Smartening Up Not Dumbing Down
IAPS has begun a review of prep school curriculum and called for a new 'gold standard'. Peter Tait, Headmaster of Sherborne Preparatory School, outlines his vision for a new preparatory-level curriculum.
The decision to review the prep school curriculum announced last November by the current Chairman of IAPS, Michael Spinney is long overdue, coinciding as it does with the announcement of a comprehensive review of the National Curriculum, now in its twentieth year. For too long, any discussion on a prep school curriculum has focussed almost exclusively on the exam prescription for Common Entrance, relevant only in the final two years; now that transfer and curriculum are increasingly being seen as separate entities, parents who traditionally saw the raison d'etre of prep schools as being to prepare pupils for public schools want to know what is valuable about a prep school education and why they should invest in it. A distinctive prep school curriculum, therefore, presents an ideal vehicle for schools to demonstrate to parents that these are the most important years of a child's education before they move on to senior school and tertiary education.
Traditionally, a prep school education suggested pupils had been very well-taught in the core subjects, that they had a broad education and that in specific areas such as languages, the arts and humanities and they had been taken way beyond the expectations of the national curriculum. It suggested, more obliquely, an education of the whole person, culturally, spiritually, socially as well as academically; and importantly - although not something we can always boast of today - it suggested pupils who had been taught to think and become independent learners.
A major difficulty reviewing the prep school curriculum is that such a thing does not in fact, exist. Prep schools have always followed a mish-mash of curricula, starting with the Early Years Foundation Stage (birth - 5 years) the National Curriculum (Years 1-6) followed in Years 7 and 8 by the prescription for Common Entrance, each stage embellished by individual schools, sometimes lavishly so. The degree to which schools follow the national curriculum varies enormously, from those whose pupils sit the Key Stage tests to those who cherry pick what they feel best suits their school. The idea of creating a bespoke curriculum for independent schools therefore is an opportunity to promote an independent philosophy of education that can provide a standard for parents searching for certainty and direction for their children. It will be no easy task. Recent feedback on the IAPS Heads' poll alluded to the diversity in our sector, suggesting that no one solution will suit all schools and it is possible that the new curriculum would only be a loose framework for learning to be used and modified as schools see fit. Some will no doubt scoff at a 'one size fits all' curriculum as being too unwieldy, yet there is considerable value in identifying some commonality of purpose and content in what we teach and aspire to in our schools.
The question 'what are we educating children for?' can have many different answers, but there is some broad consensus. A recent survey of prep school heads placed the expected emphasis on the core subjects and the need for depth and breadth, but stressed also the importance of including thinking and problem solving skills, creativity and imagination. In looking at writing our own prep school curriculum, we should hold dear to B.F. Skinner's adage that education is what remains after what has been learnt has been forgotten - oft-quoted perhaps, but still resonating with good sense, especially in considering subjects such as history and geography. We certainly want our pupils to be able to communicate effectively, by word and paper; to be numerate; to be able to use technology; to have a good general knowledge, to have good values and so on. We should also want our children to be purposeful, hungry to learn and able to think critically, and equipped with the tools and wherewithal to keep doing so. By answering the questions 'what makes us distinctive?' and 'are we providing the best education for our pupils?' we can establish a basis on which to build a curriculum that will properly represent us and reflect the philosophy of independent education.
Education nationally is in a state of flux with wave upon wave of new government initiatives couched in jargon confusing and deflecting schools and parents - when did we last have an education-free day in our papers? One thing independent schools have done well in the past is to avoid faddishness. We should continue to be properly conservative in the true meaning of the word, not opposing change (we would never have the Nuffield Science course had we done so) but ensuring that we measure what we do. Writing a good curriculum is not rocket science; the resources, the building blocks are already in place. We must prepare our pupils properly and we cannot do that without taking into account a rapidly changing world and particularly the impact of information technology and the internet. But we must stand up to the national debate where we feel strongly - in history, for instance, where we are in danger of being seduced into telling our island's story as a narrative and pretending that by so doing, we are teaching children how to study history. What is important often is not the curriculum per se, but how it is taught and to this end, it would be a very positive step for IAPS to consider establishing its own rigorous teacher training courses to accompany the introduction of a new curriculum.
The detail of what will constitute the new curriculum is, of course, the subject of the pending review. Opinions on how to proceed will be many and varied although less so than may be imagined, once prep schools accept that what is presented is an opportunity not a threat. In the junior years at least, I would envisage a prep school curriculum remaining closely aligned to the national curriculum in core subjects while including, extending or excluding others. Given small class sizes and greater resources, a wider range of academic subjects, greater parental support and higher expectations, a higher level of performance should be expected. Inevitably, there will be variations amongst schools, for instance, in the teaching of languages. At Sherborne Prep, for example, we believe that languages are gateways into other cultures which is one overwhelming reason why we teach Mandarin - not because we are attempting a mastery of Mandarin, but because we want our children to think outside of Europe. Introductory courses in a range of languages (we offer French in Year 1, Spanish in Year 2, German in Year 3 and Mandarin in Year 4), for instance, have reinvigorated all our language teaching, including our French which pupils resume in Year 5 and seem to do better than when we offered it throughout the school. But other schools would disagree with our approach, adhering to the more traditional route of teaching French throughout the school and it is vital that these and other differences in content and approach should be properly accommodated under the umbrella of a new curriculum.
As well as extending the core of English, mathematics, science and languages, we should be making a better fist of teaching subjects such as history and geography. A recent letter in The Daily Telegraph from a geographer stressed that the names and locations of rivers, town and mountains are merely general knowledge; that what happens to them, the how and why questions are geography - a good reason why general knowledge should still have a place in the new curriculum and why we should then be developing the appropriate skills in history and geography to better use and interpret that knowledge.
Like many schools we introduce a period of classics in Year 5 as a precursor to Latin in Year 6 which forms part of our language options for the top of the school. RE, drama, music, PE and PSHE all take their place either in the curriculum or in the daily programme of the school - all very normal and I would expect, with few exceptions, repeated in prep schools up and down the country. The curriculum - the content of what we teach - may, therefore, not vary much amongst schools - or even when set against the framework of the national curriculum. What should make a prep school curriculum distinctive is the extra breadth and depth given to each subject, (a benefit in part of smaller classes), greater diversity of languages, the teaching of classics and a greater number of specialists in subjects such as science, art drama and mathematics - as well as the inevitable extra-curricular smorgasbord.
As an aside, at Sherborne, while the curriculum is busy, there are no extraneous lessons, or fashionable padding. The emphasis is on the quality of time spent learning, not the quantity. Breaks and lunch-times are sacrosanct, reserved for play. Saturday mornings are given over to activities and other educational pursuits; the amount of prep is reduced and children thrive. In designing any curriculum for young children, providing time-out is important to avoid the alternative of burn-out, too often evident in today's young children.
Where there will be debate in devising a prep school curriculum will be in Years 7 and 8. It is extraordinary how any attempt to change the status quo is perceived as dumbing down, how any attempt to introduce more skills into teaching has to be at the expense of knowledge, that creativity is something altogether 'wishy washy'. It is true that prep schools are innately conservative, relying on a tried and tested product, yet change will happen and rather it be by choice than having it foisted upon us.
Years 7 and 8 of course are the years in which there is an independent schools curriculum of sorts in place - or curricula if one takes into account the range and variety of entrance and scholarship courses that exist as alternatives to the ISEB's offerings of Common Entrance and Common Scholarship. The whole issue of transfer has subsumed the curriculum to the extent that schools are left with the task of preparing pupils for a whole range of entrance exams, set at times convenient to the senior schools. Many prep schools remain comforted by having the exam to teach to, while many senior schools that neither pay for, nor supervise it, will no doubt continue to find it a very convenient tool, without questioning whether it best serves pupils or parents. Sadly, it does not matter how good a curriculum is if, after two years each subject is measured by a single exam that can determine a child's future school, for inevitably it will be the exam that will determine the style of teaching that takes place.
To a large extent, however, the split between transfer and curriculum is already happening. Only 30% of children entering senior schools sit Common Entrance and so already a two-tier system operates. A growing number of senior schools such as Bedford, have abandoned Common Entrance in favour of aptitude and other screening tests to assess potential; many others, such as St Paul's, have decided to design their own papers. ISEB itself may well in the future link itself with the new curriculum and provide a standardised measure of performance for prep schools in individual subjects as they now do with their national certificates of achievement. Prep schools don't want a plethora of entrance exams, but nor do they want a curriculum hi-jacked by transfer when other options patently exist.
A prep school curriculum in Years 7 and 8 would most likely not vary significantly in many of the subjects from what we have now. The differences, I suspect, would be rather in how it would be taught. History, Geography and Religious Education have long been seen as being in need of an overhaul although, again, removing or modifying the exam would help. The core subjects, likewise will be able to be expanded and taught better in the surfeit of time prep schools now spend practising for Common Entrance; extra emphasis can be given in English for example, to introducing debating and public speaking, to teaching a wider range of literature, to media studies, to more creative writing, or to those pupils who struggle with literacy and require further help with reading, writing and spelling.
The solution is not radical, but it does involve a fundamental shift in the way we teach. Changes in the curriculum may not, after all, be as important as changes in how we develop thinking skills, study skills and independent learning within all our subjects. We need to ensure that any change in curriculum goes hand-in-hand with a review as to how we assess children's learning and development. Prep schools already provide an excellent and wide-ranging education, with music and sport and much else besides, but it is the time wasted, especially for those who struggle with the sheer weight of Common Entrance or who are restricted by it, and the narrowing of teaching towards the inevitable tests that is the pity. Any curriculum that becomes the focus for transfer will be subjected to the same narrowing process. A prep school curriculum needs to sort out this issue before it can achieve its end of becoming a gold-standard curriculum and being properly recognised as such.