In praise of the Heads’ RoundtablePosted: March 28, 2013
14 to 19 curriculum and assessment is turning into one of the major battlegrounds in education at the moment. The government is determined to promote the core EBacc subjects as the central plank of its curriculum supported by an assessment regime almost exclusively made up of end of course examinations. At the same time it is promoting, with perhaps less enthusiasm, a “tech bacc” to sit alongside (underneath?) the EBacc. It is reducing the range of vocational qualifications and requiring them to mimic elements of the academic assessment regime.
The latest proposal is to divide vocational qualifications into “applied general” and “occupational” programmes with the latter focusing on courses relevant to particular occupations. The temptation to suggest that they could be called “GNVQ” and “NVQ” is almost irresistible.
Meanwhile at the ATL conference, Stephen Twigg repeated his regret that Labour did not implement the original Tomlinson proposals for 14 to 19. Labour has made much of its proposal for a “Tech Bacc” and has set up a working group under Chris Husbands to explore it further – though to what timescale is not known. While it is right to say that little attention has been given to designing a curriculum for those not going to university, there is some concern that this could lead to a two tier curriculum.
But without waiting for the politicians, a group of headteachers – the “Heads’ Roundtable”- has come up with an integrated model for the curriculum and its assessment. Building on Tomlinson, it represents a more progressive and coherent model than anything the politicians have yet devised. The detail is at http://headteachersroundtable.wordpress.com/the-htrt-qualifications-framework-proposal/. It needs and deserves to be read in full.
Their framework runs from the current National Curriculum Levels 3 and 4 up to A2. At every stage it incorporates core elements including an extended project, PSHE and citizenship, community service, English and maths. These would be a requirement and would contribute to the overall score achieved. To this is added a minimum number of optional subjects and the opportunity to add additional subjects. For the most part it utilises existing qualifications but recognises that the options for 17 year olds working towards Level 3 are currently far from adequate. It very explicitly sets out to develop and accredit a broad range of knowledge, skills and qualities.
There is the freedom to mix and match academic and practical/ vocational options at every stage. Achievement would be reported as a transcript but in the current model would also be converted into an overall score.
Although the framework is based around existing qualifications, that doesn’t mean that the heads accept the current government’s approach to assessment. Their approach to assessment is that “the mode of assessment would be that which provides the best means of assessing the skills, knowledge and understanding specific to each area of the curriculum. We do not believe it is appropriate for non-specialists to devise assessments; this is highly technical, requiring experts.”
The elephant in the room however remains equivalences. Without accepting the simplistic notion of Gove and the Russell Group’s “facilitating subjects” it is the case that some subjects are objectively harder to get good grades in than others and of course different courses test different skills and knowledge in different ways. A transcript can get round this problem by simply describing what it is that a student has achieved and leaving it to the reader to judge its value and significance.
But once you start awarding points and coming up with an overall score, you are making assumptions about comparability that valid. Nor are the common assumptions made about relative difficulty necessarily right. For example, research suggests that English A level is relatively easy, politics and economics are a bit harder and music is one of the hardest. And that’s before you start trying to compare vocational courses with academic.
Other than that however, we have here a curriculum and assessment structure that would gain huge support across the profession and which would be relatively straightforward to implement, building as it does on what is already familiar. It will no doubt seem unnecessary to adherents of the “knowledge is all” school. But to everyone else it will seem like a huge step forwards and one which could and should be a starting point for a new government’s approach.