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Paul Norton

Why a one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum cannot work

Paul Norton discusses the progression steps and areas of learning experience laid out by the Donaldson Report

Posted by Stephanie Broad | June 30, 2016 | Teaching

As independent schools, we are afforded the luxury of being able to build and perfect a curriculum that works for our pupils, but at the same time it’s vital to maintain an awareness of the changing shape of the wider education sector. After all, when reforms happen, there may be aspects we can learn from. The state school curriculum in Wales is set to undergo considerable changes in the near future, and as the leader of a school based in Cardiff I’ve taken a particular interest. 

The changes on the horizon are thanks to a major report issued in February this year by Professor Graham Donaldson, a former chief inspector of education. The report recommends that key stages be replaced with ‘progression steps’, which relate to education expectations at ages five, eight, 11, 14 and 16. In reality, though, the report leaves much to be desired and in recent weeks, the Scottish Education Secretary, John Swinney has raised concerns over the curriculum changes in Scotland, which have formed the very blueprint for the imminent reform in Wales.

For me, a key area of concern is the idea of education systems moving towards generalised teaching in areas such as literacy, numeracy and ICT competency. I’m sure many in our profession would agree that the most inspiring teachers are the ones who have a genuine passion for the subject they teach. As such, a move towards generalisation of subjects could seriously impact the enthusiastic teaching, and engaged staff needed to make a real difference to our children’s’ educational experiences. 

General ‘areas of learning experience’ are set to be introduced, and include literacy and communication, and science and technology. Of course, these skills are paramount but I can’t help but feel that all educators, should be afforded the time and freedom to guide pupils in the direction of their talents, whatever they may be. 

These areas of learning experience are a good reminder of the important base skills that should be weaved throughout our entire curriculums but as independent schools we should celebrate and nurture pupils’ specific passions and talents and work hard to foster individual talents, avoiding a ‘one size fits all’ teaching approach. 

The changes will also see health and wellbeing introduced as an ‘area of learning experience.’ Historically, independent schools are renowned for providing exemplary pastoral care and the move to introduce compulsory health and wellbeing to state schools suggests that governing bodies are beginning to recognise how crucial this support is for learners.

That being said, we are in the fortunate position of having smaller class sizes and ample time to spend reviewing the progress and welfare of each individual pupil. Considering the strain many state teachers are already under, it’s possible that this move will ultimately place them in the position of family surrogate, social worker and health carer. Placing these responsibilities in the hands of teachers could reduce schools to a political tool and risk us becoming sole gatekeepers of a child’s entire social development – a huge responsibility that the government should not place on educational bodies alone. 

I strongly believe that both state and private schools should be focussed on developing a lifelong passion for learning and a desire in youngsters to innovate, develop and fulfil their potential – and as far as I can see, the forthcoming reforms will only serve to move state education away from this core purpose. 

For independent schools, cultivating our own curriculum means we can meet the needs of all our learners and nurture their individual talents. I am able to employ staff who are specialists and who can instil in our pupils a real passion for their subject, and I’m confident this is the right approach for pupils. Ensuring our children get the chance to explore specific topics and discover their hidden talents – and moulding our approach around them – must remain at the very core of everything we do.

Paul Norton is Principal of Kings Monkton School in Cardiff.

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