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Why we must take the National Curriculum out of ministers’ clutches

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 March 2015

John White
Nicky Morgan has just rejected ASCL’s call for ‘a broad nationally defined core curriculum framework’ to be set by a curriculum commission at arm’s length from politicians.
This will review the framework every five years and include representatives from school leaders, teachers, parents, industry, and politicians. Schools are encouraged to build a culture of curriculum design and development including but going beyond this core.
Ms Morgan told the Annual Conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) on March 21 that politicians should decide what is taught in schools because they are democratically accountable.
“That isn’t because I think I understand algebra any better than you do, or that Nick Gibb understands phonics any better than the teachers that teach it,” she said.
“Parents should be able to hold us to account for the decisions we make about what their children are learning and what they’re not and the surest way to make sure they can do that is at the ballot box.”
Who is right about this – the minister or ASCL? This takes us back to first principles over who should control the curriculum. It has been an issue since the 1970s – a time when maintained schools were free to determine their own curricula and ministers had no say.
One of the problems with this older régime was that it was hard to justify leaving major decisions about the curriculum to teachers, since they are only one section of the population. The point here is that the question of what the general shape of a school’s curriculum should be – its overall aims and the broad framework of curricular objectives falling under these – is intimately connected with the kind of society we envisage in the future, given that what schools do will play a part in creating and maintaining this. This question is a political one. In a democracy, every citizen has in principle an equal say in determining what kind of society we want to see.
This is why teacher control of the curriculum is to be rejected. There is no reason why one section of the citizenry should be privileged in this. Why only teachers, and not gardeners, parents, shop assistants, lawyers? However authoritative they may be on literature or science, they have no expertise on political matters.
Where teachers’ claims are strong is on how an overall framework is to be applied at school level. Teachers know best how to tailor things to particular children with particular interests and competences, and living in particular communities. Here they are the experts.
The general shape of the school curriculum is a matter for political, rather than professional, decision-making. Since 1988 we have taken this power away from schools and placed it in the political sphere by introducing a national curriculum.
But we did so without sufficient thought about where in the political sphere this power should lie. The last three decades have taught us the folly of leaving this to education ministers. It allowed Kenneth Baker the freedom to decide that the curriculum subjects laid down for the new state grammar schools in 1904 were just the job for everyone’s education nearly a century later. It let Michael Gove impose on the nation his own take on British history and to remove from the English syllabus To Kill a Mockingbird. It opened the way for Nicky Morgan to steer schools towards her own tough-minded vision of character education built around grit and the perseverance to strive to win.
Mention of Nicky Morgan brings us back to her response to ASCL’s call for a curriculum commission. She said “Parents should be able to hold us to account for the decisions we make about what their children are learning and what they’re not and the surest way to make sure they can do that is at the ballot box.”
It does not take a Bertrand Russell to see that this begs the question. Her reply assumes that education ministers are to decide the curriculum. But that is the very point at issue!
The argument against sectional interests determining such a politically sensitive matter as the school curriculum applies not only to teachers in the past, but also to politicians in the present. They have no authority to impose their own idiosyncrasies on the rest of us.
That is why we need something like the ASCL’s proposal of an independent commission at arms-length from the possibility of ministerial interference. Its democratic accountability is rooted in representing sectors of society with a major stake in the education and well-being of young people, such as teachers’ unions, universities, local authorities, parents, and employers. It could become a kind of educational parliament on the model of the Schools Council of the 1960s and 1970s.
On the same basic principle, there is every reason why the new body should base the aims of the national curriculum on the values and requirements of our liberal democracy itself. Only this starting point can provide the objectivity and legitimacy that the task of devising a national curriculum demands.
John White’s latest paper on the topic is his ‘Free the curriculum from tests’ in What’s Next for Education?, a publication of the New Visions for Education Group, launched at UCL IOE on March 23. 

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3 Responses to “Why we must take the National Curriculum out of ministers’ clutches”

  • 1
    John Hodgson wrote on 23 March 2015:

    We clearly need a buffer state between teachers and politicians. Things were better when we had the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, although that was clearly influenced by government agenda on professional issues such as assessment. The Schools Council was a fine body but existed at a time when there was considerable consensus between government and the profession about the direction of state education. Something similar is direly needed now.

  • 2
    dodiscimus wrote on 23 March 2015:

    At general elections people vote for many things and in the big changes (1979, 1997, 2010) a big element of this is the kind of society people want to live in. In 2010 possibly people did want at least an element of Govian traditionalism to be re-injected into education. The problem is that the electoral cycle is short and the length of time, and effort, it takes to re-write SoW and adapt to new exams is massive. When Gove introduced a new NC and new exams he was committing secondary teachers to years of extra work and therefore reducing, for years, the time spent on planning, feedback, following up behaviour issues, building relationships, enrichment etc. Some teachers will have just added it to their workload at the expense of their families and likelihood of teaching to retirement; some will have made compromises. I agree so much with John (above). I think politicians probably should set the overall agenda but something needs to sit between the 5-year election cycle and the rate at which teachers can make the changes; if this means that it takes a decade or more to see through a major chance in emphasis then that’s a good chance to see if the political impetus is sustained. Curriculum chance, like a good car suspension, needs shock absorbers.

  • 3
    John Mountford wrote on 24 March 2015:

    John, in February 2013, around the time you and Michael Reiss published ‘An Aims-based Curriculum’, we were in contact and considering how the campaign at ordinaryvoices.org.uk might be taken forward in response to our discussions about, the importance of reviewing the curriculum from first principles.
    For other contributors here, the Ordinary Voices campaign calls on politicians to set up a National Education Commission to take the governance of education out of the party political arena.
    This is the actual wording :-
    “The current mechanism for strategic planning in education is unfit for purpose as it lacks the capacity to reflect the changing needs of a modern democracy.
    To this end, politicians of all parties are called upon to support the establishment of a National Education Commission. Its first task being to draft proposals, outlining how responsibility for national policy-making for education may be decoupled from the machinery of party politics.”
    In my email to you and Michael I said, “I have come to see that all the scholarship and research currently directed towards establishing these first principles will count for little unless something changes. We have, as I see it, three choices. We can try to work with the government of the day, change the rules of engagement in an effort to modernise our democracy or wait until hell freezes over. As option one can only lead to option three, we have no choice.”
    At the time, I must have sounded insane and back then I commented thus: “I am under no illusions that the body of political opinion will be firmly set against change which challenges their authority to control strategic management in education.”
    As you point out, it is interesting that, “Ms Morgan told the Annual Conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) on March 21 that politicians should decide what is taught in schools because they are democratically accountable.”
    Two years on, it seems as if my words were almost prophetic. The game has moved on but the key player (the government) is as hell-bent as ever in distorting the true course of democracy in relation to education.
    How can the present set-up be regarded as democratic? How representative is the present government, or any other before it of late, about how education is best to be reformed? Are these not the same politicians stumbling across the finishing-line in our flawed ’first-past-the-post’ system every few years denying the bulk of the population true political representation with their arrogant pronouncements on education?
    If we desire a fully representative democracy premised on agreement on the aims, values and future of education in a stable environment of governance in the twenty-first century, why do we persist in the belief that the present arrangement will deliver?
    Michael Bassey, Emeritus Professor of Education, has been pushing for the same kind of reform as called for by the Ordinary Voices campaign for a considerable time. Politics has failed generations of our young people and it will continue to do so unless the present, inadequate system of governance is reformed.
    In 2013, Michael (Reiss) suggested I might want simply to quote your joint recommendation about the establishment of such a Commission on my website:
    “This speaks in favour of establishing some kind of Commission, protected from political meddling, to act as trustee for a defensible National Curriculum. Its task should be to work out a unified set of aims befitting our liberal democracy, stretching from general to specific.
    Following extensive public consultation, within and without the teaching profession, the Commission would painstakingly consider what the aims should be and set out a rational defence of the ones its selects and their interconnections. After further thorough public discussion of these, the Commission should make recommendations to the Secretary of State on a final version that would provide national guidelines for all schools, including private schools, academies and free schools. This should be accompanied by a full rationale. For schools and teachers, this would be better than a mere list of aims, such as we have now. It would help them to understand how the aims are to be taken, how they interrelate.”
    Not a lot of progress to date via the gentle art of persuasion. The groundswell of opinion has to change but this will only happen if the pressure for reform is relentlessly pursued. Our young people need this to happen.