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Build back different: a bigger, broader and braver curriculum 

What kind of school curriculum can pave an alternative road out of this pandemic, asks IAN DUCKETT

AS A school governor I have heard a lot about the “recovery curriculum” recently and as a trade unionist I’ve read a good deal about the “emergency curriculum” — but what I’m really interested in as a socialist educator is a curriculum that paves an alternative road out of this pandemic that our schools could take and build for a different and better future.

Curriculum development has, for me, always been concerned with three interwoven strands: the development of skills, knowledge and general education/enrichment with entitlement as its strong backbone. 

In short, our curriculum needs to be bigger, broader and braver.

Economics, history and pedagogy

Government-sponsored generic skills initiatives, from common skills to core skills to key skills, the dabbling in essential skills and, most recently functional skills, relate to a narrow vocational curriculum but there have been occasions (in the mid-90s and again with the Tomlinson Report, 2004) when a broader and more meaningful wider curriculum has attempted to cross the academic/vocational divide and a genuine learning curriculum has seen the light of day.

Failed government initiatives and interventions

Problem-solving, teamwork, learning skills and communication have a crucial role to play in post-14 education and the notion of either a knowledge-free curriculum or of a content-free pedagogy is a manifest absurdity. 

While the basic, or mechanistic, skills model of skills development has been back in vogue in all its Govian squalor, the fuller, more developmental version of skills comprising improving own learning, working with others and problem-solving, while in retreat, still has its champions outside of the mainstream.

These wider survival skills, that can be seen as working-class street wisdom, seem to be undervalued and undermined by those who decide on what the curriculum is and who it is for.

The economic imperative has raised broader educational and social questions. 

It is not just vocational training that people should receive. They have a right to be educated more broadly. 

Once again that might be seen purely in economic terms. How else can people experience fulfilment as human beings? 

Questions like this are as vital as ever, perhaps more so. 

Successive governments have failed to address the skills gap. 

Similarly, the genuine assessment for learning models that have not just been state-sponsored assessment objectives sought to foster a more progressive curriculum. 

Curriculum development and delivery and assessment methodology alike need to be matched with both the appropriate skills and attitudes and the appropriate learning objectives in order to enable pupils to develop a well-considered personal and critical response.

A bigger, broader and braver curriculum

Armed with tools, a teacher can enhance the learning experience in ways that have a positive impact on teaching and learning styles and develop the curriculum in its broadest sense. 

Ever since I can remember there have been problems about the assessment of generic skills in vocational education, be it liberal education; general studies; communication skills; general and communication studies; social and life skills; people and communication and, more recently, functional skills. So why assess them? Why not just develop them?

If there is nothing new about the problematic nature of assessing these transferable skills — supposedly a prerequisite for a competitive British industrial and service workforce — why the commotion on the pages of the education press and beyond? 

Perhaps it is because now, these “core” skills are, for the first time, making an impact on schools and traditional academia as well as vocational further education. 

There were certainly a number of false starts and missed opportunities under Labour, but a decade of coalition and Tory governments has so narrowed our curriculum that educators now bandy the terms “recovery” and “emergency” curriculum when what we need to be doing is building a different and more meaningful skills-based curriculum with transferable skills as its spine, community and care as well as employability in its stomach and humanity and entitlement as its heart and pulse.

This article is based on a talk on social class and curriculum development at the Working Class Academics Conference, July 15 2020.

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