Does the content set out in the draft programmes of study represent a sufficiently ambitious level of challenge for pupils at each key stage?

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Question 4: Does the content set out in the draft programmes of study represent a sufficiently ambitious level of challenge for pupils at each key stage?

The following is an attempt to provide some helpful suggestions regarding responses to a flawed question. It would be uncharitable to conclude that these flaws result from conspiracy and cock-up is more likely to be the explanation. The natural reaction to a flawed question is to ignore it but, with the danger of a shortage of responses being taken for acquiescence, it is vital these issues are addressed.

A complete answer to this question clearly requires an analysis of the proposed programmes of study for all subjects. Many respondents will inevitably feel they are not qualified to comment on subjects beyond their own area of specialism but it is important that this should not reduce the incentive to tackle this section of the consultation. Multiple responses relating to the level of challenge in each individual subject will be essential if the consultation is to produce the necessary volume of feedback.

The phrasing of the question requires responses focused on the specific issue of content and the extent to which the content in the programmes of study is sufficiently challenging at each key stage. The text in the inclusion section of the consultation document itself demonstrates the flawed thinking behind this question and indeed behind the proposals.

It suggests, quite rightly if somewhat clumsily, that teachers….. ‘should plan stretching work for pupils whose attainment is significantly above the expected standard. They have an even greater obligation to plan lessons for pupils who have low levels of prior attainment or come from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

Most content, particularly when it is presented as a list of topics, could potentially be taught to a broad range of levels, through from early years to higher degree standard, and hence the degree of challenge depends on the teacher’s ability to differentiate. It is far too simplistic to suggest that teaching topics at a young age represents an ambitious level of challenge.

The decision to present the content of the proposed History programme of study in chronological order clearly runs counter to providing appropriate challenge at different key stages. A chronological list of events, none of which is intrinsically more challenging than any other, cannot possibly represent a hierarchy in terms of level of challenge.

The contrasting approach to core and foundation subjects further highlights muddled thinking. The rationale for the proposals suggests that the solution to higher standards in the core subjects is more detail and prescription whereas giving teachers greater autonomy and reducing programmes of study to a minimum is, apparently, the solution to better outcomes in foundation subjects. The challenge flag has been nailed to two separate masts.

Because of this marked contrast between core and foundation subjects in terms of the level of detail in the draft programmes, this question is unlikely to produce responses worthy of meaningful statistical analysis at the macro level. Responses will inevitably be polarised. However, if responses are appropriately categorised before analysis, this issue could be overcome. A similar approach will be necessary for a suitably nuanced analysis of the content of the primary proposals as opposed to Key Stage 3 where much less detail is included.

Since the question asks about content at each key stage, respondents will inevitably structure their comments accordingly. However, content is not set out consistently by key stage across the whole curriculum as there have been changes in core subjects.

With Key Stage 2 divided into upper and lower halves, there is effectively an additional key stage in English, Maths and Science and respondents may wish to consider the degree of challenge for years 3 & 4 and for years 5 & 6 separately.

Furthermore, in core subjects there is a year by year approach in the proposed programmes of study (for Years 1-6 in Maths and Science and Years 1 & 2 in English). Earlier guidance which suggested teachers should use their discretion with respect to how closely they adhere to year on year content is not included in the consultation documents.

Question 4 is the place for any comments on the appropriateness of the proposed content with respect to the degree of challenge for particular age groups and sub-key stages. There are no other questions in the consultation which invite comments on these aspects of the proposals.

So this question presents us with both an important opportunity to comment on the appropriateness of proposed content to learners at different ages and stages and with a serious dilemma. A failure to confront the shortcomings in the thinking behind the question would allow analysts to conclude that respondents accept it. Equally, a failure to address the specific issues of content / challenge relating to individual subjects and key stages will be a missed opportunity to influence the content for the benefit of learners.

Individual respondents will therefore have to consider where the balance of their consultation comments should lie. Tempting though it might be, the response to reject is inaction.

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