“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
This wonderfully quixotic exchange captures brilliantly the surreal sense of “madness” enveloping education. Never before in my career has there been such a perfect storm of initiatives and reforms topped off with lashings of uncertainty. In a masterpiece of reductionist politics, the current Secretary of State for Education has determined that the solution to the systemic challenges facing this country rest on pressing some sort of restart button in our schools.
The recent leak about the proposed new National Curriculum exemplifies this “madness”. Why “madness”? The lack of genuine consultation in shaping this new curriculum is staggering. It is as if those tasked with constructing the curriculum have joined Dr Who in a trip back to the last century unaccompanied by anyone plugged into the challenges in education now. What should be an exciting learning journey for our young people in a digital age is essentially a rehash of school as we knew it in the days gone by, with a list of “hard stuff” that must be learned. Reaction from various quarters to the first glimpse of the new NC is predictable given the disconnect between many in education and the government.
Yet herein lies the rub. This “rigorous” new NC only has statutory force in schools under LEA control. Those schools in the primary and secondary sector which have opted for academy status enjoy an independence which means they can take a view on this new curriculum and – if they so determine – can pursue a completely different curriculum. Positive news for those underwhelmed by the proposed NC with the autonomy to make their own curriculum decisions.
However, there is a fundamental point of principle at stake here. In the 1980s Lord Baker established a level of curriculum entitlement for every pupil in the maintained sector with the creation of the original NC. In today’s “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” of policy makers different mad hares are running in contrary ways. In the working logic of the DfE there is no tension between crafting their own NC whilst at the same time empowering academies to opt out of anything the LEAs are compelled to implement.
As the madness grows, let’s toss in the consultation on the proposed EBacc, designed to replace the “rubbish” GCSEs. A colleague of mine attended an event recently where she looked forward to discovering more about this qualification. Instead she came away with a strong sense of growing hostility from schools in both the maintained and independent sector. I cannot speak for colleagues in other schools but certainly the Stephen Perse Foundation has absolutely no intention of embracing the EBacc, characterised as it is by a functional and uninspiringly narrow world view.
And guess what? The academies, rather like the Cheshire Cat, can perform their own disappearing act and adopt the current alternative to GCSEs, the IGCSE. And if you look closely you can catch the disappearing smile of the Cheshire Cat as another government initiative goes off half cock. The icing on the cake is a passing comment made by Michael Gove: whilst this new qualification is being crafted why don’t schools just pick up the IGCSE to fill the gap. This in itself sums up how little our Secretary of State for Education understands what happens in the busy life of a school. Devising and implementing a new specification is a huge undertaking. But then, Gove’s world has more than a passing resemblance to the Court of the Queen of Hearts.
Just to complete the madness, let us not forget the role of Ofqual, the White Rabbit in the Wonderland of Education, racing to keep up with the edicts emanating from the DfE. Best to gloss over the on-goingdispute between Ofqual and a range of schools and LEASs over the shambles surrounding grade boundaries in English GCSE in the summer. Instead I should like to focus on a statement issued by Ofqual regarding modularity in ‘A’ Levels following a fairly swift process of consultation. (Incidentally, is it me, or is launching a consultation on such an important matter just as schools are closing for the summer break a strange thing to do?) On the face of it, the statement issued by Ofqual on Friday (not leaked this time) announced the death knell of the January module for students embarking on ‘A’ Levels in September 2013 which in our view is a positive step in tackling retake grade inflation. Yet all is not as it appears. There is another twist in the tail. Our Director of Sixth Form, on reviewing the Ofqual statement, noticed subtle amendments had been made during the course of the day. Erring on the side of caution, he decided to phone Ofqual to seek clarification on the rephrasing of a certain key point. What he learnt confirmed his worst suspicions. The January module has been removed from 2014 which means the current L6th, having embarked on their qualification in good faith, now have a very different modular journey.
Madness, madness, madness. The obsessing with process means the best interests of our young people have been carelessly tossed aside. Of course teachers will do their utmost to mitigate the impact of the political maelstrom surrounding schools. But whatever happened to ‘Education, Education, Education’?
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