Why we must take the National Curriculum out of ministers’ clutches
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 March 2015
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.