The new national curriculum

Wednesday, March 15th, 2011.

England’s secondary maths curriculum is likely to become “more challenging” for pupils from 2013, one of the government’s leading civil servants said today.

Jon Coles, who has a key role in the national curriculum review which was launched in January, suggested that while the primary maths curriculum in this country was quite similar to that of “top-performing” countries internationally, this was not the case from the age of 11 onwards.

He set out the thinking behind the review and – perhaps boldly, given that the review is only just over six weeks old – offered a taste of what some conclusions with regard to maths might be during a talk to the annual conference of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education at the Royal Society in London this morning.

Mr Coles, director general for education standards at the Department for Education, said: “What I think [the review] will mean, from the early evidence beginning to come through in maths, is that it will probably mean some increasing challenge, especially in the secondary phase.

“There’s a great deal of commonality between the national curriculum in primary schools in this country and in the highest-performing jurisdictions.

“There are some differences, in primary, in timing and sequencing [of when things are taught], and we do have one area where we do a great deal more than other countries, which is data handling, in which we are quite unusual in this country.”

However, in general, he said, there were not huge differences between what was taught before the age of 11 here and good practice elsewhere.

But he added: “At secondary level, we will see a pushing up of challenge and expectation. That would be my guess on the basis of what the review has seen so far.”

On the wider thinking behind the review of the curriculum for 5- to 16-year-olds, for first teaching in 2013, Mr Coles set out the idea behind it of trying to learn from what happened in other countries which do well in international studies such as the OECD’s “PISA” tests and TIMSS, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

He said: “The review team are looking extremely systematically at what happens in the top-performing jurisdictions in the world.

“Specifically, they are interested in what is put in the curriculum at what age, what is the sequencing, what leads to progression and high performance in these systems, what can we learn from them and what should we transfer into our system?

“The overall aim of the review is to be much less prescriptive…to reassert the balance between the national curriculum and the school curriculum.”

He implied that the idea was to strip down the amount of time taken up by the national curriculum in schools.

He said: “The national curriculum…should be a specification of the core knowledge and principles needed to progress, not a complete specification of everything that schools teach.”

The government would not be specifying how teachers should teach (a move back to the days before Labour entered into the world of prescription over pedagogy with the national literacy and numeracy strategies). And he suggested, I think, that schools would need help adapting to this new world, saying the government would “need to support schools” in doing so.

Summing up, he said: “The task that the review team are undertaking is to come up with a pretty spare, pretty knowledge-focused national curriculum, based on the best international evidence.”

The timescale looks challenging, I think, with curriculum materials due in schools by September next year.  

But Mr Coles added:  “I think what we will see in this review is trying to get draft Programmes of Study out much earlier in the process than has been the case in previous reviews.

“That’s a good and important thing to do.”

Mr Coles also had some interesting things to say about funding. Asked a question about funding for a particular initiative, he said: “Our budgets are under a great deal of pressure.

“It’s true that the DfE has done rather better than many other departments. But we are experiencing a significant change [from spending under the previous regime, I guess] and what we are trying to do is prioritise front-line budgets.

“The most important thing to do is to prioritise schools and colleges and early years budgets.  Doing that, when this was already 80 per cent of our budget means that it will become 90 per cent of our budget.

“So the rest of our budget has halved. Given that within [that part of] the budget are some very big things, like initial teacher training – which I suspect many of you in this room would advise us not to cut – we do not have lots of pots of money.

“That’s a direct result of what’s being done to reduce the budget deficit.

“In the next few years, do not expect us to come up with pots of money for good new ideas. We will have to prioritise, and respond to good ideas, but I suspect not with new money. That’s the situation that the whole of the public sector is going to face.”

Ok, this has largely been a blog without comment from me, because I thought readers might be interested in these words as they stood. I will just add a final comment on Mr Coles’s speech, however, in relation to what he had to say about progress in maths in this country over the past 10 years or so.

Actually, I wondered what Mr Coles would say on this, as he has been at the department a while. Under Labour, he led the 14-19 programme which introduced the now beleaguered diploma qualification. Could his assessment of how things stand on school standards possibly be as bleak as that of his political boss, Michael Gove, who often seems reluctant to offer any sense that things might have improved in any way since 1997, I wondered.

Well, actually Mr Coles, perhaps unsurprisingly but interestingly, offered a more balanced view of matters with regard to maths education.

He told the conference: “Over the last 10 years, just looking back at the figures, we have an awful lot to look at that suggests progress, and that’s good and positive.”

The number of people coming into maths teaching over the last 10 years had doubled, he said, while the number passing* the subject at GCSE had grown very significantly, the numbers taking maths A-level had grown by 50 per cent since a low-point of participation was reached in 2002, and the take-up of further maths A-level had also increased markedly in recent years.

He said international evidence presented challenges. But even here – and I almost choked on hearing the next bit – there were some chinks of light.

He said: “There are some positives. We are the most improved nation in TIMSS, in the international comparisons.”

I nearly choked because, of course, as I have written here, somehow Mr Gove never seems to find the time to mention England TIMSS results in major speeches setting out why he thinks our schools need radical reform. Last November’s white paper is also free of the statistics on maths which Mr Coles presented.

Of course, he did go on to set out the agenda which has been put forward by the Government, saying: “Actually, PISA does present some very large challenges.  Our 15- and 16-year-olds are doing significantly less well than they are in some other countries.

Shanghai’s performance on the last PISA tests put it two whole years on the PISA scale ahead of us, and that gives us a real challenge.”

He also highlighted a recent report for the Nuffield Foundation which documented the low proportions of young people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland persisting with maths after the age of 16.

But  all Mr Coles offered a more balanced view of the evidence than was presented either by Mr Gove, in launching the recent education bill (Gove: “I would love to be able to celebrate a greater level of achievement, but I am afraid that this is the dreadful inheritance that our children face”), or in the white paper on which it was based. I wonder whether those TIMSS figures will ever get a look-in in official documents and government speeches in future. I’m not holding my breath.

This conference also had plenty to debate about the influence of results pressures in schools, which as you would expect I will be writing about in the coming days.

*[I note that there was no reference to this equating to pupils achieving a C grade or better at GCSE. A C grade is not, of course, formally, the cut-off for a “pass”. GCSEs were introduced with a passing scale of grades A-G. It is surprising that even officials are now saying a C grade is a pass, when this is not how the grading system works. I heard the conference chair, Professor Dame Julia Higgins also equate a C grade with a “pass”, and it featured in the Wolf review earlier this month. I understand why it’s happening, but I still find it strange that we have a technical language which defines a pass in one way, and everyone else now seeming to define it in another.]

1 Comment

  1. I train people on the management and interpretation of school data and I frequently encounter resistance from those who say “I won’t understand this because I’m no good at maths”.

    That belief is formed at school where they may have struggled to graphically plot equations or solve geometry problems and it inhibits their ability to engage with assessment data, even though the only maths involved is arithmetic.

    If we make the maths curriculum harder we risk educating more people that they are no good at maths, and so discourage them from tackling the maths problems they will encounter after school, how things add up, and how they are divided.

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