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