Learning for Life

Happy 2024 to you all! How odd it seems to be writing this date – 2024, and how quickly the years zoom forward. What a pity that the state of the world often fails to move with it. In this blog I want to talk about the National Curriculum, that prescribed learning document originally introduced way back in 1988 with the Educational Reform Act by Kenneth Baker, with updates, mainly to the assessment system, from 2014, initiated by Michael Gove. My key question: does the National Curriculum serve every child or student adequately or effectively? Does it do what it is meant to do, in preparing all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life? My answer: no, it does not. 

A recent conversation with my daughter, whose educational role in colleges in and around Manchester focuses on the quality and improvement of teaching, featured her post-lesson discussion (following observation) with a group of students at one college. My daughter described their behaviours as generally less than acceptable (two students sat with their feet up on the desk). One student later said, ‘I’m learning more here (in college) than I ever did at school. What good has learning about kings and queens done for me?’ 

Why was I not surprised to hear such a negative comment? That student has surely been far from alone in her apparent frustration with school-based learning. During the research for my latest educational book ‘The SENCO Survival Guide,’ (published by Routledge 2022) I had the privilege of supporting a small secondary school with a disadvantaged intake. My observations of a number of lessons led me to the conclusion that the National Curriculum is not working for every child and young person. Why? Firstly, children openly demonstrated lack of engagement and boredom: in one observed lesson a boy played with a rubic cube, and a girl applied nail varnish. Secondly, mainly in lower sets, a huge proportion of young people could not fully access lesson content: due to inadequate levels of language and/or cognitive or other diagnosed learning difficulties. Some of these learners had the support of a teaching assistant. Thirdly, this school has a significant level of pupils for whom English is an additional language (EAL), and many of these pupils have arrived in Year 7 with reading ages far below what is needed to fully benefit from secondary learning. Place all of these issues together and we can easily understand how and why engagement in many of these schools is poor, behaviour is difficult for teachers to deal with, and why some pupils truant from school altogether.

So where might answers lie? The key is in ensuring that as far as possible, children are engaging with lessons: they cannot be allowed to spend up to five hours a day bored. Facts and traditional knowledge clearly do not engage every child. Teaching and learning must link up.

When will our Government start to act and set up think tanks to look seriously at these issues? For too long, the National Curriculum has been failing too many of our children. Such under-achievement is not their failure – it is ours. Is the starting point the question: how can the NC better prepare our young people for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life? Should schooling be less about traditional facts and knowledge – and more about well-being, values and life itself? Should pupils have more choices in the subjects they study? Should parents be far more involved in their child’s education? I believe the answer is ‘yes’ to all of these questions. We must act now! Learning is for life, and success is every child’s right. 

 Sylvia Edwards has written numerous books, mainly on education (Routledge), focused on improving outcomes for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities: her third edition of ‘The SENCO Survival Guide’ was published in 2022. She has also self-published ‘Time of the Virus’ (2021), a reflective, thought-provoking book about humanity. Her first novel ‘A Lie Never Dies’ was self-published in 2023. 

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