Secondary Secondary Science

Through a glass…darkly

The draft programmes of study for English, maths and science for Key Stages 1 & 2 have now been published (www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/nationalcurriculum/b0075667/national-curriculum-review-update).  Although the secondary programmes are promised later in the year there are some important features in the primary materials that are worthy of note to teachers in Key Stages 3 & 4.  In fact what is as important is the letter from Michael Gove to Tim Oates, highlighting key aspects and responding to the report of the Expert Panel.

Now, there are a couple of health warnings that need to kick in at this point.  One is that these are draft materials and the other is that the secondary programme may not be structured the same way.  Extrapolation isn’t an exact science.  However, let’s run with this for the moment, and see where it takes us.

Firstly, the content is stipulated year by year.  It’s grouped within key stages but nevertheless clearly indicates what pupils should learn about in each year.  We should remember that a key audience for this, explicitly referred to in both the Expert Panel report and Gove’s response, are parents.  The Secretary of State sees it as being important that parents know what their children should be covering each year (schools will be required to publish their curricula for each year).  On the one hand this reduces flexibility (it will also cause problems for small primary schools with mixed age classes who currently run a rolling programme).  However, it enables progression to be built in.  Going from year to year, the big ideas are seen to develop and grow.  It also makes it easier for publishers and external agencies to produce supporting materials.

Secondly, it’s big on spoken English; both the maths and science programmes have explicit reference to it.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the Ofsted inspection criteria and the way that they’re applied to all lessons.  Literacy is a deal breaker.  Illiterate pupils tend to have poorer, shorter and less fulfilled lives.  If we’re serious about it, it has to work across the curriculum.

Thirdly, levels and level descriptors are a thing of the past.  There has been a concern that levels have become an unhelpful label which has caused a diminution of expectation, not least on the part of the pupils.  They’ve been led out and tethered; the rifle has been cocked and aimed.  Actually, I think the problem is not with levels per se but with the use (and abuse) to which they’ve sometimes been put.  Some teachers use levels extremely well and have a consummate grasp of how they can be used as a taxonomy of challenge, planning learning extremely skilfully using this algorithm.  In other quarters however there’s some pretty weird folklore about what concepts and processes exist at which levels.

Fundamentally though we have to have a firmer grip on progress than simply “she’s learned more science than he has”.  We’re in the explanations business and we need a way of calibrating our judgment as to what a good one looks like.  Actually, although levels may not be much longer for this world (see this blog earlier in the year) take note of Michael’s billet-doux.  “…. I believe that it is critical that we both recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress.  Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required…..”  Details are to follow.

What the programme doesn’t do, and wasn’t designed to do, is to propose how the material should be taught.  To be fair, neither did previous iterations; however, they were soon followed by other constructs such as QCA’s schemes of work.  Now increasingly discarded they were nevertheless widely used to scaffold earlier attempts at developing schemes of learning.  This time it’s down to schools, what they can develop and what they decide to adopt.  Eyes down.

Ed Walsh
June 2012

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