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Breadth and balance: the essential elements of a recovery curriculum

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 3 September 2020

Dominic Wyse.

Government guidance for schools reopening this month originally suggested that national curriculum subjects could be dropped in order to focus on key areas such as phonics. In the latest welcome U-turn, the guidance now says that “the curriculum remains broad and ambitious”. But at the same time it notes that “Substantial modification to the curriculum may be needed at the start of the year, so teaching time should be prioritised to address significant gaps in pupils’ knowledge with the aim of returning to the school’s normal curriculum content by no later than summer term 2021,” and goes on to give details.

The key question is, will the guidance’s emphasis on aspects such as “disapplication”, “the essentials”, and “phonics” lead to some subjects in the curriculum being neglected? The history of governments’ national curriculum reform in England suggests this will be the case.

The guidance continues, “For pupils in Reception, teachers should also assess and address gaps in language, early reading and mathematics, particularly ensuring children’s acquisition of phonic knowledge and extending their vocabulary. Settings should follow updates to the EYFS [Early Years Foundation Stage] disapplication guidance.”

And, “For pupils in key stages 1 and 2, school leaders are expected to prioritise identifying gaps and re-establish good progress in the essentials (phonics and reading, increasing vocabulary, writing and mathematics), identifying opportunities across the curriculum so they read widely, and developing their knowledge and vocabulary.”

The concepts of breadth and balance, in combination, are an essential part of a curriculum, whether that is a curriculum for a class, a school, a nation, or for home learning. Breadth means that children access a sufficiently diverse set of areas of learning.Breadth applies most importantly to the range of areas and subjects children learn about, but also to the topics that are covered within an area of learning.

You will note that I prefer the phrase ‘areas of learning’ to ‘school subjects’ because subjects are only one way of organising the curriculum in schools. Areas of learning is a more inclusive phrase because it takes in aspects such as language or creativity that cross traditional subject boundaries, as well as more traditional subjects such as mathematics and music.

A balanced curriculum is responsive to learners’ needs but also introduces them to new areas of knowledge. An overemphasis at any stage of education on particular topics, to the undue exclusion of others, is an imbalanced curriculum. So for example while we know from research that learning the alphabetic code is important for reading and writing we also know that learners’ motivation for reading is important. So is their ability to compose meanings in writing, and to engage with authors’ texts, including the narratives that play out in the interaction between pictures and print. So if the teaching of the alphabetic code is over-emphasised then the risk is that other equally important aspects of learning to read, and crucially to write, will be neglected.

Another risk to a balanced curriculum is over-emphasising some areas of learning compared to others. For example, while the ‘core’ subjects of ‘English’ and mathematics are essential they should not be over-emphasised at the expense of all the others. This is especially important given that good teaching of language, literacy and mathematics happens through the teaching of all the curriculum in addition to discrete subject teaching. For example, learning to make bread can address science (yeast, gluten, etc), mathematics (precise measurements of ingredients), literacy (recipes and cook books), economics (make your own or buy from supermarket), aesthetics (shape, colour and representation in different media including social media), and healthy eating.

Balance requires consideration of the child’s learning holistically, including their experience of the whole curriculum. World-leading neuroscience research shows “how important it is to use child-centred play-based learning if you want to optimise children’s cognitive potential and also their emotional well-being … “

Balance is the concept that has troubled national curriculum policy in England for so many years. Since the inception of England’s national curriculum in 1988 multiple revisions have been required, for example because of too much content in the curriculum, and because of overemphasis on some subjects at the expense of others. As Mary James has detailed in her account of the curriculum Expert Panel’s interactions with then Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2011, England’s current national curriculum is not sufficiently balanced because of its ideological bias.

As pupils return to schools after being educated at home, the last thing that they need is a narrow, impoverished curriculum. There are some troubling deficit models of families’ capacity to support their children’s learning, but providing breadth and balance is a genuinely difficult challenge for parents educating children at home.

This is one of many reasons why it’s so important for parents and teachers to work together. One of the hallmarks of effective early years and primary teachers’ expertise is their ability to teach the whole curriculum, and to connect learning in a holistic way. A broad and balanced curriculum delivered by outstanding teachers is a right for all children. It is vital that this right is protected in the face of troubling messages from England’s government.

Follow the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (0-11 Years) (HHCP) on Twitter 


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2 Responses to “Breadth and balance: the essential elements of a recovery curriculum”

  • 1
    Professor Rosemary Davis wrote on 3 September 2020:

    This is a very readable and well presented blog, as you would expect from Dominic. Having recently served as a Governor ( responsibility for Early Years) where I failed to convince the SLT that phonics teaching didn’t need to be formalised rote learning for Reception class children in their first term. I gave examples of alternatives but to no avail. Perhaps because the school was awaiting an OFSTED inspection, having been judged as needing improvement, staff were afraid to deviate from a formal path, I also noted that virtual learning had a heavy emphasis on phonics during the schools closure period. We need again the courage of teachers in the 60s who demonstrated the achievements of children when creative methods of teaching were encouraged. Fear today takes over

  • 2
    Frank Coffield wrote on 3 September 2020:

    I agree with everything in Dominic Wyse’s blog and only want to add one small point. The original formulation for the national curriculum was that it should be “broad, balanced and coherent.” By coherence I presume it was intended that the curriculum offer to any particular group or to any individual pupil would be looked at in the round to ensure that it was consistent, that the various components hung well together, and that the connections between the components were well made and in harmony with each other. Over the years this criterion has been dropped but I think it should be reinstated as it offers something distinctive and important in addition to breadth and balance.