Curriculum Leadership


Curriculum Leadership in Primary Schools

The new National Curriculum of 1988 imposed a host of new obligations on primary school teachers. Not least of these was the duty to acquire or re-acquire the subject knowledge necessary to teach all ten of its subjects in the detail laid down. Until 1988 most primary school teachers had regarded themselves as generalists whilst the cornerstone of the so-called 'progressive' approach (which by then was almost universal in schools) was the topic.

With typical names such as 'elements', 'space', or even 'holes', topics could range far and wide depending on the childrens' interests. Language and number skills were seen as ways of developing creative expression and the prime measure of success was the childrens' enthusiasm. There was a philosophical disinclination to measure outcomes in other ways - a distaste for testing that often reflected teacher's own experiences at school. Few primary school teachers valued subject knowledge for its own sake and some would have actively resisted a definition of education based on the teaching of 'facts.' Notwithstanding this, British primary schools in the '70's and 80's were often places in which a great deal of valuable knowledge was shared and valued.

The problem was lack of structure and with it accountability. Smiling faces did not prove much of an argument when employers complained of low standards of literacy and numeracy and newspapers highlighted the ill-discipline that seemed to accompany 'discovery learning'. It was in 1977 that a Labour prime-minister, James Callaghan, initiated a 'great educational debate', one aspect of which was to question teachers' control of the curriculum. Surely what was taught in schools was a matter of national concern and could not be left to the enthusiasm of individuals?

No one in the teaching profession seems to have realised how much was at stake. Indeed there were many, the present writer included, who wanted stronger leadership in the curriculum, if only because the existing diversity was so difficult to resource. However the National Curriculum which emerged from the Conservative Party Conference in 1987 was very different from anything anyone within the profession had been advocating. Its real purpose was to encourage competition between schools by providing the basis for a system of national testing (DES circular 7-87). With school budgets being determined by pupil numbers there would be a direct relationship between academic success and teacher employment. The fact that there were to be subjects in the primary curriculum took us back to the last time such a system of payment by results had been in operation. The fact that each subject was to have its content determined by a working party of experts ensured that far more would be included than could ever feasibly be taught.

Nevertheless, teachers did their best to shoulder the burden and for a year or two almost all in-service training was devoted to increasing teachers' subject knowledge. There were some odd side-effects. LEA advisers, whose courses were often seen as having limited value and relevance, suddenly found applications lists bursting at the seams. So great was the urgency that a system known as 'cascading' was adopted. One teacher in each school would go on a course and this teacher would then become responsible for passing on what they had learned to their colleagues. In this rather uncertain way the role of curriculum leader was born.

Two other developments contributed to the emergence of the curriculum leader's role. In 1972 a government decision to make teaching an all-graduate profession had led to the introduction of the B.Ed. To ensure parity of esteem this was later extended to include a subject specialism taken to the level of a conventional BA degree. Meanwhile posts of responsibility (almost unknown in primary schools before 1980) were beginning to multiply. The first specialist co-ordinators were generally appointed to cover special needs but eventually leadership roles were assigned to cover the whole curriculum. For most aspiring teachers the post of subject co-ordinator or curriculum leader now represents the first stage on the promotion ladder.

top of this page

Literacy and numeracy

Politicians like to be able to show that their actions make a difference. With most governments lasting no more than four years and ministers of education rather less, there is little time to see the benefits of longer term strategies. During John Major's time as prime-minister the rigid demands of the National Curriculum were softened. The Dearing Review of 1990 reduced the content considerably and SATs were restricted to the 'core subjects' of English Maths and Science. However, the introduction of the infamous league-tables meant there was no let-up in the use of competition as a motivating force. The publication of reports by the Office for Standards in Education added to the sense of insecurity within the system, leading schools to concentrate more and more on fulfilling the specific criteria used by the inspectors, which often seemed arbitrary and narrow.

With the advent of New Labour in 1997 many hoped for a reverse of these policies but the new government was fearful of the impression that it was abandoning the rigour of its predecessor or handing education back to the 'loony left'. Instead it chose to concentrate on more limited and achievable objectives, setting targets for performance in literacy and numeracy and requiring schools to set aside a specific time to teach them. The unintended consequence of this has been to restrict the time available for the other 'foundation' subjects and to diminish their standing within the curriculum. More positively, many schools have begun to seek ways of teaching literacy through subjects like history whilst others have returned to a topic-based approach. In larger schools the history co-ordinator may be part of a humanities team whilst in smaller ones one teacher may be responsible for leadership across the whole humanities area.

top of this page

The future

Improvements achieved through the introduction of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies appear to be levelling off and there has been increasing criticism of the restricting effects of concentrating so exclusively on the 'core'. Primary schools are undeniably less happy places than they were twenty years ago and the broader educational objectives of stimulating curiosity and nurturing the desire to learn appear to have suffered. In the next few years we can expect a greater emphasis on the overall process of education and a return to creative expression as a measurement of quality.

What we won't lose (and shouldn't) is the focus on skills. The five key elements which the 1988 History National Curriculum Working Party identified as central to the study of history (chronology, historical understanding, interpretation, enquiry and organisation) are so important to the education of free citizens that they are certain to survive in some form or another. Understanding them and finding ways in which children can get better at using them will require specialist curriculum leaders for a considerable time to come.

top of this page