for all our woes, we need to take charge and ensure that we are using the best evidence available to inform the decisions that we make. Gamesmanship at the expense of our students is not only wrong, it probably won’t work very well anyway.


7 thoughts on “No, it’s not OK to butcher the curriculum and blame the government

  1. There are exceptions perhaps.
    New heads in previously failing schools addressing immediate needs quickly, may be one.
    Schools in areas of high deprivation and or high pupil mobility may be another.
    To a greater or lesser extent, the problem undeniably exists. A combination of all elements of accountability all contribute.In an education culture where results talk, it’s sad but the interim assessment itself is all too fluid. It’s been pretty difficult keeping up with a framework that is constantly being ‘adjusted’. One has to keep checking to see if it’s been changed. No blame here. Just exhaustion and worry.

  2. Surely though the LIBOR rate scandal was a product of a system that rewarded that kind of behaviour; bankers were encouraged to generate profit at all costs. If that were the case, I see comparisons with an education system set up to reward those that get the ‘best’ results in English and maths in Year 6. When, as a school leader, you run the risk of a public sacking should not enough children compare well enough to completely different children, in schools where systems are being gamed yearly, pressure mounts to intolerable levels. I know personally of several schools that game the results system in many different ways and are rewarded with outstanding judgements. I feel the exclusion of ‘low quality’ students to be far far more morally reprehensible than teaching more English and Maths in the run up to the tests. Out of interest, did you blog on that? Do you feel the same about the schools that run after school revision sessions or the Government backed ‘Summer schools’ (which are almost entirely English and maths based)?

  3. Wow this really does sound like a similar situation to the United States, where the system has really been geared towards performance over substance, and has a flagrant system of “teaching to the test”. I am all for regular quizzes in the classroom, and also for national and international, and even provincial assessment here in Canada, however that is a much different scenario than gearing the entire curriculum towards good performance. A well rounded liberal education is what is required if we truly want our kids to achieve a decent education at school. What happened to History? Science? Art? Language class? As much as I advocate for better maths standards, my belief is that maths ties into the bigger picture, and not at the expense of the other subjects.

    This is truly horrifying, if these students really only study such a narrow list of subjects. Narrow exposures create narrow minds. Is this what we really want for our kids?

  4. I knew one day we’d find ourselves in agreement Greg. And the only thing unusual about this case is the honesty of the school in publishing the timetable. Most publish something that looks more balanced but in reality all Foundation subjects and Science get dropped in the final year in preparation for SATs. It’s a national virus. And the impact, as you rightly point out, is lowered general knowledge, children who are switched off learning and who find themselves feeling like only their test score matters. In one local school, children of friends of mine in Year 6 were told that if not enough of them did well in their SATs, their end of year treat of a play day would be cancelled. Whether or not you agree with the notion of a ‘play day’ to use emotional blackmail on children in order to secure results that really only benefit the school is wrong. This is a so called “outstanding” school. How did they get their outstanding grade? By doing well in SATs. In a one form entry school it only takes one or two children to do badly and they’ll lose their Ofsted grading. It’s this form of accountability, skewed too much towards data with little room for nuance that creates the gaming. On the other hand, if Ofsted came in with the clear agenda of finding out from Year 6 children and their parents how balanced their curriculum was and IF this was weighted equally with data, there would be a change. It’s really sad I think, that such a lever might be needed.

    1. Thanks. I agree with your final points about Ofsted – I’m too far removed from the system to make specific suggestions but they should be monitoring balance and they should be alert to this year 6 potential issue. I think we both share a strong commitment to a broad curriculum.

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