Where Have We Got to With National Curriculum Reform? Part One


This post – released on the cusp of a long-awaited National Curriculum announcement – is a narrative-cum-commentary on key developments since the Government’s first National Curriculum Review response in June 2012.

I had originally intended that it would incorporate the detail of the imminent announcement and an in-depth analysis of the implications, for high-attaining learners in particular.

Old NC logo CaptureBut the publication of the second response has been so often postponed – and so much has happened in the meantime – that it seems far preferable to publish two shorter posts rather than one long-winded amalgamation. This way, I hope, the wood stands a better chance of being spotted amongst the verdant foliage.

So this first part will offer a resumé of National Curriculum and associated proceedings – such as the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) – since June 2012.

It draws out some key issues that the upcoming announcement might be expected to address and highlights some fundamental tensions that it might hopefully resolve.

Episode Seven

This is the seventh in a long series of posts tracking the story of the National Curriculum Review and associated developments.


How Matters Stood in June 2012

The documents forming the Government’s partial response to the Expert Panel in June 2012 (together with the associated briefing) made clear some aspects of the future stages of the review and its timetable as they were then envisaged:

  • Revised draft programmes of study for non-core primary subjects would be published ‘later this year’ (ie last year – 2012), while formal consultation on the draft programmes of study for the primary core subjects of English, maths and science, originally released in June, would take place ‘towards the end of this year’ (again 2012);
  • The  Secretary of State would write to the Expert Panel about the secondary National Curriculum ‘in due course’ and there would be further announcements ‘in the new year’ (ie early 2013) on:

.‘How we can ensure that the National Curriculum in this country is as ambitious as those we have looked at in the highest performing education jurisdictions; how the new National Curriculum should be structured, including issues such as the nature of attainment targets and the key stage framework; how we can increase the degree of coherence between the content of the National Curriculum and GCSEs.

  • There would also be further consultation on the aims of the curriculum, in light of the Expert Panel’s recommendation that they should be defined (though the timing of this is not clarified). This would include provision to embed spoken language development across the curriculum as a whole; and
  • The Government would also ‘consult further on how attainment should be graded as part of the statutory assessment arrangements. The timing is not given but a useful gloss is offered in the Secretary of State’s letter:

.‘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. We will consider further the details of how this will work.’

These carefully laid plans were thrown into some confusion by an apparently sudden decision to reform KS4 qualifications by introducing the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC).


The Advent of the EBC

When the Daily Mail reported initial plans for the EBC on 21 June, an explicit part of the package was the abolition of the secondary National Curriculum in September 2013. The paper confidently reported:

‘None of the plans require an Act of Parliament.’

That same day, Mr Gove, answering questions in Parliament, said only that the secondary National Curriculum would be ‘properly aligned with qualifications’ but, two weeks later, by 6 July, the narrative had changed significantly:

  • The secondary National Curriculum would not be abolished because legislation would after all be required – and because the Liberal Democrats had signalled that their support for such a move could not be taken for granted. (The Liberal Democrats also made clear that they had not been consulted on the plans at this point.)
  • There would instead be a ‘skeleton National Curriculum’ including ‘very, very short’ programmes of study that ‘will give teachers “extreme” and “almost total” freedom over what is taught’.
  • A source ‘very close to the Education Secretary’ is quoted:

.‘Our goals are 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.’

The consultation on the EBC, once published in mid-September did not address substantively the relationship between EBC syllabuses and National Curriculum Programmes of Study.

The implication is presumably that, in the subjects covered by the EBC, syllabuses will drive the curriculum rather than vice versa:

We do not believe that Government should seek to determine this subject knowledge in detail: we will look to those who wish to provide our new qualifications to consult with subject experts, domestically and internationally, to prepare and propose truly world class syllabuses, and to provide evidence that they match the curriculum content taught in the highest performing jurisdictions around the world.

To aid Awarding Organisations in their considerations, we will set out our broad expectations for the subject content we would consider absolutely essential for these purposes, drawing on analysis of the best qualifications offered in other countries and using the consultation period to work with subject and education communities to develop appropriate content. We will be looking for Awarding Organisations to build upon these expectations by working directly with higher education institutions and learned societies to create a syllabus for each subject that is truly world class and provides an excellent preparation for further study…

 Our expectations of subject content will be published when we set out our final policy requirements to Ofqual at the end of the consultation period. Requirements for history, geography and languages will follow at a later date as these subjects are following a longer timeline.’

Warwick Mansell reported that a parallel announcement on secondary National Curriculum programmes of study was originally planned to coincide with the EBC announcement, but this decision was reversed at the last minute.

The logical conclusion from this must be that some at least of the draft programmes of study were deemed ready for publication in mid-September, well over four months ago. But subsequent evidence suggests that several of the draft programmes have been revised several times since.

Perhaps the late decision to withhold the September drafts suggests a lack of confidence in their readiness for external scrutiny, or maybe a conviction that the planned work ‘with subject and education communities to develop appropriate content’ during the EBC consultation period should be unfettered by reference to such drafts.

It is of course the case that these programmes of study would only be binding on the minority of secondary schools that are not yet academies, whereas the syllabuses would impact on all schools where pupils took EBC examinations.

The corollary of this is that academies (including free schools) would enjoy significantly greater freedom at Key Stage 3, but not at Key Stage 4 – assuming that both Key Stages were retained under the revised National Curriculum, which was not necessarily a given at this point.

Negligible information has been revealed about work commissioned to ‘develop appropriate content’ for EBCs during the consultation period, or how that was linked to development of the National Curriculum programmes of study.

A search on Contracts Finder reveals a reference to four 19-month contracts, concluded on 5 December 2012, to ‘develop English Baccalaureate Certificates further’. The total value is £39,600. The providers were secured through ‘competition as part of an existing framework agreement’.

One of the two suppliers is awarded three of the contracts, worth £30,000 while the fourth – worth the balance of £9,600 – goes to a different supplier. These presumably cover English, maths, physics, chemistry, biology (and possibly computer science).

At the time of writing no contractual documents are appended so there is no detail about expected deliverables or the timeline.


Autumn Leaks

Although we still had to wait some time for the publication of the final versions, draft secondary programmes of study for the three core subjects of English, maths and science were leaked in late October 2012.

The story was originally picked up in the Guardian which remarked on the extreme brevity of the material:

‘The national curriculum for maths at key stage 3 is just two and a half pages long, and for key stage 4 it is just two pages long.’

There were perceived to be conspicuous gaps in content. It was said that in English there is no reference to:

  • spelling at KS3
  • distinguishing between fact and opinion
  • development of summarising and note-taking skills
  • ‘creativity in the English language’
  • taking part in structured group discussion
  • listening skills ‘ to judge and interpret what a speaker has said’

Moreover, there was no prescribed canon of English literature but:

‘Pupils must read a range of works including the British literary heritage from both the 20th century and earlier; at least one Shakespeare play; contemporary British literature including prose, poetry and drama; and seminal world literature written in English.’

It was reported that in maths there was no reference to:

  •  identifying and classifying patterns
  • producing ‘accurate mathematical diagrams, graphs and construction’ and
  • ‘using and understanding ICT so that it can be used appropriately including with the correct syntax’.

The same story was picked up elsewhere two weeks later. On 9 November, the BBC reported that a draft had been leaked to the TES and ‘seen by BBC news’. This is presumably the same version seen by the Guardian.

Rather strangely, this report quotes a NATE spokesman concerned that the English material is: ‘overly focused on “a relentless diet of canonical works”’.

Meanwhile, the ASE described the science programmes (separately covering physics, chemistry and biology) as ‘a dull list of topics’. They:

‘questioned why it had taken so long to produce and asked why it did not reflect the findings of the expert panel for the national curriculum review which reported in December last year’

but, rather conflictingly,

‘added that teachers could work with the slimmed down curriculum as they were “intelligent and creative”’.

Further comments from one of the Expert Panel suggested that this material also included the ‘overall aims for secondary education’, though these were unhelpfully ‘reproduced from primary programmes of study’.

The BBC published the briefest of extracts from the leaked material:

Key stage three: 11 to 14-year- olds – Prime numbers- Use of formulae- Fractions and decimals – Diffusion and osmosis- Acids and alkalis- Measuring forces – Shakespeare: read a play- Know an ode from a sonnet- Use correct forms in letters
Key stage four: 14 to 16-year-olds – Differential and integral calculus- Vectors and matrices- Trigonometry – Role of enzymes- Chemical formulae- The Doppler effect – Evaluate style and structure- Use accurate standard English- Read range of canonical texts

A report the following day by the TES was similar to the BBC’s, quoting the same two sources. However, the ASE seemed more negative if anything, arguing that there was little evidence of progression from one key stage to the next and questioning why it had taken a year (up to that point) to produce the new curriculum:

“It’s not a curriculum…It is a list, but not a national curriculum. If all the national curriculum is going to be is a list of knowledge, if that was the intention all along, then why did we have to wait so long for it?”’

Not to be outdone, the Daily Mail accentuated the positive with a report that the draft secondary English programme of study emphasised the importance of writing:

  • At KS3, pupils should be able to ‘write accurately frequently and at length, with increasing fluency and sophistication’ and ‘prepare personal and business letters using the correct form’.
  • The KS3 programme requires familiarity with 21 forms of writing including ‘articles and letters conveying opinions…autobiographies, screenplays, diaries, minutes and accounts’.
  • At KS4, they should be able to ‘increase the range of their writing’ and use ‘accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar’ (these hardly seem demanding requirements).

Rather oddly, none of the four sources chose to make the full documents available online to their readers. Although there are now supposed to be several different editions of these draft programmes in circulation, few if any have been published openly. This state of affairs is unhelpful to everybody.


Never Mind the Quality…

A week later, another member of the Expert Panel offered a commentary on the IOE London Blog which helpfully breaks down the composition of the 30 page pack:

‘secondary English has been leaked with 6 pages, maths 7 and science 17’

This rather begs the question how the maths programme has increased by over 50% in length since the Guardian saw it just two weeks earlier!

We learn that the total number of pages is significantly fewer than required for the equivalent primary programmes of study which comprise ‘52 pages for English, 31 for maths and 40 for science’.

(We can however ‘expect exam boards to elaborate’, so implying that the EBC syllabuses are bound to be significantly more detailed than the programmes of study.)

At the other extreme:

‘It appears that each foundation subject (such as geography, art and PE) is to be described entirely in just two pages covering at least key stages 1-3.’

No source is given for this statement. The accompanying IoE Press Notice simply says that ‘it is understood that the Department for Education aims to describe the key knowledge for each foundation subject in two pages from ages five to at least 14.’

It may be that this is an inference from the instructions  given to the working party preparing a draft ICT Programme of Study:

‘DfE guidance makes clear that the new Programme of Study for ICT

  • Must be short: at most two sides of A4
  • Should include a statement of the purpose of the subject and the aims of the programme of study.
  • Should including a balance of content, along the lines of the Royal Society’s report “Shut down or restart”.
  • Should cover Key Stage 1-4, with a section about each key stage
  • Should encourage challenge and ambition’

While noting that brevity may not be a problem as long as ‘powerful concepts and significant topics’ are ‘identified by rigorous selectivity’ the IoE post suggests:

‘It may also be that it is a step too far to limit foundation subject descriptions to just two pages to cover so many years of primary and secondary education – it certainly appears remarkable.’

It asks why there are such disparities in the length of the programmes of study for different subjects at different key stages, criticising the comparative prescription in the primary core as counter-productive.

But it does not really develop this point – about the tension between curricular flexibility and curricular prescription – shifting instead to an equally important but very different argument about restricted subject choice within the wider school curriculum.

The point is however an important one. The factors impacting on the length and prescription of different programmes are essentially threefold:

  • Whether they are for core (detailed) or foundation (brief) subjects;
  • Whether they are for the non-academised primary sector (detailed), or the secondary sector, where academies not bound to follow the National Curriculum predominate (brief);
  • Whether they are effectively redundant because there will be parallel EBC syllabuses – secondary, particularly at Key Stage 4 (brief).

These factors produce a clear pecking order, with the primary core at one end and the secondary (especially KS4) foundation at the other.

As consultation proceeds, it is almost inevitable that pressure will applied to reduce these disparities by removing detail from the primary core and adding it to the primary and (especially) the secondary foundation.


History Exemplifies the Tension Between Flexibility and Prescription

One could see this tendency in operation even prior to publication of draft programmes of study.

In mid-October, the Mail published another of its apparently well-briefed educational stories stating that the history programme of study would:

  • Give learners ‘a deeper understanding of history’
  • Offer ‘a narrative about British history and key international developments’
  • Include 200 key figures
  • Address at KS3 ’50 wider topics about the modern world’

Although the story offered up in mitigation the point that:

‘The current version of citizenship, which includes topics such as identities and diversity and how to negotiate, plan and take action has been cut back from 29 pages to one for 11 to 14-year-olds’

this does not alter the fact that such prescription in history cannot and will not be set out in such brevity.

The same story was repackaged twice on 29 and 30 December, with added detail of coverage:

  • Key Stage 1: placing events in chronological order; significant individuals such as explorers, scientists, rulers, saints, artists and inventors; and key events such as the Gunpowder Plot and history of the Olympic Games;
  • Key Stage 2: Ancient Greece, addressing myths, culture and individuals, including Alexander the Great; the rise and fall of the Roman Empire including the conquest of Britain and aspects of daily life; Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlement; changes in religious belief (pagans and Christians),; the Venerable Bede; development of a United English Kingdom including early kings such as Alfred, Athelstan and Ethelred;
  • Key Stage 3: Church, state and society in the medieval period, including the Norman Conquest, the feudal system and the growth of towns; King Henry II and Becket; King John, the barons, Magna Carta and the development of Parliament; King Edward I and wars with Wales and Scotland; Hundred Years War; Black Death; Peasants’ Revolt and Wars of the Roses; The Renaissance and Reformation in Britain; King Henry VIII, Wolsey, More and the Break from Rome; Queen Elizabeth I; the English Civil Wars, trial and execution of King Charles I; Cromwell; the Acts of Union; the emergence of Britain as a global power including industrial growth; Reform Acts; the early British Empire in America and the Caribbean; expansion of empire in Asia, Africa and Australia; the abolition of slavery; the French Revolution and Republic; the American War of Independence; Napoleonic France including Nelson and Wellington; developments in democracy, suffragettes and early Liberal reforms; the First World War, the Armistice, the impact of the war on British society; the rise of the dictators Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin; Second World War including Churchill and the Holocaust; post-war creation of the Welfare State, immigration, the change from Empire to Commonwealth; Cold War; the emergence of the EU.

There followed a battery of articles from those upset about the exclusion of Mary Seacole from the list of key figures. I took the view – admirably expressed in this article – that Mary Seacole is very much a second order issue because she is not a mandatory topic in the current National Curriculum and hence is taught in some schools and not others.

The more significant point seemed to be the difficulty in squaring  this extended list with a ‘skeleton National Curriculum’ including ‘very, very short’ programmes of study that ‘will give teachers “extreme” and “almost total” freedom over what is taught’. But others thought differently, as we shall see.


Late Skirmishes

The Government maintained a discreet silence over these leaks and provided few further details of the process following the conclusion of the consultation on the EBC, though the Secretary of State did confirm in December that the content framework for EBCs:

‘should follow quickly upon the heels of publishing what the draft secondary curriculum will look like, early in the new year’ (Q102 – Uncorrected Oral Evidence)

This left open the possibility that there would be a problematic gap between publication of the KS4 draft programmes of study and the EBC Framework, or that publication of the KS4 programmes would be delayed until the EBC Framework was ready.

The precise relationship between programmes of study and syllabuses remained firmly under wraps, however.

In a perceptive editorial called ‘The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, the Times Educational Supplement (TES) drew an analogy between the authoritarian and libertarian traditions within the Conservative Party and the Government’s approach to the National Curriculum Review.

It suggested that a libertarian approach to the curriculum, resulting in far greater autonomy for schools, is counterbalanced and framed by an authoritarian approach to examinations.

This is not absolutely accurate however, since one can see from the curious case of History above how both traditions struggle for dominance within the Curriculum Review itself. Moreover, the pressure for the restoration of unwanted detail does not always emerge from a Conservative authoritarian tradition, but sometimes from their Liberal partners within the coalition!

Meantime the shadow Minister – Stephen Twigg – confirmed that Labour would, in effect, abolish the National Curriculum by ‘extending the academies’ freedoms…to all schools.



This was an entirely new announcement, to me at least, but it was hardly picked up by the commentariat. I have seen no further gloss or detail.

It shows Labour taking what must have been the Coalition’s original idea, discarded during the maturation of the EBC proposals, and making it their own. It will be interesting to see whether this line is maintained in the coming weeks.


Last-Minute Delays: History Again

The long-awaited National Curriculum and KS4 Reform announcements were confidently expected in the final week of January 2013.

The DfE’s own timeline for schools was clear on this point (as were the Permanent Secretary’s own personal objectives, as published by the Cabinet Office).

Yet 31 January came and went without any activity.



So why were the announcements delayed at the last minute?

The Deputy Prime Minister may have been one fly in the ointment.

On 29 January a newspaper story quoting Liberal Democrat ‘sources close to’ the DPM revealed that he was:

‘determined to put a stop to plans reportedly put in place by Education Minister Michael Gove to remove Mary Seacole, renowned for giving sanctuary to soldiers during the Crimean War, from the National Curriculum.’

Another Liberal Democrat councillor is quoted as saying that the DPM:

‘has also privately insisted that the removal of Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum is “not going happen” ‘.

This seemed an odd battleground to choose, particularly since Seacole was never compulsory in the first place – and the pass has surely been sold by exempting academies from National Curriculum requirements anyway.

Maybe it can be put down to political opportunism, or simply personal rivalry.



Meantime, 24 MPs signed an Early Day Motion expressing their concern.

History continued to grab the headlines as a leaked draft of the programme of study was reported to contain no reference to Queen Victoria or other great Victorians including Florence Nightingale, Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Alexander Graham Bell!

According to the report:

‘The leak caused a flurry of activity at the Department for Education and a spokesman insisted that Queen Victoria would be included in the final history curriculum, which is due to be published shortly.

He said that the leaked copy of the curriculum was one of a number of drafts and added it would be “ludicrous” to suggest such notable figures would be left out.’

But, if a succession of Great Victorians has to be named on the face of the programme of study, what does this say about the principle of flexibility over prescription?

Doesn’t the new draft programme risk becoming even more prescriptive than the current version, which allows schools to choose between a study of Victorian Britain or Britain since 1930 and includes these names only as examples?

‘Impact of significant individuals and events: Lord Shaftesbury and the welfare of children; Robert Owen, Elizabeth Fry and improving the lives of ordinary people; Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Great Exhibition; Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and the Crimean War; Robert Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and their impact on travel in Britain and to the wider world; David Livingstone, Mary Kingsley and world exploration; Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone.’

And meanwhile, Labour’s opportunism in condemning such omissions seems a little rich if they have really moved to a position where they would:

‘Extend the academies’ freedoms on the national curriculum to all schools’.

In another neck of the woods, there was an interesting story about a decision by the History Curriculum Association and Campaign for Real Education to distribute its alternative KS1-KS3 history syllabus to independent schools and academies.

This eight-page document is unlikely to radically reform history teaching, but it does exemplify the scope for an emerging market for curriculum specifications and materials. The bulk of development work – for KS1-3 at least – is expected to take place in schools, but there is nothing to prevent subject associations and specialist organisations from marketing their own solutions, most likely for particular market segments.

This provides an opportunity, as well as a threat. The downside is increasing fragmentation, with only school funding agreements, KS4 exam syllabuses and KS2 test requirements imposing any kind of commonality on schools not bound by the National Curriculum.

The upside is the scope to lever up standards through market-driven competition and the capacity to respond more thoroughly to particular needs, rather than via a one-size-fits-all approach.


Last Minute Delays: Criticism of EBC Proposals

Perhaps more significantly, the Education Select Committee chose to publish a highly critical Report on the KS4 Reforms on 31 January.

The Government may not have wanted its own announcement to have clashed with this, or preferred to minimise criticism by ensuring that the EBC and National Curriculum announcements (and maybe a promised consultation on secondary accountability) were simultaneous.

The Select Committee expresses concern that ‘there is a lack of overall coherence in the Government’s approach to reform of the curriculum, qualifications and school accountability system’.

The Committee’s Report:

  • Calls for publication of secondary National Curriculum programmes of study and planned reforms of the accountability system as soon as possible, as well as publication of the ‘curriculum and educational outcomes’ for the new EBCs.
  • Says it has ‘not received evidence that GCSEs are so discredited that a new qualification is required…the Government must publish in full the results of its consultation and its analysis to justify its case that the brand is so damaged that it is beyond remedy.’
  • Expresses concern about the impact of the proposals on subjects outside the English Baccalaureate which ‘will be left with “discredited” GCSE qualifications for some time’.
  • Argues that ‘The Government must demonstrate that it has taken sufficient account of the likely unintended consequences of franchising [EBCs in each subject to a single exam board], such as an increase in pricing, and of the complexities of the tendering process’. It urges the decoupling of market reform from qualifications reform.
  • Says the Government should also: ‘make greater use of other levers at its disposal, such as the curriculum and supporting teachers’ professional development. The proposed timetable for reform must allow teachers sufficient time to prepare for the new qualifications. In addition, teachers must be provided with appropriate training and resources to support their teaching’.
  • Expresses serious concern over whether the proposals will help to raise standards, especially for the ’40 per cent plus of pupils who do not achieve the Government’s current floor standard’. It recommends that the government should reconsider proposals for a separate ‘Statement of Achievement’ for lower attaining students.
  • On the proposal for single tiered examinations wherever possible, recommends ‘that the Government takes advice from assessment and subject specialists on a subject-by-subject basis, as untiered assessment may be more effective and appropriate in some subjects than others’.
  • Recommends that the timetable is relaxed, because it is so tight that it risks compromising the quality of the qualifications developed as well as of the franchising process.

The Committee concludes:

‘There has been a lot of opposition to the proposals and many questions remain unanswered. Changes of this magnitude are best achieved with as wide support as possible across the education system, the wider economy, young people and their parents and, not least, the political spectrum. We call upon the Government to slow down the pace of reform.’

It remains to be seen which elements of the original proposals the Government will be prepared to sacrifice in the face of such criticism, if any.

The timetable and tiering seem particularly vulnerable, but several of the other points above are equally strong. There is a case for a fundamental rethink, but that would be politically unpalatable so some form of compromise is almost inevitable.


The Secretary of State on Knowledge

On 5 February, Secretary of State Michael Gove made a ‘political’ speech at the Social Market Foundation which he used to set out his belief in the supremacy of knowledge.

When the speech was first arranged, both the organisers and the Minister must have expected the National Curriculum Review outcomes to have been in the public domain.

The fundamental arguments advanced in the speech are these:

  • Progressive education ‘sought to replace an emphasis on acquiring knowledge in traditional subjects with a new stress on children following where their curiosity led them…moved away from a set hierarchy of knowledge – literary canons, mathematical proofs, scientific laws, musical exercises and artistic traditions – towards a new emphasis on “learning to learn”. And one did not need to study a subject discipline to acquire these abstract skills.’
  • Social mobility has stalled over the last 40 years as a consequence of progressive education, because ‘the accumulation of cultural capital – the acquisition of knowledge – is the key to social mobility’. The acquisition of cultural capital is safe and well in parts of the private sector but there are (already) similar paragons in the state sector too.
  • The Left is hostile to excellence: ‘despite the abundant proof that children from every background can succeed academically there is still a remarkable resistance – especially among many on the left – to asking our education system to ensure more children do succeed.’ This was evidenced by negative reaction to the EBacc ‘even though it has exposed inequality in our society much more starkly than any Gini coefficient calculation could.’
  • Much of the criticism of the EBacc has been misplaced because the National Curriculum protects subjects outside it: ‘What is however – inviolably – in the national curriculum is a requirement to teach art and design, music, design and technology, while all schools must also teach religious education.  And there is a strict statutory entitlement that all schools must give all students the chance to choose a creative subject in their GCSE options.’
  • Returning to the core argument: ‘for the self-styled educational progressives nothing could be as redundant as imparting knowledge. If you want knowledge, they argue, Google it.’ But ‘unless you have knowledge – historical, cultural, scientific, mathematic – all you will find on Google is babble…And unless that knowledge is imparted at school, in a structured way, by gifted professionals, through subject disciplines – then many children will never, ever, find it. No matter how long they search across the borderless lands of the internet.’
  • However, cognitive science supports the case for knowledge (and so, by implication, Hirsch’s arguments about the accumulation of ‘cultural capital’) since ‘the definitive conclusion of all that research is that “the sort of skills that teachers want for students – such as the ability to analyse and think creatively – require extensive factual knowledge”’.
  • Hence the new National Curriculum ‘affirms – at every point – the critical importance of knowledge acquisition. We have stripped out the rhetorical afflatus, the prolix explanatory notes, the ethereal assessment guidance, the inexplicable level criteria, the managerial jargon and the piously vapid happy-talk and instead simply laid out the knowledge that every child is entitled to expect they be taught.
  • The new curriculum ‘will provide parents everywhere with a clear guide to what their children should know in every subject as they make their way through school. Of course, academies will have the freedom to vary any part of the national curriculum they consider appropriate….But with this new curriculum laying out expectations of what every child should be able to know with such clarity, all the pressures in our education system will be for greater rigour. And that will be reinforced by the changes we are planning for the national curriculum tests which all state primaries must ensure their pupils sit and the changes we propose for GCSEs and A-levels.’


Where Does That Leave Us?

What can we draw from this speech, set in the context of the remainder of this post?

Despite the emphasis on knowledge it is clear that an effective curriculum depends on the interaction between knowledge and skills – one is just as essential as the other. Few contemporary advocates of progressive education would advocate the obliteration of knowledge acquisition and an exclusive focus on skills development.

But Gove the politician, rather than appearing in the guise of a sensible reformer restoring the balance between knowledge and skills, prefers to paint himself as the guardian of knowledge and his progressive opponents as skills-obsessed.

No evidence is adduced to support the contention that lack of cultural capital has been the key obstacle to social mobility. It may have been one factor but there are many others. In the schools context, attainment is key. No evidence is provided to make the case that schools have placed an artificial ceiling on the attainment of some learners by denying them access to cultural capital. Objections to the EBacc are a crude proxy at best.

The ‘excellence narrative’ is not entirely a matter of curriculum content and performance measures. As things stand, before the imminent  announcement, the removal of National Curriculum levels – and lack of discussion about how attainment and progression will be assessed in their absence – has been a far bigger issue.

Since some state schools are already providing an acceptably knowledge-driven curriculum under existing arrangements – and not all of them academies – the National Curriculum itself cannot be required to rectify the situation, especially since academies are not bound to observe it.

The new National Curriculum may have ‘laid out the knowledge that every child is entitled to expect they be taught.’ But that phrase hides a multitude of sins.

Does the National Curriculum define the requisite knowledge or does it provide a permissive framework for schools to adapt as they see fit? If it attempts different solutions in different subjects and key stages, are those distinctions justifiable and sustainable throughout the upcoming consultation and beyond?

Moreover, the National Curriculum can do no more than set out expectations which any academy can disregard. There is no entitlement, since parents will have no recourse if a school is not following any particular aspect of any programme of study.

The existence of this two-tier system, though it encourages innovation in one tier, will also make transition between schools far more problematic for many learners than it is at present (and especially at the end of KS2).

The references to statutory requirements and use of the word ‘inviolably’ are presumably signals that there will be no change to the existing requirement that schools must provide access at KS4 to a minimum of one course in each of four entitlement areas, one of which is ‘Arts’. This in turn suggests that Key Stage 4 will be retained as an entity. Neither of these were givens before the Secretary of State gave his speech.

Overall, the speech made a reasonable case for a stronger emphasis on knowledge in learning, but rather undermined itself by painting the issue in simplistic black-and-white either/or terms and by pretending that the Opposition is firmly in the enemy camp. It might reasonably be said to be half-right.



There was no attempt to address the tension between prescription and autonomy, though that may well turn out to be the single biggest issue as we scrutinise the draft programmes of study during the formal consultation process.




February 2013


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