The National Curriculum: what’s the point of it all?

 Michael J Reiss and John White

After Michael Gove’s announcement last week that English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) have been abandoned and that GCSEs will carry on, some might assume that the debate about the school curriculum has, temporarily at least, gone away. This is not the case. On the same day that the Secretary of State announced his “climb down”, the DFE published its draft National Curriculum.

There is much one could say about these documents. Here, though, we focus on just one issue – the dismal lack of attention paid to the aims of the National Curriculum. In the 221 page document on the draft programmes of study for KS1-3 (PDF), each subject has its own specific aims but here is all that is said about the overarching aims of the National Curriculum:

3.1 The National Curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

3.2 The National Curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the National Curriculum specifications. The National Curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons.

“The best that has been thought and said” is a phrase from Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book Culture and Anarchy and Arnold would have recognised much that is in the new draft curriculum. The division into a litany of separate subjects – most of which were familiar to Arnold – shows how subjects remain the starting point for curriculum development, with the overarching aims tagged on as an afterthought.

But there is another way. After all, why should one start with subjects? Isn’t it not only more logical but also more sensible to start with the aims of schooling and from them derive a curriculum?

This is the approach the two of us have taken with our new book An Aims-based Curriculum – The Significance of Human Flourishing for Schools, published this week. We begin with overarching aims that will equip each learner to lead a personally fulfilling life and help others do so too. From these, we derive more specific aims covering the personal qualities, skills and understanding needed for a life of personal, civic and vocational well-being. The second half of the book, on political realities of implementation, takes this process of deriving aims further. Some of its detailed aims, but by no means all, overlap with conventional curriculum objectives. We also look at the role of the state in curriculum decisions, as well as the implications of the book’s central argument that aims should be the starting point for student choice, school ethos, assessment, inspection and teacher education.

Some might think that there is no need to bother with such considerations. Teachers can just get on and teach their subjects. In our view this is a deeply mistaken view. Thankfully, many 5-16 year-olds enjoy their schooling and learn well. But many don’t – not least because much of what they are presented with seems pointless; it doesn’t connect with them as they trudge from one subject class to another. We argue that by starting with aims, schools can have a curriculum that will inspire learning and provide a stronger basis for future life than is typically provided by a subject-based curriculum.

An Aims-based Curriculum – The Significance of Human Flourishing for Schools, is published by IOE Press on 15 February 2013. If you would like an invitation to a seminar at the IOE on 30 April at which the book’s argument will be debated, please e-mail abc@ioe.ac.uk.

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
24 comments on “The National Curriculum: what’s the point of it all?
  1. Thanks for this. I agree with your view about the importance of aims. On the undergraduate course at NTU we discuss with students the aims and purpose of education and curriculum so they can see how their subject (design and technology) responds to these. If they haven’t considered this, in my opinion, the subject becomes little more than whim, fashionable content and can sink to the lowest common denominator.

    My issue with the framework and consultation documents is the difficulty in finding the aims, 3.1 includes aims as detailed in your post but also section 6 of the consultation document has a section titles ‘Aims’ with something completely different!

    • John White says:

      Alison: so good to hear your students are discussing the aims of education. I wonder how much of this is now going on in teacher education more generally? There seem to be several such straws now in the wind. –Not before time.

      Thanks for the point about the two sets of aims statements, the general one in 3 and the subject specific ones in 6. How well do the latter map on to the former? 3 highlights ‘the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens’, but 6 looks at this too narrowly. To be an informed citizen, you have, eg, to know a good deal about the makeup of the society you live in. There are only patchy suggestions about this, even in the Citizenship proposals. Again, some acquaintance with Darwin’s revolution and its impact on British and wider society would seem essential, but the only reference to this that I have found is at KS2 (Yr 6), where the nonstatutory section suggests that pupils ‘might’ find out about Darwin’s work on evolution (with no explicit reference to social impact).

      Coming back to 3, the assumption seems to be that a National Curriculum can aim only at transmitting knowledge. Why are other possible aims excluded? All this is ex cathedra stuff, with no rationale provided.

      I see, incidentally, that curriculum subjects are no longer dealt with wholly alphabetically, as they have been in official accounts of the NC since 2007. English, maths and science have been detached from alphabetical order.

  2. behrfacts says:

    Good to be raising these issues at this key time. The debate about core knowledge has really kicked off in KS1-3 history with the very chronological and full draft PoS. See this piece by Niall Ferguson from today: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/15/history-teaching-curriculum-gove-right?. Even he as a supporter of the Government’s approach says: “… if there is one thing I hope we avoid, it is an official history textbook.” Afraid we’ve got it now!

  3. 3arn0wl says:

    I’d been thinking that since Mr. Baker introduced the National Curriculum, it’s framed the content of study study somewhat, and successive documents have reduced the scope still further. So I do welcome clause 3.2.

    The phrase “Educated citizen” sticks in the gullet though. I much prefer your language of “equip[ping] the learner”.

  4. Beth Budden says:

    Very interesting indeed!

  5. I look forward to reading your book and certainly, I can connect with its theme. The obvious limitations of the present subject-driven curriculum, for primary schools in particular, should be encouraging education reformers to look at more appropriate alternatives along the lines you identify. Unfortunately, there is a barrier to such a radical view ever being implemented. You allude to it above, when you mention the “political realities of implementation” and “the role of the state in curriculum decisions”.

    Immediately, it became apparent to me that, irrespective of what your ideas could mean for re-framing the future of education for our young people, the present politically driven system of strategic planning will ensure that all we can look forward to is ‘business as usual’. Over the last decade, there have been five different Secretaries of State for Education, empowered under the two major political parties. The last two decades have seen successive reforms, leaving no area of the public education service untouched. Much of it has encouraged professionals to speak out against the reforms, identifying the short-term political ideology driving them. Unfortunately, none of this has been directed at the heart of a problem that, unless it is addressed, guarantees that the next decades will perpetuate this directionless dabbling by our political leaders.

    I am committed to tackling this problem head-on. I am about to launch a public campaign;

    “Calling on politicians of all parties to support the establishment of a National Education Commission. Its first task being to draft proposals, outlining how responsibility for national policy-making for education may be decoupled from the machinery of party politics.”

    Unless the present mechanism of governance is replaced by something like a national commission, any proposals to address reform beyond the life of single parliament are little more than wishful thinking. That this is how we have operated up to the present, is of no relevance. Short-term solutions are no solutions. As you acknowledge, building an education system fit for the future, beginning with clear aims, is the way forward. But, for that to happen, we have first to remove the single most serious obstacle to progress, the undemocratic tinkering with education policy at the hands of politicians, well meaning, or otherwise.

    Please, join this campaign to enlist the support of parents, students, professionals and the general public in order to open up new and better possibilities for developing a twenty first century education system.

    • John White says:

      Very much agree with your call for a National Education Commission, not least after recent examples in the proposed new National Curriculum of ministerial diktats on curriculum details. Here is what we said about the matter in our book (pp48-9).

      The case for, and limits of, state control

      What education should be for is essentially a political issue, since it is intimately connected with the kind of society we wish to bring about or maintain. In a liberal democracy of equal citizens, teachers and other educators have no special, privileged voice on this. Those who deliver our post, those who spend their time bringing up young children, shopkeepers, and pensioners have the same stake as any educator.

      The proper role of the state is to determine what the aims of schools should be, from the most general ones down to where schools are left to decide on more specific ones (see ‘Division of responsibility: state and school’ below). It should not be up to a government temporarily in power to impose its own idiosyncratic views about what these aims should be, still less its prejudices about how these should be taught. A liberal democratic society, in which every citizen is treated as of equal worth, should have a mechanism in place to ensure that aims are in line with and promote such a society.

      This speaks in favour of establishing some kind of commission, protected from political meddling, to act as trustee for a defensible national curriculum. Its task should be to work out a unified set of aims befitting our liberal democracy, stretching from general to specific (New Visions for Education Group 2010).

      Following extensive public consultation, within and without the teaching profession, such a commission would painstakingly consider what the aims should be and set out a rational defence of the ones it selects and their interconnections. After further thorough public discussion of these, the commission should make recommendations to the secretary of state on a final version that would provide national guidelines for all schools, including private schools, academies, and free schools. This should be accompanied by a full rationale. For schools and teachers, this would be better than a mere list of aims, such as we have now. It would help them to understand how the aims are to be taken, how they interrelate.

      There is a case for removing the statutory status of the National Curriculum so that it became, as in Scotland, a non-mandatory guide to what the nation expects of all its schools. This would be less costly and less time-consuming, as well as helping to wean teachers off habits of uncritical compliance and to become more imaginative in responding to the needs of their students.

      Non-statutory guidance would not be a return to the pre-1988 system of professional control, with the excessive school autonomy that sometimes went with this. Schools could not simply ignore it. The aims of the school curriculum, but not their implementation, would be determined at the political level, and schools would be required to have regard to them. If they departed from them, they would have to be able – and this is the key point – to justify such departure. Non-statutory guidance allied to an inspection system has much of the force of a statutory curriculum, but if setting it aside leads to good performance, the decision to do something different becomes beyond criticism – so there is genuine freedom to experiment for schools that are performing well.

      Finally, the commission would not be a quango continuously in session; that would be both costly and unnecessary. It would be expected to review the national aims perhaps every five years; and there would be no changes to them between reviews. It should see the aims, deriving as they do from the principles by which we live as a democratic people, as something like part of our (unwritten) constitution. Like other parts of this, an independent judiciary for instance, our national aims need protection from arbitrary executive power. That is not to say that they cannot be changed from time to time, but these changes should no longer be at the whim of politicians.

      New Visions for Education Group (2010) ‘The Curriculum’ (Much improved: Should do even better March 2010 e-paper 10). Online. http://www.newvisionsforeducation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/10-The-Curriculum.pdf (accessed 26 November 2012).

      • 3arn0wl says:

        John M – The school gate is as good a place as any to start, and I do wish you luck. :) I’m sorry I can’t read your comment on the heads’ roundtable website yet.

        John W – I agree that education is a political issue – after all, we pay taxes to maintain the opportunity of an education for all. I’m just uncomfortable thinking of it as a political tool.

        To paraphrase something I heard David Mellor say on BBC Radio 4 the other day, I don’t think it’s a good idea for it to be driven by a political appointee (as all Ministers of State are) who has no experience in the field. Surely what’s needed is leadership from a elected and respected practitioners, accountable of course, to the cross party Select Committee.

        I started teaching just as the first NC documents were introduced. I guess they were intended to provide some homogeneity across schools. I can’t help but think that they’ve impoverished education though: http://wp.me/p1k9HQ-dq
        And looking at things objectively, education seems to have been trussed up and beaten up: the National Curriculum, Ofsted, league tables, targets, and that a certain amount of deregulation might be welcome. I can’t quite bring myself round to the idea of privatisation though! http://wp.me/p1k9HQ-ja

  6. 3arn0wl says:

    Apologies for being quite so slow – It’s just dawning on me that the recent debate about History, and the Russell Group of Universities fixation on STEM subjects are examples of education being used as a political tool. Taking the latter to the extreme – if we only value the education whose results can be quantified and measured, the whole of society will be the poorer, not just the economy or industry. “All knowledge is precious, whether or not it serves the slightest human use” – A.E. Housman.

    • John White says:

      You raise a central issue in education, 3arnOwl.

      all knowledge precious, I wonder? Knowing, for instance, how many grains of sand there are on Blackpool beach?

      How could Housman substantiate his claim?

      Was it a hangover from his evangelical background? If you hold that human beings should strive to live in the image of God, and agree that omniscience is one of God’s characteristics, you are on the way to supporting Housman’s claim.

      Short of that, however, how can we support the valuableness of all knowledge?

      This is not an idle question. Part of what drives a certain approach to education is an ideal of comprehensive, encyclopaedic knowledge. The nineteenth century gave us Capes and Bays. Our present Secretary of State for Education gives us a history curriculum for Key Stage 2 bursting with facts from the Stone Age, via the Heptarchy and the reign of Athelstan, up to 1707.

      The esteem with which many of us hold encyclopaedic knowledge lies behind the success of programmes like Mastermind. It is perhaps a hangover from our once deeply protestant culture. Do grains of the Presbyterianism in which he was brought up still cling to our encyclopaedia-minded Secretary of State?

      This may be fantasy. What isn’t is that those responsible for school curricula should pay less attention to the ideal of comprehensiveness, to covering the ground, and more attention to what kinds of knowledge are most important in the formation of future citizens.

      It would help, too, if they were not so fixated only on the acquisition of knowledge as an educational aim, but also took into account the development of personal qualities and other aims that Michael Reiss and I discuss in our book. Someone could know all there is to know about history, geography, science, maths and other subjects and still be crippled with diffidence, or so locked in his own ambitions that he doesn’t care a fig for other people.

      • 3arn0wl says:

        Hehe! I realised that the word ‘knowledge’ was somewhat loose the moment I’d pressed the Post Comment button: education is about acquiring a balance of knowledge and skills, and an inquisitive mind.

        Enquiry is what’s got humanity to where it is – and what might perhaps save us from the fate the dinosaurs (I wonder if Housman believed in them?) suffered.

        Even given a lifetime’s worth of education we couldn’t know everything. Perhaps as time moves on, there are fewer polymaths around since the quantity of all knowledge grows exponentially!

        I suppose what I was trying to say was that in the nightmare scenario where education merely reflected the perceived needs of industry or the economy, the scope of education would be reduced severely. Certain subjects would be valued over others, society’s Arts budgets would be reduced to nothing… oh hang on! ;)

      • 3arn0wl says:

        n.b. I hadn’t thought that Housman was advocating that we should all develop an encyclopedic bank of knowledge – only that humankind’s collective knowledge is a precious thing, and that a bit of knowledge about something or an understanding of how something else works might not seem valuable at the time, but might come to have worth in another situation.

      • 3arn0wl says:

        AND! (Gosh your last contribution was thought-provoking!)

        Mightn’t a Presbyterian be led to assume that knowledge might be a bad thing since Eve did that whole apple thing…?

  7. John White says:

    Thank you for all four salvoes, 3arnOwl, not least the answer to the Blackpool beach mystery, and your sharp observation about Presbyterians, Eve and knowledge.

    On the latter, how is it that early C17 Calvinists (and later Puritans and Dissenters) built their school and academy curricula around all known forms of learning, not least the new sciences, even though as Christians they were warned against tasting of the tree of knowledge?

    They came to believe that at the Fall not all signs of our having been created in the image of God had been lost. There were still slender traces in us of divine faculties, including a predilection for omniscience. It was a holy duty, as they conceived it, to build on these flimsy foundations. This helps to explain their passion for education, and an education of an encyclopaedic sort. They were among the early originators of the curriculum based on discrete, largely knowledge-orientated, subjects that we have come to take for granted today. (But this ‘modern’ curriculum had a struggle in the C19 to establish itself vis-à-vis the classics-based curriculum that was standard in grammar schools and Oxbridge. Our own London University helped to break the mould when it was founded in 1826).

    More on this in my ‘The Invention of the Secondary Curriculum’ (2011).

    • 3arn0wl says:

      :) Thanks for that John. Sorry about “the salvoes” – I really ought to learn to think more carefully before I press the button.

      Interesting though. :)

      • 3arn0wl says:

        I really will shut up in a minute – honest – but having been to Iron Bridge and Wisbech recently, I wondered if Quakers ought be added to the list?

  8. John White says:

    I don’t have a full picture, but you find the same pattern in early C19 Quaker schools as in other nonconformist communities. Grove House School, in Tottenham, was a Quaker foundation of 1828. Its projected curriculum consisted of Latin and Greek, the principles of religious liberty and the British constitution, geography and history in relation to the Bible, advanced and applied mathematics, natural philosophy (ie. physics). The latter was included partly for reasons of mental training, but also because it helped pupils to acquire ‘a clearer and enlarged vision of the wisdom of the Supreme Being in the wonderful regularity of the Laws of Nature’.

    A similar curricular pattern, again including natural philosophy, was proposed for the Quakers’ Bootham School in York in 1829.

    All very different from the classics-based curriculum of the grammar school of the time.

    More details are in my 2011 book.

    The religious rationale for curriculum subjects is significant. Going back to my previous reply, one way in which early Calvinists and other protestants could square the Eve and the Apple story with their thirst for knowledge was by arguing, following Bacon, that the pursuit of knowledge is not only permissible but also laudable (for Image of God reasons), provided that it furthers divine purposes on earth.

  9. 3arn0wl says:

    Sorry! Can’t help myself. (Your fault for producing such an interesting post)

    What would a good Latin and Greek curriculum look like? Classics, Maths/Geometry, plays, scientific discoveries, medicine…???

    Oh! And welcome to the cause Brother Michael! (though, to be honest, I can’t see the directions to the desired outcome)

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