It’s not rocket science, its…, well, it’s possibly a bit of a balls-up

On 23rd September 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter, a mission costing around £400 million, was sent the commands which would lead it to fire its thrusters and 264px-Mars_Climate_Orbiter_2insert itself into orbit around Mars. The correct numbers were calculated and sent. They were received by the craft and the thrusters were fired. The craft smashed into the atmosphere and disintegrated.

What went wrong was very simple. The craft was programmed to work in metric units, and the computer on earth calculated the numbers using imperial units. A simple act of miscommunication destroyed the mission.

“Mike,” I hear you say, “what on earth (or, indeed, Mars) has this got to do with the national curriculum?”.

There’s something I can’t understand about this whole National Curriculum issue.

One of the major benefits of being an Academy or a Free school is the luxury of being able to ignore the National Curriculum. They can teach the curriculum they want to. But for the life of me I just can’t see how that works. Here’s my problem. All schools, maintained, academies or free school are judged by the same accountability measures. And for most schools at secondary level the main measure is the humble GCSE. Now, specifications for GCSE’s are not magicked out of thin air. They take as their guide the contents of the National Curriculum. So the accountability measure that your school is going to be held up against has as its content base the National Curriculum. What school in their right mind is going to ignore the National Curriculum and teach something else?

“Er, Mike. Still can’t see what it has to do with Mars.”

Well, this is a long shot. Which is apt, I suppose.

I spent a number of years working with many schools on ICT so I’ll use that as an example. Like other subjects ICT had a Programme of Study in the National Curriculum. The PoS laid out the content of the NC. The knowledge and skills to be covered. This was the statutory document. A teacher could take this and develop their own scheme of work, making the NC relevant to their own teaching style and to the specific needs of their locality. Problem was, many did not do this. I would go into school after school and they would tell me of the dreaded units, 8.1 this and 8.3 that. These were incredibly detailed schemes, with lesson plans for every part. Teachers complained that the lesson plans were impossible to complete in the time allowed. This was usually posited as “the ICT National Curriculum is dull and impossible to teach”. But the weren’t talking about the National Curriculum. They were talking about these lesson plans which were designed as exemplar schemes of work. They were never intended to be taken and taught as “the National Curriculum ICT”. They were meant to be taken and amended, and contextualised and updated. Even ignored. They had no statutory force. Some of them were ok, but many were bland and very quickly based on outdated tech. This is where the death by learning powerpoint view of ICT comes from.

National Curriculum. Programme of Study. Scheme of Work. These are different things. But they are sometimes used loosely and in a way that has the potential to confuse. I think it is not beyond the realms of possibility that some have mistaken the (highly desirable, if not essential) ability to ignore a National Scheme of Work with the (highly undesirable, possibly disastrous) ability to ignore a National Programme of Study.

That’s the only way I can make sense of this freedom. Basically, I think schools already had it, but someone at the DfE didn’t quite understand that they did and decided to give it to some of them. I know this sounds a little crazy, but to me its no more so than the idea of allowing some schools to ignore the contents of the qualification which they are going to be held accountable for.