Curriculum Wars? A brief comment on new National Curriculum proposals


Though published just before Christmas, it’s still rather alarming that the ‘expert’ report on the National Curriculum passed almost unnoticed. Michael Gove has announced no changes will begin until 2014 so as to ‘allow for further debate with everyone interested in creating a genuinely world-class education system’. Having said this though, the report’s proposals reflect the general line of travel already outlined in the White Paper The Importance of Teaching. There are some key themes.

As with the White Paper, there is an argument for a greater correspondence with ‘successful’ education systems – those in South East Asia, but also Poland and the Canadian state of Alberta. Like the White Paper, the report argues that at key stage 4 in particular, the curriculum in England and Wales is too narrow.

Secondly, the report argues for a more subject and content based learning. In otherwords moving away from what is described as the “transferable knowledge and skills approach” advocated by influential groups, “such as the Royal Society of Arts and the Campaign for Learning” (Report: 2.10) and establishing a “curriculum representing the accumulated experience of the past and the representation of this for the future” – where knowledge is something to be ‘mastered’ rather than explored – transmitted, rather than ‘constructed’.

Thirdly, like the White Paper, the report argues for reduced centralisation – giving teachers greater freedom to use their ‘professional judgement’. New subject specifications will be less prescriptive and concentrate on ‘essential knowledge’ with a reduction in the number of attainment targets. Some curriculum areas, like technology and citizenship, but also rather surprisingly, ICT, will be relegated to the ‘basic curriculum’ – their content, likely left to schools to decide.

These arguments however have been presented in a highly selective manner. While asserting that high performing countries give particular emphasis to their education programmes, the review authors struggle to identify clear consistencies and accept that factors such as “family culture, the length of the school day, additional tutoring and teacher quality sit alongside other explanatory and ‘control’ factors” (8.9) in promoting success. In other words, their recommendations could be construed as being as much ideological as being based on reality.

It’s also difficult to see how the proposals will increase professional autonomy significantly. Curriculum specifications may become lighter, with students now being required only to learn ‘fewer things in greater depth’; but schools will still be subjected to a pile of external constraints. If anything, the compulsory Key Stage 4 curriculum additions will result in another form of narrowness. In accordance with E-bacc requirements, history, geography and modern foreign languages will now be statutory.

Making these subjects mandatory requirements for state schools (though not for academies and free schools of course) is not necessarily a retrograde step in itself – many schools have stripped down the curriculum offer for key stage 4 students. However, in what can be seen as a return to the ‘cultural restorationist’ and New Right era of the 1980s (Ken Jones, 1989: Stephen Ball, 1990 ), Gove, following his fondness for the post-war grammar school, has made it clear what sort of history should be taught and which authors should be studied. Unless there is a major debate on what counts as ‘valued forms of knowledge’ (1.4) and a variety of learning styles are defended, large numbers of young people will be further alienated from school.

Martin Allen

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