The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has begun to flesh out plans to make the English Baccalaureate – English, Mathematics, Science, History or Geography and languages – all but compulsory for 14-16 year olds in England.
The idea that all pupils should study a common curriculum throughout compulsory schooling is hardly new. The concept of a ‘comprehensive curriculum for the comprehensive school’ underpinned David Hargreaves’s widely read and influential 1985 book The Challenge for the Comprehensive School – it was subtitled ‘culture, curriculum and community’. In 1988, Kenneth Baker’s National Curriculum embedded a national curriculum from ages five through 16 in statute. I was a secondary school history teacher at the time and remember turning out to earnest conferences of history and geography teachers who were – in most cases – relieved that government had achieved what our would-be eloquent arguments had not: to convince deputy heads responsible for option systems to make our subjects compulsory.
Of course, it was not to be. Almost before the ink was dry on the worthy reports of curriculum working groups mapping out programmes of study, secretary of state after secretary of state pulled back. History and Geography became ‘History or Geography’: you could know where you’d come from or where you were, but not both at the same time (the uncertainty principle was covered in the Science curriculum). Entitlement up to age 16 became entitlement up to 14. Kenneth Baker has told me since that the problem could have been avoided if he had made the school day an hour longer, but I’m not sure I share his confidence. Later, some secondary schools compressed Key Stage 3 – nominally Years 7 to 9 – into two years. Yet other secondary schools became academies and were not obliged to offer the national curriculum. Appallingly, some senior leadership teams, terrified about the potential impact of schools’ examination results, excluded lower attaining pupils from some GCSE options.
All this reminds us that while the idea of a core curriculum is not new, making it work is the devil’s own job. It’s been tried before, and policy makers have retreated. Depending on how you choose to read it, Nicky Morgan’s announcement that schools will be required to enter at least 90% of their pupils for the English Baccalaureate is either the latest attempt to make the idea stick, or the first stage in the latest withdrawal, since the Conservative party manifesto appeared to say that all pupils would be required to sit English Baccalaureate GCSEs.
The problem is that government is in something of a policy mess. Not for the first time, different policy initiatives are interacting. It cannot do the obvious thing which is to reassert the 1988 requirement because it has allowed academies – now half of all secondary schools — the freedom to opt out of the national curriculum. That means it is required to use the assessment system (GCSEs) and the accountability system (OFSTED inspection) to achieve a curriculum goal. In 1988, no-one believed that implementing a national curriculum imposed a single assessment requirement: indeed, the DES curriculum guidance document in 1989 insisted that the national curriculum was not a description of the way the curriculum should be organized or delivered. A number of schools addressed the challenge by developing integrated humanities schemes, sometimes for all, and sometimes for lower attainers, to manage the 1988 curriculum. But many of these programmes were not very good, and determined lobbying by powerful subject associations successfully undermined them. In other parts of the curriculum, including languages, non-GCSE graded assessment, or records of achievement schemes were developed; but these too fell by the wayside. Although they were often educationally interesting, few outside the development groups understood them.
If there are conceptual problems in delivering a common curriculum and assessment framework simultaneously, there are some brutal practical problems. Timetabling is a nightmare. By the time schools began to deal with the challenges of implementing the 1988 national curriculum I had senior responsibilities and recall other conferences which explored timetable models for the national curriculum. I suspect I still have the handouts somewhere – these things always come in handy when you least expect it. Making alternative provision for the 10% of pupils who may be legitimately outside the English Baccalaureate will add to timetabling problems. Thank goodness the timetabling is all done by computer now. Staffing was an even bigger problem: simply not enough specialist teachers, raising the prospect of demanding new curricula taught by press-ganged non-specialists. Technology, and possibly cross-academy deployment of teachers may ease the problem now, but experience in the past is that the number of teachers required is always a challenge.
The problems lie even deeper in our culture than the 1988 Education Act, and go back to 1951 when the School Certificate was replaced by subject assessment at O-level. England set itself on a different course from both European baccalaureate systems and American-style school graduation systems. The commitment to the English Baccalaureate for nine-tenths of pupils reinforces what is, really – a peculiarly English approach which entwines curriculum and assessment. It makes it difficult to separate thinking about curriculum post-14 from thinking about assessment.
All young people should have access to a comprehensive entitlement curriculum. English, mathematics, science, languages, humanities are part of that, but the omission of the arts is just wrong. But using the assessment regime to secure that entitlement has caused, is causing, and will continue to cause enormous implementation challenges.