The above question is of course in many ways a political question and has no definitive answer in the true black and white clear-cut sense. However, if we are to make sense of the sometimes-bewildering reforms that have occurred since the introduction of the National Curriculum it is a debate worth having. Are students now receiving a better, wider and more fit for purpose education than pre-1990 or are the changes more like the Emperor’s new clothes that have created a fortune for publishers and years of gainful employment for civil servants whilst driving the teaching profession to its knees? As a History teacher I will deal with the issues chronologically
I first arrived in gainful employment in a school in 1990. As mentioned, in a previous article I had come from a wonderful teaching practice school in Sonning Common near Reading. Here, they were in full preparation for the upcoming changes, especially to the Y7-9 curriculum. It passed me by a little then, but I remember the HOD being disgruntled about having to abandon years of amazing resources (all handmade, typed and photocopied) which were built around specific local and national history trips which then led to differentiated topic and project work. So, arriving in a Catholic girl’s school with a very organised and earnest department head was interesting.
The whole NC thing in the early days was to be honest, as ever “a pig and a poke” lots of content and an attempt to be “all things to all men” in the sense of trying to tell the Island story up to the 20th century whilst also throwing in some world history like Imperial China. All of this was really laudable except that it was the start of box-ticking on levels which no-one really seems to understand and had no discernible gain or purpose except that they needed to be done. They then went into a filing cabinet and were forgotten until some rumoured and much talked about inspection. I never finished past the Stuarts in years of teaching this course and therefore the students never really accessed the Georgians and the Victorians which in my mind was perhaps the most formative era in the Making of the UK.
We then plodded along until 2001 I think when the “Old” i.e. for ever, A level system was reformed to bring in a six module AS/A system. Panic descended on my new school as it was a good but old-fashioned Independent school just coping with going co-educational. There was a bewildering choice of modules only to find out that there were hardly any resources for first teaching in September because publishing houses were waiting to see which were the most popular! Bring on a year of chaos and the most fluctuating and unpredictable results which unsettled everyone.
This chaotic situation began to settle down by 2003, NC now embedded, GCSE pretty steady and the new post 16 system running relatively smoothly. The next glitch came when it became clear to students that there were very few restrictions at A level for retakes. If you could afford it. You could basically grind your way to a better grade by sheer number of retakes. This was compounded by the stirrings of SEN and extra time provision which was largely dependent on getting a paid for “sign off” for mild dyslexia and the like for extra time. The wild west era had arrived.
The growing accusations of cramming and dumbing down at the top end were compounded by the explosion in university provision and the rise in those attending rising from around 15% to 40%. The pressure was on to get those grades and parental interest and helicopter parenting was about to take off.
Into this increasingly difficult environment for schools came the evolution of the Internet. Whilst revolutionising teaching and learning in many ways for the better it was like a nuclear explosion on coursework at GCSE. It took a couple of years for schools to catch on that change the font and the formatting and the A grade of last year could be bought/swapped/copied and presented as your own! What to do? Bring in the short-lived and disastrous controlled assessment, impossible to administer and byzantine to fathom out the mark scheme.
We then come full circle to the Gove era and the need for more “rigorous” and “challenging” exams to stem “terminal decline” and ensure the next generation would keep up with China et al. All I can discern from both GCSE and A Level in my last three schools is a gallop through a huge amount of material with little time for reflection or debate and an almost obsessional need to concentrate on teaching the content whilst at the same time trying to ride the other horse of skills and stretch! Bring on the current crisis in wellbeing for students and staff.
In conclusion, what has undoubtably improved is the standardisation and uniformity of education across the board. Whether, it is more enjoyable, fit for purpose or preparing students mentally for the new technical age is a much bigger debate.