A recipe for success?

There is an alternative to the regimentation of the national curriculum that promotes independent th

It was designed to make teaching balanced and consistent, so that every child left school having experienced the same opportunities and chances to succeed. But somewhere along the way it all went awry for the national curriculum and the children it was supposed to reach.

Frameworks intended to guide teachers on method and content became, in the 21 years since its launch, the rope which tied their hands, making learning over-prescriptive, lacking in creativity, and for the 30,000 or so pupils who leave school every year without any qualifications, irrelevant and disengaging.

Ten years ago, RSA, an independent think tank set up in 1754 to promote the arts, commerce and manufactures, identified the need for a more practical curriculum combining academic, vocational and personal skills in its report Redefining Work. The study acknowledged changing workplace practices, an end to the concept of a career for life and the need for workers to become life-long learners who continuously update their skills.

It published a list of five key competences - skills or abilities - that pupils should acquire at school. Its findings drew enthusiasm from schools. "Straight away we had dozens of offers from schools wanting to pilot this new way of teaching, even though we hadn't yet prepared anything," says Lesley James, the RSA's head of education.

The competences, which now form the bedrock of its Opening Minds (OM) curriculum, are learning to learn, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information.

"They might seem straightforward, but teachers found it quite difficult to devise ways of teaching them," James says. "The only way to develop this style of learning was to practise it in the classroom. It was no longer a case of standing in front of the class and talking at pupils."

Individual schools tailor Opening Minds to meet their own requirements, but broadly speaking the teaching of different subjects is integrated into units or modules, where the competences are developed through the exploration of common themes which tie subjects in together. These encourage independent thinking, the use of initiative and teamwork.

Some of the 180 schools using the programme have readjusted their timetables to make lessons longer - up to three hours in duration - to give the most able students enough time to research a subject adequately and to allow the less able the time to grasp what they are learning.

In September, a brand new school will open in Tipton, West Midlands, using the OM philosophy.

Being taught by fewer teachers also makes the transition from primary to secondary school less daunting, and has removed the need for pupils to wander from one classroom to another every 40 minutes or so, leaving more time for learning.

Bemrose Community School, in inner city Derby, where less than one in three pupils achieved five A-C grade GCSEs including English and maths, introduced OM for half of its Year 7 pupils two years ago, and monitored attainment against a control group of pupils following the traditional curriculum.

Teachers merged English, history, geography, religious studies, personal, health and social education (PHSE) and citizenship teaching into a single curriculum, with other subjects taught separately. Lessons were planned collectively by subject specialists around a series of themes, such as identity and footprints.

Joanne Ward, the headteacher, says the outcome was significant. "Over the year, we found far fewer referrals for bad behaviour among the group doing OM, and there was better engagement and attitudes to learning. These pupils have just finished Year 8 and over the past year have been following a normal curriculum, but the impact of OM continues to be evident. We tested them at the end of this year using SATs-style English tests and found that 46 per cent of those who did OM had made significant progress in English compared with 28 per cent of those in the control group.

"We believe this is because we have given them the skills and tools to help them to learn and engage better, even when they reverted to a traditional timetable."

One of the pioneers of OM was St John's School and Community College, in Marlborough, Wiltshire, where the national curriculum is effectively suspended for Year 7 and 8. Headteacher Patrick Hazlewood describes the national curriculum as a relic, which took schools back to the 1950s rather than anticipating what life might be like in the 21st century.

St John's, which draws pupils from a wide range of rural social backgrounds, was one of the pioneers of OM when it was formally launched in 2001, with a pilot group of 87 Year 7 pupils originally trialling the scheme.

All pupils in Years 7 and 8 now follow the OM model, with six-week long units of themed work, before reverting back to a traditional timetable for key stage 4 and GCSEs. Any national curriculum material not covered in the first two years is completed by the end of Year 9, to fulfil statutory requirements.

"There is an erroneous baseline assumption by teachers that young people know how to learn, when in reality they don't," Hazelwood says.

"Unless young people feel confident, capable and engaged in their learning they are not going to succeed."

Similarly to Bemrose, the impact of OM continues to be felt long after students stop doing it. When the 2001 pilot group did their GCSEs two years' ago, 80 per cent gained five or more top grade GCSEs, compared with 65 per cent of the control group.

"OM has been a very successful journey for us. We have a school of happy, motivated pupils who are engaged and willing to learn," Hazlewood adds.

"Group activities in the classroom have helped social cohesion, as pupils learn outside their friendship groups and those students who start off as less gregarious develop a confidence of their own. Pupils appreciate the value of their classmates' contributions."

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of RSA, says: "Pupils don't need to be taught how to draw a graph in maths, science and geography separately. They need to learn this once, but how to adapt it to different situations and see its generic value. This is how Opening Minds works."

He said the scheme is providing the workplace with young people who are knowledgeable, motivated and know how to use their initiative.

"Good schools are those where children learn how to get on with others, to manage their lives and to become active citizens. Creativity, imagination and communication skills should be valued as highly as being able to write an essay," he says.

Dorothy Lepkowska is an education correspondent

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times