What are consultations for?

Dominic Wyse

A national curriculum is in part a representation of what a society wants for the education of its citizens. This is why many people feel that wide consultation on its content and ethos is necessary.

The proposals for England’s 2014 national curriculum, finalised and published a few days ago, were subject to a national public consultation that ran from February to April 2013. The consultation attracted more than 17,000 responses from a mixture of organisations and individuals. The table below shows my analysis of the DFE’s report on the consultation outcomes, and the Government’s response to it. In particular, for each question in the consultation I have identified the majority response to the consultation questions.

It is worthwhile for Ministers to consider the value of carrying the educational community with them on a matter of such national significance. Yet, as can be seen, the majority of those who expressed a view gave negative responses to eight out of nine questions. In my view it is reasonable to conclude that in the light of this strikingly negative response the national curriculum is not fit for purpose and should be rewritten. This view is given added force by last year’s decision by most members of the national curriculum expert group to raise strong objections to many of the proposals.

Some cynically take the view that one should not expect public consultations to result in major change to proposals, and that such consultations are emblematic rather than pragmatic. But if this is the case it invalidates what should be the main purpose: to consult the widest possible range of people, address their response, and act even-handedly on this response.

As far as the specific problems with the national curriculum proposals are concerned, many people predicted these in their responses to the consultation. Indeed my own department, the Early Years and Primary Education department at the IOE convened a team to respond fully to the consultation. For example, we argued that a national debate on aims should precede the crafting of the content and urged that the process of learning be given more prominence. We also highlighted discontinuities between the primary curriculum and the stages that precede and follow it.

Analysis of government response to consultation on the national curriculum

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If public consultation on national curricula and assessment is to be genuinely meaningful then the following need to be in place:

• Analysis of consultation responses should be carried out by an organisation independent of government and the civil service, for example a research organisation.
• A transparent methodology for analysis is needed, for example to account fairly (including through statistical weighting) for the views of organisations versus individual respondents; to clearly explain the approach to analysis of qualitative answers; and more generally to be an account that would satisfy researchers of the rigor of the analysis.
• Consultation should include a question on the overall desirability of proposed changes in addition to any questions about the fine detail of proposals.
• Clear majority views should be acted on in line with the opinion expressed. A principled way to deal with less clear-cut answers should be established.
• Responses, analyses, and government actions should be available online in order to ensure public trust, and to demonstrate democracy at work.

I hope that these principles will inform the consultation on assessment that is currently in progress, because the decisions made on assessment are likely to have a profound impact on the curriculum, pedagogy and children’s lives in school.

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4 comments on “What are consultations for?
  1. Miss Honey says:

    In an elective dictatorship, sorry, I meant representative democracy, such as ours, the government consults the people once every five years. In the meantime, it is free to do as it pleases. The pretence of listening to the people and gathering views must be maintained, but it would be a mistake to imagine that any of our political parties would prefer evidence led policy to policy led evidence in relation to education, anymore than in relation to the grounds for military action.

    However, we are now in the fortunate position where their ability to control information and the means of communication has been very much undermined. I do not imagine that they will adopt your eminently sound principles immediately, but your excellent analysis of their consultation ritual, along with the objections already expressed by the “expert group”, mean that an ever growing number of people are becoming aware of the shortcomings of our ” democracy”.

  2. […] recent blog by Dominic Wyse from the Institute of Education on the national responses to the new National Curriculum document makes for sober reading. Despite […]

  3. Anne Watson says:

    The problem is worse than you have described. As one of the expert mathematics panel involved in the review I was made well aware that the Secretary of State has the legal final role in the whole curriculum, down to the last detail. This means that the attention is paid by re-writers to consultation responses, and to their own expert knowledge, mattered less than politicians’ whim in the end – and that is by statute. Our work consisted of rewriting after each consultation, but only along given guidelines, i.e. those aspects of the consultation that were already in line with government intentions, or those that adjusted areas in which they were not so interested). Thus, once fractions, long division and so on had been politically announced nothing could be done to make those areas more achievable, even though we did have access to many of the consultations from knowledgeable organisations thanks to their own publicity. This system is not going to be changed by weeping about the undemocratic behaviour of people who believe – sincerely – that they hold valid alternative views (and therefore all children must learn Roman numerals by statute). It can only be changed by getting that law changed which gives individual ministers of state rights over matters which are the proper province of subject education experts.

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