The View From Here

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It might have sounded innocuous, but I found the proposal to establish a national curriculum for teacher training highly sinister. It was, of course, expressed in benign terms. A light touch.... Translate findings from inspections into training procedures.... No intention to move to other subjects in universities....

Pull the other one. That was exactly what happened in 1980 when a paper from the Department of Education and Science entitled A Framework for the Curriculum was published. Schools, we were told, might be gently nudged into spending maybe 10 per cent of their time on this, and 10 per cent on that. Only a suggestion, you understand.

Eight years later we had the most ferociously detailed set of national curriculum syllabuses in Europe. Headteachers' bookshelves groaned under the weight of dozens of folders, files, inserts and updates. Postmen with a school on their round were issued with a free NHS truss.

At least schools managed to get a few pounds per skip for waste paper when the print mountain was finally junked in 1995. The mass of detailed prescription was such a mess that Sir Ron Dearing was asked by the very Government that had caused the chaos to end it. This was like an arsonist calling the fire brigade. Fortunately, he made a good job of putting the fire out, or at least bringing it under control.

The proposal to have a national curriculum for teacher training looks sinister because there is an intention not only to prescribe content, but also teaching methods. Chris Woodhead, the senior chief inspector, claims that there are a number of "absolutes", discovered from inspections of teaching, that can be translated into prescriptions.

I have been researching for 30 years in the field of classroom processes. Teaching strategies are strongly determined by context: the nature of the subject matter and activity, the background and prior knowledge of the students, the aims and intentions of the teacher, the books, equipment, accommodation available, and numerous other factors. To sit in London prescribing imagined "absolutes" for the whole nation is pure folly.

The literature both in Britain and the Unisted States reflects this diversity, and many analysts have concluded that omni-purpose solutions are elusive. One of Chris Woodhead's so-called "absolutes", announced at a conference at which we both spoke, was that good teachers use a variety of teaching methods. So why should a government agency tell them which to use and when?

If a national curriculum were established in one university field, then others could well follow. There is a lot that universities can learn from schools' experience with a national curriculum. The first lesson is that consultation will be a farce. In his book Take Care, Mr Baker! Julian Haviland analysed the replies to the consultation paper on what later became the 1988 Education Act.

Of the 11,790 people who commented on the proposed format of the national curriculum, 11,790 said they did not like it, even though many wanted a prescribed curriculum. It must have been a British all-comers' record, but it made no difference. The proposals were implemented anyway. The ensuing chaos was no surprise, therefore.

The second lesson is: never let a politician loose on curriculum design. Kenneth Baker was determined to grab the headlines, so he generated a wheeze a week. Months were wasted as he tried to find an explorer to chair the geography committee.

Anyone could have told him that explorers do not sit by their telephone waiting for a call asking them to chair a committee. On the whole, explorers are out exploring. The mental image of Baker wading neck deep up the Limpopo in shorts and pith helmet, looking for an explorer, with a dozen television crews in tow, was too ludicrous to contemplate.

The third lesson is, never feed a gannet. Politicians who get their hands on a curriculum are insatiable. Ignore the sweet talk about "a light touch", "a bit of fine tuning".

I wrote an article in 1980 entitled "State-approved knowledge - 10 steps down the slippery slope". It described 10 steps by which a determined government could control what was taught. At the time we only had the first step, which was general statements of aim, such as "to develop the whole person".

At a national conference a government official said there was no intention of going beyond step three and prescribing roughly how much time should be spent on each subject. The other steps - laying down detailed syllabuses, the content of national tests, publishing league tables, passing laws so that teachers who did not teach the curriculum could be sacked - would never happen.

Today all 10 steps are fully or partially in place. So, if a smiling government official ever arrives bearing gifts, lock away your spoons.

The writer is professor of education at Exeter University