Book Review: Remaking the Curriculum; re-engaging young people in the secondary school

Martin Allen   Education Review  Volume 24. N0 1

Remaking the Curriculum; re-engaging young people in the secondary school.   Martin Fautley, Richard Hatcher and Elaine Millard.  Trentham Books 2011, ISBN: 978-1-85856-471-5

The very title of this book should be enough to entice secondary practitioners stuck in a daily grind; where teaching has become focussed on preparing for the next Ofsted, ensuring that students are meeting their targets and that every minute in their classroom time is accounted for.

The authors, professors of education at Birmingham City University investigate curriculum projects taking place in two local schools and designed to promote alternative approaches to learning. Using cross curricula themes and a drama-based pedagogy, the aim is to re-engage young people and re-motivate staff. In one there is an ‘enterprise’ focus, in the other, a cultural studies programme serves as the basis for the new approach. The book shows that even within the limits of the current National Curriculum it is possible to innovate, be creative and to challenge the top down  model of learning  where teachers  ‘deliver’ the curriculum to students through  predefined  lesson plans to achieve specific learning outcomes with one that is based on negotiation and  student experience.

This is not to assume that this is an easy exercise. The case studies describe how the schools had to balance traditional National Curriculum assessment recording and reporting requirements with their new classroom pedagogies. They also had to address the ‘conservatism’ and insecurities of practitioners –this does not imply these are innate, but are as much an understandable response to the climate teachers have been forced to operate in. To quote one of the participants in the study  ‘until the exam system takes account of the children learning for themselves and not just regurgitating facts, there’s always going to be a problem.’ (p.70)  This is a statement that many secondary colleagues would concur with.   In fact, Ofsted inspectors are recorded as reported as welcoming the progress made by students as a result of ‘inspirational leadership’ and a ‘new, innovative and effective curriculum.’ (p.101) 

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the book is its discussion of the changing context in which schools are now operating in.  The authors citation  of the new 2010 Ofsted guidelines which encourage teachers to ‘guide’ rather than ‘over-direct’  pupils  and to use role play to encourage creative thinking (p.100) suggests that maybe the beast is being tamed?  More significantly, the authors also claim that the Coalition government will allow more autonomy for schools and ‘free teachers to exercise their professional judgement ‘

I  am  not  convinced that either changes to Ofsted  or the increased ‘autonomy’ that the authors consider schools will enjoy as a result of the Coalition’s  changes to education policy will allow them to move in the positive direction featured in this study.  Neither do I consider that the 2010 Academies Bill which allows the creation of ‘free schools’ is something that practitioners should welcome!

There are other issues with pioneering curriculum change. When I began teaching on an integrated humanities programme at the start of the 1980s the ‘professional space’ enjoyed by teachers did indeed allow us to ‘innovate.’ At the same time many new initiatives, particularly the coursework based CSE  ‘mode 3’  for example,  tended to be geared to ‘non academic’ students –  those taking O-levels continued to have a more standard diet.  The creation of GCSEs challenged this dichotomy to an extent, but it didn’t end it.  We have to recognise that today, while supposedly encouraging ‘autonomy’, Michael Gove is ploughing ahead with a traditional agenda and using English Baccalaureate subjects as a new benchmark for ‘success’.  

Nevertheless, regardless of any misplaced optimism, this book does try to raise spirits and send a clear message.  Providing a snapshot of what secondary education could be like,  it deserves to be taken seriously.

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