In a fast-changing world, how should a curriculum and assessment system enable all learners to achieve?

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16 February 2015 by ATL
Opinions on the kind of curriculum pupils should be taught have tended to become steadily more polarised in recent years.

On the one side is the increasingly influential lobby for the importance of teaching core knowledge –a set of essential facts that must be instilled. On the other are those who claim that the internet has been a game changer that has made teaching knowledge redundant, and that schools need to concentrate on showing students how to interpret it. Voices in the middle warning of false dichotomies can often find themselves drowned out.

The title of the ATL’s latest pre-election debate – ‘In a fast-changing world, how should a curriculum and assessment system enable all learners to achieve?’ that I recently had the pleasure of chairing - made me think we might be in line for just such a ding-dong.

However the reality was a much more nuanced discussion. ATL’s Nansi Ellis pointed out that knowledge does change – landing a space probe on a comet could have huge impact on science, for example - and that the curriculum must be flexible enough to adapt when it does.

But no one was suggesting that the advent of Google means that schools should no longer bother imparting knowledge. (The ‘all facts are now available at the click of mouse’ argument has always struck me as odd, as whilst it may be true, its advocates never really explain when people will find the time to digest all that knowledge if they don’t do it in school).

Equally no one was pouring scorn on the importance of equipping young people with the ‘soft skills’ such as teamwork and communication that they will need in later life.

Quite the opposite in fact – Scott Young, skills and employment manager for the Thames Tideway Tunnel project – said that employers do not judge someone on 'how quickly they can regurgitate from memory', they were more interested in how they were able to apply knowledge.

Any involved with the most recent redrawing of the national curriculum would have been heartened by the debate. There have been complaints that there is just too much in there - that the coalition’s ambition of schools being able to teach their own individual curricula alongside the national curriculum is unachievable.

But the consensus, on the panel at least, was very different. Lee Card revealed that Cherry Orchard Primary in Worcester, where he is deputy head, viewed the new national curriculum as an opportunity and had designed its own bespoke curriculum around it.

“Great schools will find ways to teach key content that is relevant to the school,” he said. David Crossley, executive director of Whole Education – an organisation that helps schools do exactly that – agreed. Not that it was always plain sailing – schools needed to be confident and overcome their fear of Ofsted.

Perhaps less in tune with current thinking in officialdom was a call for a completely teacher assessed system. The government and Ofqual are of course taking GCSEs and A-levels in the other direction with the controlled assessment kept to a minimum in favour of externally marked final exams.

Much of the motivation for this has come from fears of teacher malpractice with suspicious patterns of marks clustered around crucial grading points.

I didn’t feel we had the time during a very interesting session to fully address the question of how teacher assessment can be successfully combined with the pressure of a high stakes accountability system. Room for another debate?

William Stewart chaired the fourth #ShapeEducation debate 'In a fast-changing world, how should a curriculum and assessment system enable all learners to achieve?' in London on Wednesday 11 February 2015.

Missed the debate? Take a look at our Twitter round up on Storify.

William Stewart is a reporter at the TES

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Assessment