National Curriculum

Why we’re abandoning Oak – and the new DfE should too

What started as a charitable and collaborative venture has become a vehicle for creating a government-approved curriculum, writes Jon Coles

What started as a charitable and collaborative venture has become a vehicle for creating a government-approved curriculum, writes Jon Coles

9 Sep 2022, 5:00

When we came together to create ‘Oak National Academy’ in 2020, it was simply to support children and teachers in a national emergency. By offering a set of video lessons online, we could help as many children as possible to continue to learn when schools were forced to close their doors.

There was no other agenda for those involved. ‘Oak’ was not a company, a business, or a government project – it was a collaboration. Reach Academy Trust are its particular heroes – employing the initially small central staff at their own risk and securing philanthropic funding to make it possible.  

Government provided some funding, which accelerated progress, but has gradually assumed more control – through a period of extended funding, a management attempt to ‘float off’ as a private profit-making body and then, when that was blocked by Reach, proposing to take the assets over.

Earlier this year, the DfE established a legal entity, which it owns. Initially called ‘FCNDPB Limited (new provider)’ this ‘Future Curriculum Non-Departmental Public Body’ has been renamed ‘Oak’ – and has taken control of most of the assets of the former Oak collaboration. Its purpose is a long way from the original charitable Covid response. It is to procure and promote a set of curriculum resources which exemplify ministers’ curriculum ideals.

When I talked to the then minister about his ideas for the future of Oak, he gave me a clear sense that his aim was to promote his own view of the curriculum in this country and abroad, expressing concern that a skills-based ‘World Bank’ curriculum was being promoted to less developed countries.

Officials now deny that the aim is to create a predominant curriculum model or to promote a single government view.  But nothing substantial has altered in this project since that initial conversation.  

NDPBs are not meaningfully independent of the government department which owns and funds them. Officials pointing to their framework agreement as providing protection know it has no legal basis and that there are plenty of ways to exert influence.

And hard-pressed school leaders often accede to the latest government proposal, even when it has no regulatory or statutory basis, as the easiest and best way to ‘stay safe’.  

Only a totalitarian government would want to control what schools teach

Publishers who object to this nationalisation are in part protecting their own interests. But if major publishers like Pearson or HarperCollins decide that there is no UK market for education resources, they will stop investing and close those parts of their businesses.  

With only £8 million of the £43 million costs of the new agency committed to actual new resources, government is in danger of crowding out much bigger investments in new resources.

Even more fundamentally, do we really want to live in a society where a large proportion of schools are following a government-approved lesson-by-lesson curriculum?

Of course, we already have a national curriculum. Creating this in the 1980s was controversial and required extensive parliamentary scrutiny. Why? Because the post-war, Cold War consensus was that only a totalitarian government would want to control what schools taught. Thus the national curriculum in most subjects is very loose. In key stage 3 history, for example, what must be taught is set out in seven, very general bullet points (e.g. ‘ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain 1745-1901’).

Now, however, government has decided to have a preferred model of how to teach everything, for how long and lesson-by-lesson, which books to read and what it wants said and not said. Would the preferred curriculum on controversial topics like empire change with a change of government? And without parliamentary scrutiny or approval? What if a new minister isn’t that interested and bureaucrats make the decisions?

Officials say that none of this will be compulsory. But what if other resource providers are crowded out and choice diminishes? Look at the ‘slippery slope’ of ever-growing government control since 1988. Ask yourself: how happy am I with there being a government-approved curriculum?

We made clear last year that we couldn’t support this and have now made three different suggestions for a future for the Oak resources. When it became clear last week that no compromise was on offer, we confirmed we would not put our resources on the government site and set up our own site to keep them freely available. This week, we have a new government and a chance for ministers to look again. Let’s hope that they identify that this level of state control is not only undesirable – but fundamentally un-Conservative.

More from this theme

National Curriculum, Ofsted

‘Permissive’ national curriculum gives schools too much freedom, says Ofsted director

The national curriculum has become too “permissive”, and making more subjects compulsory at key stage 4 could help “lever...

Freddie Whittaker

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One comment