Implications of Abolishing the Secondary National Curriculum


The furore over the possible reintroduction of a two-tier public examination system has entirely overshadowed the parallel proposal to abolish the secondary National Curriculum.

It is entirely possible that one is intended to be a smokescreen for the other for, in the absence of the former, the level of controversy and disagreement over the latter would have been much more pronounced.

Michael Gove courtesy of the Conservative Party

In an effort to redress the balance, this post examines some of the implications of abolition in the context of the outcomes to date of the National Curriculum Review.

For it is worth remembering that such an outcome would effectively render the secondary element of that Review an irrelevance. Much of the huge body of work undertaken since the Review was first announced in January 2011 would be entirely nugatory.

Presumably, all future work on producing programmes of study would be halted, though the future status of subjects for which single exam syllabuses are not produced  – potentially art and design, citizenship, design and technology, music and physical education – remains in doubt, as does the status of ICT and Religious Education for which different arrangements are known to apply.

At secondary level there would be no such thing as overarching National Curriculum aims (as recommended by the Review’s Expert Panel), no equality and inclusion statement and as yet unknown support for differentiation and progression. In essence, Key Stage 3 would no longer exist.

This post aims to ask some of the questions that will need answering before we can establish whether the political policy-making exposed in the media will stand up to serious scrutiny.


Key features of Plans Revealed in the Media

On 21 June, the Daily Mail reported on plans by Secretary of State Michael Gove:

  • To abolish the National Curriculum in secondary schools from September 2013;
  •  To invite examination boards to bid to become single provider of new, more challenging examinations (styled O levels);
  • New examination syllabuses would be introduced in September 2014 in English, maths, physics, chemistry and biology with first examinations taken in June 2016;
  • New syllabuses in geography, history and modern languages would be introduced in September 2014 if possible – with September 2015 as a fall-back position – so first examinations for these subjects would take place in June 2016 or 2017;
  • A set of ‘more straightforward examinations’ with a practical bias would presumably be introduced to the same timetable, though it seems that a combined science examination would be provided rather than the three separate sciences;
  • The ‘more challenging’ examinations would be designed for 66-75% of the cohort; the ‘more straightforward’ examinations would be designed for the remaining 25-33%;
  • The expectation that pupils should achieve the benchmark of 5+ GCSEs at grades A*-C would be dropped in favour of an English Baccalaureate benchmark, expressed in terms of achievement against the new examinations. (Such achievement would presumably need to be expressed at more than one level, otherwise there would be no baccalaureate expectation linked to the ‘more straightforward’ examinations.)
  • A consultation document on these proposals will be issued by the beginning of next term, permitting a 12-week consultation period over the Autumn,
  • But the consultation would be pre-empted by the bidding process for examination boards to offer the first tranche of examinations – in English, maths, physics, chemistry, biology and combined science (and possibly geography, history and modern languages). This would begin in the summer, with a decision by the end of 2012, so allowing a development and preparation period of 21 months before the examinations are introduced.
  • GCSEs would be examined for the last time in 2015. It is not clear whether schools could continue to opt for GCSE specifications if they chose, especially the IGCSE examinations, which have been applauded by the Government and which would need to continue to service demand in the independent sector and abroad.

Initial reports also mentioned that pupils would be able to take the challenging new examinations when they were ready, implying that early entry in Year 10 or even earlier would be encouraged where pupils have a strong chance of achieving a high grade. (There would also be flexibility to take them in Year 12.) However, the timescale above precludes early entry before 2014, so the first cadre of pupils starting the new syllabuses will not have this option.

The timetable also implicitly confirms that a two-year syllabus programme covering Years 10 and 11 will be the norm, as in the current Key Stage 4. The Expert Panel’s proposal that Key Stage 3 should be reduced to two years and Key Stage 4 extended to three years is not to be the default assumption.

Of course, with the National Curriculum abolished, the very notion of secondary key stages disappears. There will simply be a learning programme of five years’ duration for most pupils, though potentially shorter or longer for some, with the final two years typically dictated by the approved examination syllabuses.


Subsequent Clarification.

Clarification of these plans has to date been conspicuous by its absence. Mr Gove appeared in the House of Commons to answer questions about his plans on the same day they were revealed in the media, but gave little more away.

When asked explicitly about the abolition of the National Curriculum he said:

‘We want to make sure that the national curriculum in secondary schools is properly aligned with qualifications. One of the problems is that, to my mind, there are many admirable aspects of the secondary curriculum that we inherited, but also some very weak aspects. One of the problems is that both what is admirable and what is weak in that curriculum is overshadowed by what people have to do to acquire qualifications. In that sense, our secondary school system is the wrong way around in that weak qualifications determine what is taught and the only things considered worth teaching are those that are assessed. I want to change that to make sure that our qualifications are rigorous and that much of what goes on in secondary schools that is not assessed is properly regarded as valuable.’

The concept of alignment is subtly different to the concept of outright abolition, and this may possibly suggest some recognition that the latter would be a step too far, at least as far as the current Key Stage 3 is concerned.


The Situation for Academies and Free Schools

One obvious consequence of the abolition of the secondary National Curriculum is that the current distinction between the treatment of academies and non-academies will no longer apply.

By virtue of their funding agreements, Academies and free schools are not bound by the National Curriculum. The model funding agreement requires that:

  • The curriculum provided by the Academy to pupils up to the age of 16 shall be broad and balanced
  • The broad and balanced curriculum includes English, Mathematics and Science
  • There is provision for the teaching of religious education

The Department for Education’s online material on the National Curriculum Review says that:

‘Beyond this they have the freedom to design a curriculum which meets their pupils’ needs, aspirations and interests’.

The FAQ on the Review offers the following statement:

Will the new National Curriculum be taught in academies and Free Schools?

Academies and Free Schools will retain their existing freedom to depart from the National Curriculum where they consider it appropriate, but they are required by law, like all schools, to teach a broad and balanced curriculum. And all state schools will be held accountable for their performance in tests and exams which reflect the National Curriculum.

As is the case now, although academies are not required to follow the National Curriculum, we envisage that many will choose to offer it.’

There is a reference in the remit for the National Curriculum review to the National Curriculum operating as a ‘benchmark for excellence’ in schools that do not need to follow it:

This idea is not explained further, though Mr Gove developed it a little in his recent evidence to the Education Select Committee:

‘The majority of primary schools, certainly for the foreseeable future, will be governed by the National Curriculum explicitly, statutorily, because they will not be academy schools. The majority of secondary schools are either now academies or en route to become academies. The question is, given that they can disapply the National Curriculum, what reason do they have to follow it? The striking thing is that, of those schools that are academies, a significant number pay quite close attention to the National Curriculum, not least because it informs the content within GCSEs, and not least because GCSE performance is one of the primary accountability mechanisms. Even those schools that can totally depart from the National Curriculum and have never been governed by it-fee-paying independent schools-have tended-but not always-to follow in many areas the GCSE specifications and submit their students for GCSEs. The National Curriculum has a significant impact on what schools do. That impact is there because the Government is laying out a benchmark of what it believes students need to understand, skills that they need to have, the knowledge that they have to muster.

It is open to other schools to develop their own curricula, and for awarding bodies to develop their own qualifications. Where they do, that is a challenge to the National Curriculum. One of the things that I have been worried by is the growing number of schools that have the freedom to do so taking on the IGCSE, for example, and the complaints we have had, for example, from schools, and as a result of the LivingstoneHope Review, about specific areas of the National Curriculum, like ICT. Therefore I thought it was appropriate for us to overhaul the Curriculum, but at the same time make sure that it was schools that decided whether or not they wanted to adopt something that we hoped would be better, rather than me seeking to corral the creativity of good head teachers.’ (Q213)

It is not clear from this whether the Government formerly perceived value in the benchmarking capacity of the National Curriculum itself, as opposed to the public examination syllabuses which reflect and develop it at Key Stage 4.

It is clear that, if they did, that value was readily sacrificed in the preparation of these new plans.


Implications of This Way Forward


A Level Playing Field?

Critics, including Estelle Morris, have suggested that the greater curricular freedom available to academies and free schools has been used as an incentive to grow that sector (though the perceived value of curricular flexibility to schools considering becoming academies has perhaps been overstated).

Under these new arrangements, there would be no such distinction in the secondary sector, though it will remain in position for primary schools. That is most likely because, whereas around half of secondary schools are now academies, only a small minority of primary schools have that status – and there is no real prospect of the majority of them becoming academies in the foreseeable future.

Although there is no further need to retain this incentive to persuade unwilling secondary schools to become academies, there may arguably be a backlash from those schools that did convert in the expectation of greater curricular flexibility for, under these plans, their advantage would be eliminated.


Outsourcing the National Curriculum?

In effect, the National Curriculum Programmes of Study – at least in Years 10 and 11- would be replaced by a set of compulsory syllabuses devised by the exam boards that win the competitions.

It would appear that the Government is keen to hold management of the secondary curriculum at arm’s length but, having closed down QCDA, its preferred option is to outsource it to the private examination boards, content that they will generate very significant income as a consequence, especially compared with their unsuccessful counterparts.

This in effect privatises the secondary National Curriculum while leaving the primary curriculum in the hands of the Government and may be regarded as ideologically questionable by those who would prefer to see curricular control retained unambiguously within the public sector.

It is not yet clear whether the Government conceives a similar role for universities in the design of examinations taken in Year 11 as it does in respect of those taken in Year 13. One might reasonably expect their influence to be more pronounced in the latter case.

However, exam boards may be required by the Government to accommodate several key stakeholders – not least schools themselves – in an advisory capacity.


The Nature of Exam Board Competition

It is not yet clear whether there would be a separate competition for each subject in each of the two sets of examinations, or whether boards would be allowed to ‘double up’. If a single board won all or most of the available competitions that might raise serious questions about the concentration of influence with a single supplier.

Nor is it clear how tightly the Department for Education will define the specifications for the tender, if at all. At one extreme they could broadly replicate the Key Stage 4 Programmes of Study; at another, they could give the competing boards carte blanche. A middle way is likely, but they will want to ensure that they do not replicate the development task for which they will pay the exam boards.

It is likely that consultees will argue for the specifications to contain the same safeguards that are currently supplied by the National Curriculum and GCSE requirements.

There may be greater pressure towards the retention of fully-worked aims and an inclusion statement than perhaps there might have been had existing arrangements continued, but it is not clear where these would be developed, unless by the government for inclusion in all syllabuses. Gifted educators will want to ensure consistency in the provision of stretch and challenge for the highest attainers.


Assessment, Grading and Reporting Issues  

Given the decision already announced to dispense with National Curriculum Levels across the primary and secondary key stages, assessment and grading requires significant further work under these new arrangements.

Mr Gove has already decided that:

‘In terms of statutory assessment, however, I believe that it is critical that we both recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress. Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required, so that we can recognise and reward the highest achievers as well as identifying those who are falling below national expectations.’

This means new grading arrangements for end of Key Stage 2 tests but, insofar as they ‘provide a focus for progress’, those must also be mapped against end of Key Stage 4 grades awarded in these new examinations.

As far as Key Stage 3 is concerned, it must be possible to judge how far pupils have progressed since the end of Year 6 and how well they are progressing towards good grades at the end of Year 11.

It is likely that this will be done either by projecting forward the new KS2 grades or projecting back from the new KS4 grades. Ideally, the two sets of grades need to be designed so that one can see progression across the piece. My own ‘Aunt Sally would need to satisfy this requirement.

And of course the grades will be used to monitor whole school and system-wide performance, so school performance tables will have to be changed as will the Government’s own education plan ‘impact indicators and social mobility indicators. It will become much harder than it has been to judge continued progress over time against key gap-narrowing and social mobility measures.


The Disappearance of Key Stage 3?

The status and continuation of Key Stage 3 is not clear under these new arrangements. Will it be left entirely to schools to decide what programme of study to offer in Years 7-9, drawing as necessary on ‘ready-made’ solutions available for them to buy in, or will there be at least some degree of Government guidance?

Examination boards seeking extra profit may be encouraged to enter this market, offering preparatory syllabuses that bridge the gap between the end of Key Stage 2 and the start of the new examination syllabuses.

It may not be sustainable to maintain three totally different arrangements in the primary, early and later secondary years respectively. That is likely to be a recipe for confusion and render transition across these three stages more problematic than necessary.


Are Examinations at 16 an Irrelevance?

Although Mr Gove has admitted openly that his ideas are strongly influenced by what happens in Singapore, there is no reference so far to introducing an equivalent of Singapore’s Integrated Programme, which effectively removes Year 11 examinations for high-attaining students. The idea was floated in 2011 and I analysed it here.

There are those who argue that, with the impending increase in the school-leaving age to 18, examinations in Year 11 become increasingly meaningless and irrelevant and could potentially be eliminated for all learners. Were that to happen though, it is likely that end of Key Stage 2 examinations would assume even greater significance, so increasing the pressure on 11 year-olds taking the tests.



On top of all these complex and difficult issues, there is a host of problems associated with shifting from a single tier to a twin-track exam system.

Even leaving aside the huge equity and social mobility considerations which have so over-dominated the media coverage one must also take into account:

  • The significant cost, balanced against potential savings and where these will fall within the education system (we have yet to see any estimates);
  • The exceedingly tight timescale for the changes proposed, with a very short development and testing period for successful examination boards and precious little implementation time for schools (and extending one period inevitably shortens the other);
  • The enormous level of disruption and change that will have to be managed by schools simultaneously, alongside unprecedented levels of change elsewhere in the system. As OFQUAL has noted there are especially significant risks for secondary schools and the wider education system in simultaneously managing extensive reform to public examinations at 16 and 18. On the face of it, such double-banking is not the optimal approach, but this Government is determined to ensure that its reforms are all but irreversible by the time of the next General Election, scheduled for 2015.



It appears from the latest speeches, debates and briefing that Ministers are now back-tracking from the idea of a two-tier examination system.

But vague and potentially irreconcilable ideas are being peddled in its place:

  • The majority of pupils will be expected to take challenging examinations in Year 11. None of these examinations will be tiered, regardless of subject.
  • Some pupils will take these challenging examinations later on, in Year 12 or 13. Some pupils will be able to take them earlier, if they are ready.
  • The pupils who don’t take the challenging exams until after Year 11 – and maybe also some of those entering during Year 11 or earlier – may take a less challenging examination (branded N Level) beforehand.
  • Presumably the N Level will also be available on a ‘when ready’ basis, so it could become an end of Key Stage 3 assessment for the majority. This would reintroduce another ‘high stakes’ assessment for pupils, but it would also allow the KS3 curriculum to be determined by N Level examination syllabuses.
  • The proportion of pupils entering the more challenging examinations has been placed at 80%, but that begs the question what provision will be made for the remainder.
  • It also poses difficult questions about whether effective single tier exams can be devised, especially in ‘linear’ subjects, for such a wide range of ability. It seems unlikely that the assessment industry is ready with robust adaptive tests that would eliminate the need for tiering.

As things stand, there is little prospect that the Government will offer further clarification ahead of the promised consultation document, which may not appear for another two months.

In the meantime, we face a situation in which: we know that National Curriculum Levels are abolished and will not be replaced; we understand that the secondary National Curriculum is abolished; there is an admission that further work is (still) required on assessment and progression, including for high achievers; and confusion persists about the future shape and structure of public examinations at age 16 and age 18.

It is hard to understand why the Government would willingly get itself into the situation where existing arrangements are judged inadequate but there is no clarity about what will replace them – and where discussions about the future National Curriculum are taking place piecemeal rather than in the round.


Second Postscript

Eight days after floating plans for the abolition of the secondary National Curriculum and the introduction of two-tier examinations in place of GCSEs, the Government has completed another of its signature U-turns.

Perhaps it was a deliberate ploy to propose an unacceptably radical reform, then to concede limited ground to arrive at something only slightly less radical, having neutered opposition through this stratagem.

Or perhaps it was a deliberate but miscalculated attempt to bounce the Liberal Democrat side of the Coalition while its leader was safely out of the country – a direct challenge to Deputy Prime Minister Clegg, who regularly manoeuvres his tanks on the Govian lawn.

The shadowy ‘sources’ that were behind the initial Daily Mail story chose the TES to explain the latest Government position. Maybe the Mail was being punished for garbling the original story: the follow-up was given to education journalists who might be expected to understand it better.


What Has Changed?

The new position is only subtly different to its predecessor:

  • The secondary National Curriculum will not be abolished, because that would require legislation;
  • So Ministers plan a ‘skeleton National Curriculum’ incorporating:

 ‘”very, very short” programmes of study that will give teachers “extreme” and “almost total” freedom over what is taught’.

  • The idea that examination boards will compete through a procurement exercise to offer single examinations in each subject is retained, but only in the core subjects – English, maths and science;
  • In the other English Baccalaureate subjects the examination boards would be required to improve their syllabuses – presumably by meeting specific requirements laid down by Ofqual on behalf of the Government. Syllabuses would need to satisfy these requirements to count towards the Baccalaureate;
  • A two-tier examination system is still planned. The new, more challenging ‘O level style’ exams would be taken ‘when ready’ and some students would not be ready until Year 12 or 13. By that stage, up to 80% of students might have taken them;
  • The new less demanding ‘N level style’ examinations would be taken, presumably in Year 11, by those not (yet) ready for ‘O level style’ examinations. We do not know what proportion of the cohort would be entered for ‘N level’. Some of the ‘N level’ entrants would upgrade to ‘O level’ at a later stage, but some 20% of the cohort would not;
  • This is likely to mean single board examinations at ‘N level’ in English, maths and combined science, and at ‘O level’ in English, maths, physics, chemistry and biology. The timetable for development and introduction is unchanged – the syllabuses would be introduced in September 2014 leading to first examinations in Summer 2016;
  • The Government’s twin goals are reportedly:

“to replace existing GCSEs in English, maths and science with substantially more demanding ones, and get Whitehall almost totally out of everything else to do with the secondary curriculum and exam system.”

  • But, strangely, these reforms only have a limited shelf life – of exactly four years. They will be outmoded in 2020 since the Government:

‘believes there is no point in planning further ahead because of technological innovations, such as plans by global elite universities like Harvard to make their courses available online. Sources in government argue that these changes will “break” the whole existing model of school and university education.’

What Are the Implications?

This new formulation leaves many of the existing questions unanswered and even manages to pose some fresh ones.

It is clear that the primary National Curriculum is likely to comprise detailed programmes of study in the three core subjects – ‘given the fundamental importance of these subjects as a foundation for further study and as the basis for our system of school accountability’ (DfE website) – and much shorter programmes of study in the remaining foundation subjects.

Similarly, there will be single syllabuses and single exams in the National Curriculum core subjects at Key Stage 4, but relatively greater choice of syllabuses and exams in the foundation subjects. The status of IGCSEs in the core subjects is unclear. Would they too be ruled out when the new single board exams are introduced?

What happens at Key Stage 3 also remains unclear, but it would not make sense if the approach was inconsistent with the other key stages, so one might expect fairly detailed programmes of study for the core subjects, providing a bridge between the primary programmes and the KS4 syllabuses.

In science a two-tier programme of study will be needed if students follow combined science or three separate sciences during KS3 rather than opting for one or the other at the start of KS4.

There is some ideological inconsistency in the reported desire to delegate responsibility for curriculum and examinations while retaining the capacity to set out detailed requirements in the core subjects, albeit outsourced to exam boards at KS4. After all, if schools can be trusted with foundation subjects then why not with the core subjects too?

One might also question why it is so necessary to delegate curricular responsibility when the Government is simultaneously centralising responsibility for school funding through mass conversion to academy status.

The notion of a curricular ‘benchmark for excellence’ for academies is somewhat compromised, especially outside the core subjects. At KS4, the benchmark concept is dismissed in favour of a single compulsory exam, imposed on academies and non-academies alike.

Big unanswered questions remain about whether the Government will specify overarching curriculum aims to replace the existing statement. Will there be a new inclusion statement and a new set of expectations for cross-cutting spiritual, moral, social and cultural development? Arguably these are significant components of a ‘benchmark for excellence’.

The reference to a 4-year shelf life is mysterious and troubling. It is not clear why provision of online higher education courses should have implications for the shape of the National Curriculum. Conspiracy theorists may smell a rat.

If school level courses were to shift predominantly online within the remainder of this decade, why would that necessarily invalidate the concept of a National Curriculum? Such a shift would arguably make it much easier to standardise provision across 20,000 different settings were a future government to see advantage in doing so.

It goes without saying that National Curriculum content needs to be kept under regular review given the development of knowledge and understanding, but that is a different issue.

Meanwhile, it appears that a two-tier examination system remains integral to the Government’s direction of travel. At least 20% of students will never be entered for the more challenging ‘O level-style examinations.

And it is by no means certain that tiered papers will not be needed in at least some of those examinations, so the argument that one type of tiering will simply be substituted for another may not hold water.

As I have already noted above, we will also need more demanding qualifications to challenge high-attaining students who achieve the highest grades in the ‘O level-style’ examinations by the end of Year 10, or even earlier.

It is interesting that the Education Select Committee is reported to be about to recommend single exam syllabuses rather than single exams in the core subjects and possibly the remaining English Baccalaureate subjects too.

That would still permit several boards to offer exams in each subject, so has clear advantages over the monopoly approach envisaged by the Government, at least for the core subjects.

But it would make sense for that syllabus to be written by the Government, which is at odds with the Government’s desire not to be involved. Such a national syllabus would be a National Curriculum programme of study by another name. (It is hard to see how the task could be devolved to one of the boards, though perhaps they could undertake it collaboratively.)


In Sum…

When we factor in the decision to abandon National Curriculum levels, it is still far from certain that this way forward amounts to a ‘qualifications and curriculum framework which supports and stretches every child’.

In recognition of the risks that it perceives, GT Voice is developing a policy statement which calls on the Government to take three key steps to tackle the issue of progression for high-attaining pupils.

More generally, there is a clear tension between a minimalist National Curriculum plus twin-track examination system and that critically important commitment.



July 2012

2 thoughts on “Implications of Abolishing the Secondary National Curriculum

  1. Thorough as always, GP! It is most disconcerting to see the seemingly lack of consideration for optimal implementation of a programme of this magnitude. It’s fair to say that in hindsight many will be saying, “what were they thinking?”

  2. The general consensus here is that these ideas are politically notivated – designed to appeal to the Tory right wing. The irony that our Education Minister wants to eliminate our secondary National Curriculum while yours is simultaneously introducing the Common Core Standards is certainly not lost on me!


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