History is littered with instances of people – politicians included – scratching their heads and asking, ‘How on earth did we wind up here?’ So with education today, where we have ended up with the very curious position of having a national curriculum, but one no school needs to observe. In short, we seem to be in danger of carelessly downgrading or jettisoning the national curriculum.
This situation is not a good one. In 1988, after decades of anxiety about the variability of educational opportunities and outcomes around England, our first national curriculum emerged. After six years of knowing it was too packed (After all, it was our first stab at having one!), Sir Ron Dearing did an excellent job of refining it. Further tweaks followed in 1999, and further refinement took place between 2010 and 2014 to avoid the pitfalls of the truncated 2008 version. And it seems to have worked in improving equity and attainment.
Which makes the structural changes consolidated in the latest schools bill all the more surprising, if not altogether weird. How did we wind up here? And does it matter?
It’s important not to be naive about exactly how a national curriculum affects the quality of schooling – it may be law, but enactment still depends on many factors including culture. in Finland teachers look at you as if you are crazy when you ask, “Would you depart from the National Curriculum?” “Of course not! Why would I?” is the universal response. This assumption certainly is not in place across all nations.
And then there is always also the need to translate the national curriculum into the specifics of what a teacher does minute-by-minute and over time to make the school curriculum real in the classroom. A national curriculum – even as a unified legal requirement – can be misunderstood, ignored, or misapplied.
It is a good feature of England’s system that our appreciation of the necessary alignment of curriculum, assessment, inspection, accountability and funding has grown. The existence of the EEF has driven up awareness of the need to drive both policy and practice through high-quality evidence; NCTEM for maths and approved reading schemes for literacy have pushed up our international standing.
So it’s of huge significance that current Ofsted inspection of the curriculum tightly references the national curriculum and scrutinises the rationale and quality of any managed departure from it. This is good joined-up policy. Indeed, schools and teachers have been accessing the Ofsted curriculum research reviews in extraordinary numbers, and the subject reports will further strengthen this relatively new push from Ofsted’s inspection framework. Crucially, this is designed to be supportive of schools and sensitive to innovations that enhance quality and outcomes.
But as important as this alignment is, it may be more fragile than we hope. Sudden new inspection priorities, a new interpretation of incentives at school level, a shift in qualifications policy, a tweak to targets, a weakening of the use of evidence – each and all can substantially shift school curriculum focus. Having the national curriculum as a central and unequivocal legal reference point seemed sensible in 1988, has since become central to other high-performing systems, and still seems sensible here today.
Fifty years ago, few nations had a national curriculum. Now, almost all do. And while having a good one doesn’t guarantee success and improvement, having a bad one certainly impedes them. Not having one at all forgoes a key means of achieving key national aspirations. A well-designed national curriculum helps with equity and attainment, ensures all young people are provided with a common core of learning, removes deadly repetition, outlines age-related expectations, provides standards of attainment, and more. These are vital education policy objectives, and a national curriculum is a key part of the apparatus for achieving them.
Politicians may find qualifications policy, fine-tuning accountability arrangements and undertaking sweeping changes to governance more attractive than the ‘long-march’ cyclical hard graft of reviewing and revising the national curriculum – with all its commitments to consultation and public scrutiny.
But a scan of high-performing systems suggests we will struggle to continue enhancing equity and attainment without it. Relegating it to the shadows of national policy would be careless indeed.
Tim Oates is writing in a personal capacity.