Education Secretary Michael Gove announced yesterday that the National Curriculum for schools in England is to be overhauled, with a new subject structure and lists of content.
Gove’s curriculum includes teaching history chronologically, learning multiplication tables from the second year of primary school and reading literature published before the first world war as well as contemporary works.
Other measures are less traditional in their design, such as replacing information technology with “computing” so that pupils start creating computer programmes from an early age rather than just using them.
Gove and the prime minister have both said this curriculum is what schools need for the future, and what they would want their own children to be taught. Critics have already said that it is too prescriptive, not underpinned by evidence, and that bringing in the changes this September 2014 is too soon given that schools are already undergoing significant reforms, touching both assessment and structure.
There is also a troubling inconsistency between the setting of a National Curriculum for all and the support Gove gives to policies that undermine equity in the school system.
Looking back from “2066 and All That”, the Sellar and Yeatman of the future might have a thing or two to say about this.
Many academics and teachers have questioned whether we need a National Curriculum since it was introduced in the 1988 Education Reform Act. This was partly due to the political ideology that prompted its introduction. In retrospect, however, it can be seen as a natural step towards truly comprehensive schooling. Where the 1944 Education Act created free universal schooling, and Circular 10/65 moved that schooling away from selection, the Education Reform Act established a school structure that was not just comprehensive in organisation but was also comprehensive in nature and process. It defined the nature of a specifically English compulsory education. Everyone was entitled to a place at school and that place should not be allocated on the basis of ability or ability to pay.
The National Curriculum has played a big part in achieving this goal. It is part of the reason that social, economic and regional stratification of pupils is lower in England than in developed countries, such as Germany, which have pupil tracking, or Belgium, where the state has much less control over schools. It is why pupils in England experience levels of equality and justice greater even than in countries such as France, where égalité is a paramount principle of public provision.
Public funding for schools is meant to help break the link between an individual’s family or socio-economic background and their access to learning opportunities. One indication of the success of an education system would be if exam results bore little relation to which school a pupil attended. And this is what research indicates had been happening, in general, in England. The National Curriculum, combined with national standards for teachers is a key part of this clear equivalence between schools.
Of course, none of this is dependent on the National Curriculum remaining the same over time – what is most important is the ideal of a common entitlement to schooling and equivalence between all maintained schools. Nor is the proposed mix of subjects necessarily the right one. The balance between academic subjects, vocational teaching and personal development is another factor that should be considered. The curriculum should evolve over time, as knowledge increases and priorities change. But if it is to be truly national then it needs to emerge as near-national consensus, based on clear educational principles. Nostalgia, rather than evidence, is not a good basis for policy.
The trend from 1965 was towards uniformity of provision, and from 1988 towards less social and economic stratification between schools. Since 1997 both of these trends have been reversed to some extent, mostly by the introduction of new and supposedly superior types of establishment such as foundation, faith-based and specialist schools, academies and now free schools.
All this has happened with no clear gain in terms of attainment. The new diversity has undone the clear idea of equivalent treatment underlying the National Curriculum provision. And the current Education Secretary supports this wholeheartedly, and supports the exemption of new types of schools from the National Curriculum altogether, despite also saying that the new curriculum is one that everyone deserves. This is beyond confusing. It makes a nonsense of education policy.