Gove's national curriculum shake-up begins

Former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s radical national curriculum reforms are introduced this week as children begin their new school year.

The first week back at school is always a bit of a shock as students wave goodbye to the sunshine and get settled in for their next educational year. This week, however, is a little different, with millions of children in England being enrolled on a new “tough” national curriculum centred on fractions, Shakespeare and 3D printing.

Describing the new curriculum as “rigorous, engaging and tough,” Prime Minister David Cameron said the reforms would encourage the UK to “catch up” with the world’s leading education systems. A report published by Pearson placed the UK in 6th position in overall education performance, with South Korea, Japan and Singapore taking the top three spots respectively.

However, the new curriculum has faced a wall of criticism, with teacher unions arguing that it places inappropriate expectations on children at too early an age and fails to develop children’s ability to think.

The new syllabus, which will not be compulsory for academies, covers primary school and secondary school pupils from five to 14. Five year olds must recite poetry by heart, and will be expected to create simple computer programs, understand what algorithms are and learn simple fractions.

The changes require pupils to learn their 12 times table by time the are nine and to take up a foreign language at primary school. By age 11, children must be able to spell around 200 complex words, such as “mischievous” and “yacht,” and by age 14, students will have studied two Shakespeare plays and learnt about 3D printing and robotics.

The government argues that the stringent program prepares children for life in modern Britain, and will establish a stronger focus on “essay writing, problem-solving, mathematical modelling and computer programming.”

However, a group of academics, in a letter published in the Independent, warned last year that the “endless lists of spellings, facts and rules” would “severely erode educational standards.” It said that the “mountain of data” will fail to develop children’s ability to think and criticised the lack of speaking and listening, drama and modern media in English.

Teacher unions have also accused the government of producing an “unrealistic” timetable for implementation. A poll conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found this week that most schools are not ready for the new syllabus, with 81% of education staff admitting they’ve not had enough time to implement the changes. Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary of ATL said the government has “rushed” through the biggest shake-up to the national curriculum in a decade. She added: “It is extremely unfair to jeopardise young people’s education through what seems to be national mismanagement of change.”

Whilst the government’s eagerness to toughen up our education system and boost the UK’s position in the world’s education league table is admirable, its tight timetable and failure to win general support from teachers could be detrimental to its mission. Only time, and next year’s results day, will begin to offer a glimpse of whether such sweeping changes will make a major impact on the quality of education in England. 

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