One of my more surprising recent experiences was defending the idea of a rich general curriculum in a House of Lords Committee against father of the National Curriculum Lord Baker.
His questioning assumed that the 11-16 school curriculum should make young people ‘job ready’. That is less true than ever: labour market changes and compulsory education to 18 mean we’ve never had fewer 16-18 year-olds in the workforce.
More generally, trying to second-guess the future is a bad way to prepare young people for 40 years of work in an unpredictable world. A curriculum overly focused on today’s skill needs will not prepare them to learn and adapt when demands change.
Instead, children should develop a secure grasp of concepts and skills with wide applicability and the ability to use them in a range of contexts, within a coherent cognitive framework to which they can add new knowledge and understanding. They should do so in schools which attend to their wider growth and development as human beings.
The United Learning curriculum we developed over the last decade and are now making widely available is designed to do this. Its development was not motivated by the accountability system, but is part of the success of schools with some of the highest progress 8 scores in the country.
So I have little sympathy with Lord Baker’s suggestion that the P8 measure stands in the way of schools teaching teenagers the right things.
We might, however, share a view that it is undesirable for government to use the accountability system to control schools.
The government of 1988 rightly argued that what children learn is of fundamental importance to society, in an open society should be subject to public scrutiny and, if prescribed, determined by Parliament. While the National Curriculum was an expansion of state power, it also opened up the ‘secret garden’ of the curriculum to democratic accountability.
More recent governments, however, have been less inclined to discuss fundamentals in Parliament. It has been easier to drive their preferences through the ‘backwards effect’ of performance metrics on qualifications and curriculum.
In the current feverish debate about accountability, we should remember that we are all better when we’re accountable. Effective accountability clarifies and simplifies. If we know what we’re accountable for, it removes uncertainty and improves focus.
So if Parliament makes clear what society wants from public education and we are measured against that, we cannot reasonably object. But if Parliament says one thing and the measurement system incentivises something different, we have precisely the ambiguity that creates stressed and anxious cultures.
So, how should we respond to the ‘accountability system’ we have?
Firstly, by remembering that we are not accountable to league tables, government or Ofsted. Legally, we are accountable to our Boards. Morally, to the children and parents we serve. The ‘accountability system’ is really just a system of measurement and reporting.
Secondly, we should not confuse the measure with the goal. Our reason for working in education is to do right for children, not to look good. Prioritising the former without exception or excuse is always our best course.
Thirdly, by building cross-sector institutions. No health minister would try to prescribe detailed medical practices – they would be rebutted by the Royal Colleges and other evidence-based institutions. We need to invest in building our own evidence-based College and institutions.
Finally, we should be much more conscious of state power and more determined to remind government of its limits and limitations. In 1988, DfE abruptly changed from quiescent enabler to muscular activism and has never looked back.
It may be unfair to blame the Secretary of State of 1988 for the continued expansion of state control of education. He could no more have predicted the last 35 years of political change than teachers could have done the social and economic changes which have transformed the labour market.
But the one part of the pre-1988 consensus we do need to recapture is the centrality of our intrinsic motivation to serve children rather than the power of government.