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The aims of the curriculum should be the fount from which everything else in school life should flow

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 22 April 2022

John White.

What are England’s schools for? Many parents and other citizens may well assume the authorities have a good answer to this. But have they?

Well-known philosophers from both sides of the Atlantic interested in education – from Harvard, Columbia, Chicago and Illinois as well as from UCL IOE – are broadly agreed that a worthwhile education has three or four key aims: self-maintenance through work, personal fulfilment, citizenship and moral concern. Their discussions of each aim differ in detail but there is consensus both that there are complex interconnections among the aims and that expounding what each involves painstaking elucidation. Philip Kitcher, for instance, an eminent philosopher from Columbia University in New York, devotes just over half his new book The Main Enterprise of the World: Rethinking Education (2022 ) to what its aims should be.
These 201 pages are mainly about the four mentioned above.

Compare this to the 41 words on the aims of the English National Curriculum:

‘The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’ (DES 2014: 3.1)

In addition, all schools – including academies, which are not bound by the National Curriculum – also have to follow the 31 words of the original aims laid down for the latter dating back to 1988:

‘promot(ing) the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and prepar(ing) pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.’

How these few words that say virtually nothing beyond an insistence on knowledge transmission are meant to throw light on why we should have the kind of school curriculum we do is beyond me.

This does not mean it is aims bereft. The National Curriculum – broadly followed by most secondary academies – may have aims all right, but they are ones behind the scenes, not these official ones. Chief among them seems to be the promotion of economic growth by stressing literacy and numeracy for all and by using the assessment system, under the flag of ‘equality of opportunity’, to sort out high-fliers from those destined for more humdrum occupations or for none.

Root and branch reform of the National Curriculum is urgently required. The long debate that led to its creation in 1988 was partly based on the thought that the pre-1988 system whereby schools and teachers determine their curricula was flawed. In a democracy, what schools teach should be a matter for the citizenry as a whole. Decisions should not be left in the hands of a section of it like teachers and governors. Why should their preferences be paramount? What schools do helps to shape what future society will be like. In a democracy, everyone is entitled to a voice on this.

What happened after 1988 was a shock to those of us who argued like this against sectionalism. Curriculum power has passed to the education minister of the day. Democratically elected their government may be, but that has not been enough to stop them imposing on the nation curriculum preferences of their own – not only about content but also about pedagogy. Sectionalism still rules.

In recent years, some of this power has passed to academies, since they are freer than other schools to choose their own curricula instead of the National Curriculum. But this has only replaced one form of sectional power by another.

What is the answer? There is no perfect solution, since whoever has curricular power is not infallible. But a way forward is to set up some kind of national curriculum commission, at arms-length from government and with strong powers of influence on education policy.  It would have wide representation from all parts of the community and be reappointed after a limited term.

The idea is not new. Proposals have been made along these lines for much of the last decade or so. One is that of ASCL, the association of school and college leaders. Its Blueprint for a Self-improving System (2015) suggests

An independent commission – including practitioners, parents, governors, employers and politicians – reviews the core curriculum every five years, giving the government one opportunity in a parliament to make changes.

Nothing has happened on these lines in the seven years since this was written. It is time to renew the call, and perhaps in a stronger and more inclusive version. This blog is a plea that such a commission take aims seriously as the fount from which everything else in school life should flow. In the broad consensus among the philosophers of education who have spent years thinking about the topic, the commission has a starting point. In their view, human fulfilment is key. Work-orientated aims have a place, but not the dominant place they have now. The central concern is to equip all students to be able to lead a flourishing life themselves, and as citizens, workers, neighbours and loved ones to help others to do so too.

When we go down this road, students will no longer creep unwillingly to school to face another, often boring, day of exam-focused learning. They will look forward to enjoyable activities, sometimes self-chosen ones, that capture their interest and imagination. They will be acquiring a love of learning to accompany them for the rest of their perhaps hundred-year life

 

One Response to “The aims of the curriculum should be the fount from which everything else in school life should flow”

  • 1
    Dominic Wyse wrote on 27 April 2022:

    John, I think your call for review of England’s national curriculum is absolutely right.
    I and Alice Bradbury have just started leading an independent commission on assessment in primary education.
    Our research centre, The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy, has recently published two key pieces of research on fundamental areas of the national curriculum. In these we reached some of the same conclusions as you. Thank you for this inspiring blog.

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