Losing the curriculum: going to hell in a handbasket

And by curriculum I mean our curriculum – the one developed in classroom experience from the interaction of a number of knowledges over decades. If we lose our curriculum – we lose: and we are losing. If we are united on our curriculum; we are united on education issues – if we are divided on our curriculum; we are easy pickings. The education system since Tomorrow’s Schools has been organised for us to lose our curriculum – which has happened; and we have become divided – and now the IES is putting us at further peril.

When David Lange introduced Tomorrow’s Schools he said we’ll get the structure right first and pay attention to the curriculum later. From that moment we were in the handbasket. Any structural education change has a curriculum implicit in it. With Tomorrow’s School it was an atomised curriculum. From there it was straight line, though somewhat elongated by the Helen Clark interim, to the measurement regime that prevails today. Professional development courses weren’t needed to embed that regime; that stealthily occurred as a result of education review office everyday functioning – with its ‘suggestions’, models, expectations, and reports. To not get or accept the message marked the principal as a troublemaker.

Curricula respond to signals communicated by the system, and curricula – or more accurately those associated with its implementation – pick them up and respond accordingly. The missionaries for those signals are always the language with, in this instance, management books the bibles. In the case of Tomorrow’s Schools, the language of certainty, measurement, control, and centralisation predominated. Rewards, security, and peace of mind for those who conformed – for those who didn’t,  it was life on the edge – and, in the end, no matter how hard they resisted, compromise always had to be made, and outward signs of conformity displayed.

When David Lange introduced Tomorrow’s Schools saying the curriculum would be paid attention to later, he was really saying, though without realising it, we are ditching the curriculum that prevails and moving to another one – and not that he knew – a managerialist measurement curriculum. And where were the children in all this? Hardly given attention – largely cyphers.

The concept of the need to avoid ‘provider capture’ prevailed, as it does today. Then, as now, the ‘providers’ were only allowed to contribute to policy detail, and then only as an aid in its political acceptability. But note the word ‘provider’, by definition it suggests control elsewhere.

The curriculum is the battleground of education, there is always toing and froing – it can be shared control or a highly centralised, or something in between. But the centrality of the curriculum is not always recognised. Changes can be made to the education system without those concerned being aware – or, perhaps, wanting to be aware – of the curriculum implications. Politicians can act to make the education system more under their control, or more efficient, and not appreciate – or, perhaps, want to appreciate – that the curriculum is a hyper-sensitive set of relationships (a princess, a mattress, and a pea sensitive), the slightest change having an exponential effect. It is probably too much to expect politicians to understand this – or, perhaps, want to understand this – but not teacher leaders. Teacher leaders should not only understand this but be able to communicate it, in powerful fashion, to politicians, the public, and their own membership.

While schools waited for attention to be paid to the curriculum, Tomorrow’s Schools – the system – did not – laying low the existing curriculum, replacing it with the curriculum implicit in it.

It was 1993, I was at Waipuna Conference Centre. Colin Lankshear had spoken to the 300 principals on the new literacies, especially in relation to the internet, and the implications for education and freedom. I was the speaker to follow.

I spoke in impassioned fashion of how the present education demonstrated an imbalance between the implicit and the explicit, the imaginative and the realistic, with the imbalance to the explicit and the realistic – all at a cost to the naturalness of learning and what defines us as humans. I then related that imbalance and its effects to the various curriculum areas.  The essential processes, I said, no matter the curriculum area, all drew on the need for flexible thinking, on the use of the imagination. And the central question that should play on children’s minds was ‘What if?’ Flexibility of thinking and imagination, I said, enables children to navigate through the complexities of both curriculum areas and human relationships.

At morning tea that followed, there were two lines, one for coffee and one for tea.

As I stood in the tea line, two principals crossed over from the other line and, after greetings, commented, ‘That was very good Kelvin, the only thing is, principals don’t do the curriculum any more.’

And for most principals that was the truth. Principals had been advised by the ministry, reinforced by the review office, to act as managers – that the curriculum was something uncontroversial; something easy to lay out, divide into small bits, and measure. Something so easy to understand that it properly belonged to, and was the responsibility of, teachers.

A few years later, research by the ministry for the publication Kiwi Principal had principals acknowledging they were out of touch with the curriculum.

So we are well on our way to education hell in a handbasket. Those principals clear in their mind about the curriculum (that is our curriculum) will be the ones who have come out firmly against IES, the ones leading the fight. They will have recognised that IES gives little attention to children, treats them as cyphers; gives no attention to the nature of the curriculum, only the delivery; sees the curriculum as something to be delivered to selected teachers by private operators on contract to the government; puts another bureaucratic layer over schools and another layer of targets;  has allowed teachers no place in policy formation only detail; and has made no change to the education environment of national standards, league tables, scapegoating, short-funding, a narrowed curriculum, the close control of the education review office, and the heavy use of statutory managers. As well, the government is proceeding with a burdensome appraisal process, school funding payment by results, forced consolidation of schools, and an increase in the number of charter schools.

Primary education is now at the mercy of managerialist forces, there being no firm and widespread basis for counteracting them. For primary school education to be successful in any fight, there needs to be unity on the basis of something to fight for, and that something needs to be the curriculum, can only be the curriculum. And the curriculum is about the essences, flexibility of thinking, the role of the imagination, and inspired teaching. Teachers need to unite on these and not budge on anything that does not advance them. Teachers need to insist on curriculum freedom, within agreed aims, so that they can be part of developing curriculum knowledge – not abjectly placed as they are at the receiving end of pumped up academics, both from here and overseas; of bureaucrats furtively working in the shadows; of agenda-laden politicians with no heart; and multi-nationals ready to pounce at the sounding of the signal.

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4 Responses to Losing the curriculum: going to hell in a handbasket

  1. Kelvin says:

    Bill Cowan says: Great posting Kelvin.

    Some news for you and your readers.Page 25 of today’s Otago Daily Times contained a lengthy article on Otago school principals backing the NZPF survey which suggests schools across the country are ‘vehemently opposed’ to the proposed IES scheme. Stephanie Madden, the local Principals’ Association chairwoman, spoke about the complexity and inflexibility of the proposed model. Her comments were backed up by Gordon Wilson, Secretary of the Otago Secondary Principals’ Association.

    Interesting times indeed! Why was consideration not given to the establishment of an Advisory Service for those Schools which needed specific assistance? This system worked well in the days prior to ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’.

  2. philw says:

    the last paragraph is all i read and i agree w that children should be able to learn at their own pace without homework or too much irrelevant knowledge rammed down their throats and they should be able to decide wot they study Phil Watts

  3. Barrie Wickens says:

    The IES train rolls on. I totally agree with Kelvin’s views.
    Sadly Waikato Uni has just released what an Experienced Teacher and Lead Teacher would look like, which means they have been contracted probably months ago to work on the above…… No surprises here.
    Principals are the key to the derailment of the IES train. There has to be greater collective activity from this sector. If National win the election (which I hope they don’t)
    we are in for whitewashed education journey.
    Barrie Wickens

  4. John Carrodus says:

    Kelvin your last two paragraphs stretch out the carcass of our recent primary school history in your usual summative and forensic style! The problem though is having to wear protective gear whilst examining this recent educational ebola outbreak into the IES against and chater school pathology. Unfortunately the process of changing how the curriculum is delivered seems to have become obsessed and more about changing the big people in the schools by an army of practitioner paramedics, some of whom appear driven with a jihad, suicide bomber like ferver. In this struggle for change and control ( soon to be beefed up ) it seems the learner is becoming more and more sidelined, despite what the selective reasearch often presents. We must be the only civilised country in history that has poured soooo much resource and money into directing teachers and school management systems rather than helping the kids.

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