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Breadth and balance: the essential elements of a recovery curriculum

Blog Editor, IOE Digital3 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 (more…)

The assessment system is unsustainable: how can we make it better?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital4 April 2017

Gemma Moss
The Government’s new consultation on primary assessment in England is to be welcomed. The key question is: will it go far enough? The answer to that in large part depends upon how parents, teachers and academics react.
What’s driving the consultation?
The terms of the consultation are worth quoting from the Department for Education (DfE) Website:

Recognising the scale of the changes that we have asked primary schools to deal with, this consultation represents a significant step towards establishing a settled, stable primary assessment system that is trusted by teachers and parents.

The phrase “a settled, stable primary assessment system that is trusted by teachers and parents” is well chosen, for at the moment we do not have that. Full credit to the (more…)

What are consultations for?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital20 September 2013

Dominic Wyse
A national curriculum is in part a representation of what a society wants for the education of its citizens. This is why many people feel that wide consultation on its content and ethos is necessary.
The proposals for England’s 2014 national curriculum, finalised and published a few days ago, were subject to a national public consultation that ran from February to April 2013. The consultation attracted more than 17,000 responses from a mixture of organisations and individuals. The table below shows my analysis of the DFE’s report on the consultation outcomes, and the Government’s response to it. In particular, for each question in the consultation I have identified the majority response to the consultation questions.
It is worthwhile for Ministers to consider the value of carrying the educational community with them on a matter of such national significance. Yet, as can be seen, the majority of those who expressed a view gave negative responses to eight out of nine questions. In my view it is reasonable to conclude that in the light of this strikingly negative response the national curriculum is not fit for purpose and should be rewritten. This view is given added force by last year’s decision by most members of the national curriculum expert group to raise strong objections to many of the proposals.
Some cynically take the view that one should not expect public consultations to result in major change to proposals, and that such consultations are emblematic rather than pragmatic. But if this is the case it invalidates what should be the main purpose: to consult the widest possible range of people, address their response, and act even-handedly on this response.
As far as the specific problems with the national curriculum proposals are concerned, many people predicted these in their responses to the consultation. Indeed my own department, the Early Years and Primary Education department at the IOE convened a team to respond fully to the consultation. For example, we argued that a national debate on aims should precede the crafting of the content and urged that the process of learning be given more prominence. We also highlighted discontinuities between the primary curriculum and the stages that precede and follow it.
Analysis of government response to consultation on the national curriculum
Slide1Slide2 Slide3
If public consultation on national curricula and assessment is to be genuinely meaningful then the following need to be in place:
• Analysis of consultation responses should be carried out by an organisation independent of government and the civil service, for example a research organisation.
• A transparent methodology for analysis is needed, for example to account fairly (including through statistical weighting) for the views of organisations versus individual respondents; to clearly explain the approach to analysis of qualitative answers; and more generally to be an account that would satisfy researchers of the rigor of the analysis.
• Consultation should include a question on the overall desirability of proposed changes in addition to any questions about the fine detail of proposals.
• Clear majority views should be acted on in line with the opinion expressed. A principled way to deal with less clear-cut answers should be established.
• Responses, analyses, and government actions should be available online in order to ensure public trust, and to demonstrate democracy at work.
I hope that these principles will inform the consultation on assessment that is currently in progress, because the decisions made on assessment are likely to have a profound impact on the curriculum, pedagogy and children’s lives in school.

Narrowness and imbalance in National Curriculum design

Blog Editor, IOE Digital20 November 2012

Andrew Pollard
A picture of the proposed 2014 National Curriculum for England is gradually emerging. Draft versions of secondary English, maths and science and information about foundation subjects have recently slipped into the public domain. We have had the Early Years Foundation Stage requirements since March, and proposals for primary English, maths and science since June.
So what does this begin to add up to?  How is the Department for Education envisaging the curriculum as a whole, through which learners will progress from birth to 16?
On the one hand, we have the core curriculum for primary schools which is spelt out in immense detail with 52 pages for English, 31 for maths and 40 for science.  On the other hand, one might feel reassured that the Secretary of State does intend to honour his promises to reduce the amount of curricular prescription and give “schools and teachers more freedom to decide how to teach most effectively”. For example, the entire five years of the Early Years Foundation Stage is covered in six pages and it appears that each foundation subject (such as geography, art and PE) is to be described entirely in just two pages covering at least key stages 1-3. With a little more detail, secondary English has been leaked with 6 pages, maths 7 and science 17 – though there may be changes and we can expect exam boards to elaborate.
The apparent brevity of many of these drafts is not necessarily problematic, for it is possible that powerful concepts and significant topics could be identified by rigorous selectivity. Teachers would be able to build on these.  However, it may also be that it is a step too far to limit foundation subject descriptions to just two pages to cover so many years of primary and secondary education – it certainly appears remarkable. With the fragmented information which is available right now, we cannot really judge such matters.
Nor is it clear how Ministers’ apparent decision to devolve drafting responsibility to handpicked individuals and organisations, as described in a recent Guardian article, will pan out in terms overall curriculum coherence. It is to be hoped that their work is being structured by a framework of principles for curriculum design and by a clear statement of overarching aims for the National Curriculum. If documents on these issues exist, they should certainly be published.  The report of the Expert Panel, to which I contributed, indicated the importance of such aims and principles, but it is not clear whether these issues have been followed up.
But perhaps the most striking feature of the emerging picture is the extraordinary unevenness in the degree of specification. If appearances do not deceive, it seems that primary English, maths and science at Key Stages 1 and 2 may be spelt out, on average, in over 30 times more detail than is expected for each foundation subject over the same key stages. As things stand, they will be specified in 4 times more detail than for the same subjects in secondary education.
So what is going on?  Why is there this huge discrepancy between light touch and centralist prescription? Why is it that primary teachers, in particular, must to be told what to do in such detail?  The benevolent explanation is that Ministers are so committed to raising standards in “the basics” that they really, really want to set out high expectations and leave no room for doubt about what is expected. New Labour Ministers were similarly committed when they introduced the National Strategies.
But in relation to these issues, both recent governments have transformed their commitment into policies which seem authoritarian and educationally inappropriate. The key point which has not been understood is that a national curriculum must be designed to facilitate learning, and that this is not the same thing as specifying subject content for teaching.
In Chapter 1 of the report of the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review, we spelt this out in very simple terms. We described how education is the product of interaction between socially valued subject knowledge and the personal development of individuals, as facilitated by expert teachers. We explained that teachers therefore need scope to exercise professional judgement to meet the diverse needs of pupils and that over-prescription would thus undermine the effectiveness of teaching. A National Curriculum specification, in other words, must be pitched in ways that are carefully judged to support learning processes rather than overwhelm them.
At a meeting with Michael Gove, I constructed the “whole curriculum” model described in both Chapter 1 and the concluding summary of the Expert Panel Report. He appeared to understand the issues, for he is extremely quick to appreciate arguments. He will, then, realise that the level of prescription presently proposed for primary education is likely to be counter-productive. During the primary years, when establishing good attitudes to learning complements the achievement of excellence in basic skills, micro-management of classrooms by curriculum dictation from Whitehall would be a serious error. It is very surprising to see the Coalition repeating New Labour’s mistakes in this respect, albeit in rather different ways. It may be that significant reclassification into non-statutory guidance could help in part, but the difficulties really need more fundamental resolution including removal of year-on-year prescription.
There can be no doubt that the curriculum should offer breadth and balance. Indeed, the DfE’s own analysis of international evidence (pdf) showed conclusively that high performing jurisdictions preserve a wide range of subjects from ages 5 to 16.  Such breadth was also a firm recommendation of the Cambridge Primary Review and Ofsted reports have reinforced this point many times over the last decade. And of course, breadth and balance are protected by the general requirements of Section 78 of the Education Act, 2002.
However, the much criticised decision to exclude music and art from the secondary EBacc already flies in the face of this evidence, and we may be close to arriving at an even more constraining outcome for primary education. The Secretary of State and his Ministers and officials are highly intelligent people, so when they suggest that ‘schools can choose how they include other subjects’ they know perfectly well that they are creating structures and high stakes incentives which will direct behaviour in different ways. Already, the pattern of subjects studied at Key Stage 4 has significantly narrowed and Ofsted reports published since September using the new Framework for School Inspection offer almost no discussion of pupil achievement in any subject outside the core curriculum.
We must assume that the Coalition Government and its Ministers mean well.  Sadly, their present policies lead in the direction of a narrow and imbalanced curriculum for maintained schools. If implemented, this will be a personal tragedy for millions of children and a national tragedy for us all.
Of course, many independent schools provide superb breadth and balance in their curricula and, in present circumstances, it is no wonder that the academy opt-out is very tempting – for schools can then make their own curriculum decisions. But fragmentation of the system seems a very strange way to provide educational entitlements. Sadly, despite the rhetoric of choice and opportunity, these processes are likely to deepen inequalities in our societies.

The multiplication of Massachusetts and the chemistry of Canada

Blog Editor, IOE Digital13 June 2012

Chris Husbands
It is probably an apocryphal story. George Bernard Shaw was propositioned by Isadora Duncan, who suggested that she and Shaw should have a child together. “Think of it!” said the acclaimed dancer, “With your brains and my body, what a wonder it would be.” Shaw thought for a moment and replied, Yes, but what if it had my body and your brains?”
The story comes to mind in reading the web statement on the government’s proposals for the new primary national curriculum, which tells us that the proposals on algebra are consistent with “the high-performing education jurisdictions of Singapore and Hong Kong”, the focus on times tables draws on the “high-performing jurisdiction of Massachusetts” and the science curriculum is “similar to the approach taken in Alberta and Massachusetts”. 
Unfortunately, despite this whistlestop tour, the draft programmes of study so far developed do not include geography, but the message is clear: different countries have been used as models to benchmark different parts of the curriculum. With so broad an approach to “learning from the best”, surely the results will be exceptional.
In fact, the mechanics of policy borrowing are just as complex as George Bernard Shaw feared the workings of genetics might be. There is attraction in believing that if a practice works somewhere,  it will work anywhere and that the task of curriculum construction is a matter of taking what is done somewhere else and applying it in a different jurisdiction.
If that were the case, education systems would be more alike than they are. In fact, patterns of performance are more difficult to fathom. There are education systems which are higher performing than others:  the Pacific Rim countries score highly on mathematics and science, as does the northern European jurisdiction of Finland. But Singapore (retaining selective schools) is quite different from Finland (wholly comprehensive), and the curriculum is quite different in Korea (high performing and highly centralised) by comparison with Canada (high performing and decentralized). 
Why this should be the case is a matter of fierce debate. Of course, the task of learning mathematics is as culturally invariable as any subject could be, but the context in which it is learnt is not:  the role that mathematics and science play in different cultures varies hugely. The assumptions made about what “teaching” involves vary enormously.   Moreover, the variation in performance between countries, on PISA evidence, is not in the levels of performance of the best performing children but on the distribution of weaker performance: put differently, equity matters a great deal in education system performance.  And this is why it may be more difficult to bolt together the algebra of Singapore, the multiplication of Massachusetts and the science of Alberta.
The lessons of educational improvement are hard ones. As the American scholar – and now chancellor of the Chicago public school system – Charles Payne bemoans in his most recent book “so much reform, so little change”. Ben Levin, the hugely influential Canadian academic – and former secretary for education in rapidly improving Ontario – observes in How to Change 5000 Schools, “teaching and learning practices [are] far ahead of curriculum as a means of improving student outcomes”. No curriculum, really, exists on a piece of paper, but in the day to day challenge of classrooms.

Proposed primary curriculum: what about the pupils?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital12 June 2012

Andrew Pollard
Education Secretary Michael Gove and Schools Minister Nick Gibb have finally begun to show their hand on the National Curriculum Review – at least for primary education. This sector has been well prepared for development by two substantial reports — the Rose Review, commissioned by the previous government, and the Cambridge Primary Review, funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. And in the past eighteen months a very large number of teachers, parents and other stakeholders have offered advice to the Department for Education.  The report of an Expert Panel, of which I was a member, drew on this background in making its proposals. However, it is far from clear that these sources have influenced the proposals published yesterday.
The voice that has really counted from beginning to the end has been that of an American educator, ED Hirsch. In his early work, Hirsch developed the view that reading comprehension requires both decoding skills and background cultural knowledge. His influential 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, appended long lists of facts and tapped a strong current of concern about US education. It was then extended to provide a Core Knowledge Sequence of year-on-year prescriptions for each subject pre-school to Grade 8 (age 13-14).
When I first met Nick Gibb, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence was open on his desk, heavily stickered with Post-It notes.  Michael Gove’s instructions to Tim Oates, chair of the Expert Panel, were to trawl the curricula of the world’s high performing countries, to collect core knowledge, and put it in the right order. Then, he believed, we’d have a national curriculum to restore our economic fortunes and provide new opportunities for all.
Why Mary James, Dylan Wiliam and I were appointed to the Expert Panel remains something of a mystery, for we were hardly likely to accede to this crude design for curricular reform.  For my own part, I would not deny that subject knowledge is important nor demur from sustained efforts to consider how it should be most appropriately represented in a programme of study. And of course, the idea sounds wonderful – yes, let’s sort out, once and for all, when spelling of particular words will be mastered, and the use of apostrophes, and the subjunctive, and so on. So this approach is likely to be very attractive to the public.
But the approach is fatally flawed without parallel consideration of the needs of learners. Primary teachers consider the overall experiences of each child, and try to provide a broad and balanced curriculum as is required by law. The skill and expertise of the teacher lies in building on each pupil’s existing understanding and capabilities, and in matching tasks to extend attainment. To do these things, they need scope to exercise professional judgement.
However, on the basis of the new National Curriculum proposals, they are to be faced by extremely detailed year-on-year specifications in mathematics, science and most of English. This is to be complemented by punitive inspection arrangements and tough new tests at 11. The new curriculum will preserve statutory breadth, we are told but, whilst teaching of a foreign language is to be added, provision for the arts, humanities and physical education is uncertain at this point. The constraining effects on the primary curriculum as a whole are likely to be profound and the preservation of breadth, balance and quality of experience will test even the most committed of teachers.
In an attempt to head off such constraints and preserve opportunities for teachers to exercise judgement, the Expert Panel recommended the organisation of programmes of study on a two year basis. But it is Hirsch’s very detailed year-on-year model that has prevailed. This was one of the main issues which caused the Expert Panel as a whole to withdraw from the development of programmes of study, leaving only Tim Oates to work with Ministers and the DfE teams. In the interests of transparency, DfE should identify those who have been particularly influential in preparing the draft programmes of study. 
Certainly there are ameliorative provisions – for instance, the “freedoms” of the School Curriculum permit schools to vary the placement of content within each key stage, or to bring forward material to an earlier key stage. The latter may help teachers to satisfy the needs of high attainers, but there is no comparable provision for those who find learning particularly difficult. Further thinking is absolutely essential on how the needs of those who fall behind cumulatively, year on year, will be met.
Expectations should be high, but if targets are unreasonable they will simply generate a widespread sense of failure. It is essential therefore that the draft Programmes of Study are now subjected to scrutiny, moderation and refinement by teachers, researchers and others so that expectations are appropriately pitched.  And the provisions for flexibility and for slower learners must be explored, tested and developed much further.  Tidying up “knowledge” is a desk exercise, but in the real world of classrooms the range of pupil needs is enormous.  These cannot be wished away.
Education must be seen as “the product of interaction between knowledge and individual development” (Expert Panel report, p11).  Curriculum structures must enable teachers to use their expertise to manage this interaction beneficially.  This is the real lesson of international evidence.