I will not be the first person to say that we need a real debate on exactly what it is we want from education and schools today. It’s an aspect of reform that seems constantly overlooked by politicians and others on all sides, but surely it should underpin everything else we do.
My concerns about the proposed National Curriculum have been made clear, but even I recognise that I cannot be the sole arbiter of what happens in our schools (and indeed I am glad of that restriction most of the time). It is also clear, though, that in bringing forward its proposals, the current government did not have “enemies of promise” like me in mind.
What is less clear is who they did think wanted this curriculum? A cursory glance at the common groups of ‘stakeholders’ (a word much loved by the previous administration) doesn’t indicate any obvious explanations. So… whose curriculum is it anyway?
For a long time, it seemed that the Govian focus on academia was linked to his admiration of universities. He suggested that the previous government’s target of 50% of people going to university was too small; that more should go. [Ref] So perhaps it was the universities who were crying out for a change in the curriculum?
But since its publication, it seems that academics have been lining up to condemn it – from the 100 “bad” academics to members of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. Neither the Russell Group nor the 1994 group seem to have shown much interest in the statutory school curriculum at all, their focus being far more on A-levels.
So if not universities, then who is it for?
The Conservative party have traditionally befriended those in “big business” and it might seem reasonable to think that perhaps it was industry and enterprise that was demanding the return to an archaic curriculum. Yet one of the biggest groups of employers, the CBI, was quite clear in its report – First Steps – last year that its intentions were different. The recommendations it made included:
Removal of the currently over-specified and repetitive national curriculum from primary schools
Development of a clear, widely-owned and stable statement of the outcome that all schools are asked to deliver.
The report also noted that “there is a set of behaviours and attitudes, a kind of social literacy that we must foster. An exclusive focus on subjects for study would fail to equip young people with these”. [Ref] And yet, the government’s focus has been entirely on its perception of “rigour” rather than the breadth and skills demanded by employers.
So if not employers, then who?
Arguably one of the largest constituencies for any politician is that of families. So perhaps it is parents who have demanded a return to the academic structures of their – or rather their parents – days?
Yet, the evidence is lacking again. In its call for evidence over half of parents said they found reporting National Curriculum levels useful, yet they are to be dropped. Over a quarter said that the curriculum is too prescriptive, yet we see a move to year-by-year outlines in great detail at the primary phase. Around a quarter said that “the National Curriculum must develop the whole child and teach them the skills necessary to learn“, yet we have a knowledge-based list of criteria. Nearly a fifth indicated that they felt that “learning should be more creative and enjoyable”, yet we have a “rigorous”, old fashioned, rote-learning system proposed. A third said there should be more vocational options in the curriculum; none are proposed. [Ref]
One would have thought that these three groups were the major stakeholders in the development of a curriculum for schools – and I am quite happy to admit that teachers are not as important as any of these three: we are merely the means. Perhaps students ought to be included, but I would venture that there are limitations to their ability to identify their own needs from the earliest ages. (And it my own classes are anything to go by then a student-led curriculum would largely consist of cooking, drama and “making learning fun”)
But if none of these groups is being served by the new draft, then who is?