Junior syndicate teacher Karen Sintmartensdijk of North East Valley Normal School

Tension 2010 – national standards vs the curriculum

Southbridge School, Canterbury Southbridge School has taken a radical approach to its curriculum. Instead of seeing the entry point to the exercise as either: vision, value and principles, or the…

Southbridge School, Canterbury

Southbridge School has taken a radical approach to its curriculum. Instead of seeing the entry point to the exercise as either: vision, value and principles, or the key competencies, the school took the tack of the curriculum being an invitation to consult with its community. “We felt it was a reaffirmation of one of the central planks of Tomorrow’s Schools” to give communities a real voice in their children’s learning,” says principal Peter Verstappen. “We didn’t start with a blank sheet. But we genuinely invited the community to share its views,” he adds. “It wasn’t just a matter of sending a questionnaire out. We reconstructed our relationship with our community.”

The approach strikes to the heart of the staff body. Staff have trained themselves out of the “traditional sort of remarks and attitudes the profession has towards its parent community”, says Verstappen. “We don’t talk parents down around the fridge.”

Many school principals may be surprised at just how short Southbridge’s curriculum is. Rather than a prescriptive document, it’s a series of statements. Verstappen says it’s something that new teachers can read and digest and hit the ground running. While the process and implementation of the curriculum has benefited Southbridge school and its community, the big “but” lies with the threat of league tables. Verstappen has no problem with the idea of national standards. In fact his decile 9 school has a focus on literacy and numeracy already” a reaction to the mile-wide, one-inch-deep curriculum of the 1990s.

What threatens to derail the school’s curriculum would be the misuse of data from testing to create school league tables. “It is inevitable (if league tables are produced from testing results) that we will feel some pressure to teach to the test and be more top heavy,” says Verstappen. “That does contradict all of the encouragement we are being given to reinvent ourselves. I would fear losing the invitation the New Zealand Curriculum gives us to reinvent ourselves as a twenty-first century school, which we hold most dear. League tables hark back to an older model of teaching and learning. One that is more tick box.”

Assessment belongs in the back of the bus, says Verstappen, and the front seat should be occupied by a strong curriculum and excellent teaching. “With [league tables] we would turn the bus around and start driving it in reverse and no vehicle is going to perform best in reverse.”

Finally, Verstappen is keen to push the message to schools that may be struggling with the implementation of their new curriculum not to let the national standards get in the way. “In my opinion schools might use national standards as an alibi for not implementing the New Zealand Curriculum. “It’s not like the UK. National standards [here] have not been accompanied with a highly prescriptive curriculum where I know it is week three of term three and I teach this lesson. I’m concerned in people’s minds they are so fearful they might make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Laingholm Primary School, Auckland

Principal and teachers at Enviro school Laingholm Primary have embraced the new curriculum and once they got the bones of the new curriculum up and running they showcased it to parents” who were hugely supportive.

“We have based our school’s curriculum around an inquiry process which involves taking themes of an environmental nature, such as sustainability, as much as possible,” says principal Paul Heffernan. “Our inquiries are based around authentic or real issue contexts so that students are able to take positive actions.” The key competencies are incorporated into this inquiry process.

Laingholm sells itself as “off the wall”, “out of the square”, with a “very creative learning atmosphere”. Although the school is only 35-45 minutes from downtown Auckland City it still has a rural feel with a strong community involvement.

Heffernan says the school has been on an environmental journey for about eight years working closely with an Education for Sustainability facilitator. He says the new curriculum supports an integrated learning approach because there just isn’t enough time in the week, otherwise. But Heffernan fears that national standards will be a backward move for schools in general. Though having said that, he doesn’t believe testing will affect his school. “We already have in place a comprehensive assessment programme. I think we are strong enough to say ‘we have got an exciting new curriculum and what we do will make a difference to children’s learning.'”

But it’s not just the national standards policy that will affect schools” so will funding cuts in areas including Enviro schools and advisory services on arts, science, PE and technology. “That will have a big impact on schools’ ability to make learning exciting,” says Heffernan.

Bridget Glasgow, national co-coordinator of Education for Sustainability, says that despite government cuts to the national office, Enviro Schools is still alive and well. Councils and other organisations are still providing facilitators.

Junior syndicate teacher Karen Sintmartensdijk of North East Valley Normal School

Junior syndicate teacher Karen Sintmartensdijk of North East Valley Normal School

North East Valley Normal School, Dunedin

Junior syndicate teacher Karen Sintmartensdijk of North East Valley Normal School says her school’s new curriculum is based around the key competencies.

“We started with a vision and values meeting with the community, with Lester Flockton (senior research fellow at the University of Otago) guiding us.” The school then fed the best of what it was doing into the five key competencies.

The wonderful thing about the new curriculum, says Sintmartensdijk, is the ability to personalise the teaching for their school. “The curriculum makes you think much more closely about authentic learning. It gives us a whole lot more ownership of what we are teaching children, and the school is much clearer about its vision and values.”

The school has also taken a new learning approach from facilitator Robyn Selbie. “Backward design learning” is where teachers identify the desired results and then determine the acceptable evidence that is needed to know the students have reached the outcome. “From that we plan the learning experiences,” says Sintmartensdijk.

One fear, however, is that with a less prescribed curriculum, younger teachers may not get the guidance from the curriculum they got in the past, says Sintmartensdijk. “If you have a lot of teaching experience you are very aware of what the children need to know.”

Sintmartensdijk’s other fear is about national standards. “Any teacher can teach to national standards, but that’s not what teaching is about. If you have quality holistic teaching then those standards will be reached. If we want to improve the quality of teachers in our schools let’s put the time and money into that and not into testing.”

Teaching to the standards is not providing authentic learning experiences for the children, she says.

In her own school she doesn’t believe that national standards will affect the implementation of the curriculum. “We assess now and we have good hard data which we use to determine where our children are at and what the next planning steps are.”