Education International
Education International

How not to reform the Curriculum

published 25 July 2013 updated 5 February 2016
written by:

Questions about efficiency remain

But there remain huge questions over whether, given some of the problems documented above, the curriculum changes really will achieve ministers’ stated aims of improving pupils’ understanding.

And if this were not enough, the government has been attempting to overhaul both of England’s main secondary school exam systems, taken during students’ assessment-heavy final years.

Last year, Mr Gove announced plans to scrap by 2014 our exam for 16-year-olds, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), in favour of a more traditional assessment modelled on O-levels, which operated until 1987 and were targeted at more academic pupils.

He decided to back down on that plan after concerted opposition from the profession ( http://bit.ly/UBsCAf), but still wants to make GCSEs “harder”, though again to a slightly later timescale of 2015.

In the same year, new, radically-reformed A-levels – the exams that our 18-year-olds sit – are due to begin, although, again, there were question marks at time of writing over the degree to which these reforms were achievable in many subjects given the 2015 deadline.

England’s exams reforms seem to be pushing it further away from the other parts of the United Kingdom. Scotland has traditionally has a separate education system but Wales and Northern Ireland , which use GCSEs and A-levels, have education ministers who have fallen out with Mr Gove. (See http://bbc.in/ODGNjI, http://bbc.in/TOm0Nk.)

There are also signs that the Education Secretary is facing opposition more widely in England, with members of the National Association of Head Teachers having jeered him at a conference in May, some private school figures ( http://bit.ly/16MhTCU, http://bit.ly/1637uIi) having become opponents and the head of the leading employers’ organisation ( http://bit.ly/18yuQTF) also having raised questions over the government’s overall strategy.

So debate in England now tends, perhaps understandably given the above, to polarise between those who think the Education Secretary will be the saviour of our system with his emphasis on higher expectations and old-fashioned standards, and many within the profession, and beyond, who disagree.

As an education journalist it makes for interesting – and, on occasion, surreal – times. It is possible to wonder whether better, calmer, models of change exist.

Multi-faceted reforms

Multi-faceted curriculum and qualifications reform, on which this article is focused, stands as just one element in a programme of change which has already introduced charter school-type status for thousands of primary and secondary schools; changes to teacher education so that it focuses much more on school-led provision than that organised by universities; and reforms to teacher pay with the aim that staff are paid according to performance, rather than receiving incremental salary increases every year. But both curriculum and qualifications reforms have been huge in their own right. They stand to affect every school year group in the country, from next year. The central question is whether they will achieve the government’s stated aims of raising the quality of what goes on in classrooms and improving the country’s international education standing.

England has had a national curriculum for five- to 16-year-olds since the late 1980s. Successive revisions have followed, but, since early 2011, the coalition has been attempting possibly the most radical change yet, with much more emphasis - at least in the central, or “core”, subjects of English, mathematics and science - on setting out detailed factual knowledge expected of young people. (See http://bit.ly/V5XGG1 for English Government proposals). The timescale for reform has been eye-wateringly tight. The curriculum review was set up in January 2011 but was originally due to produce new curricula in the “core” subjects by September this year, with other subjects following in September 2014. But by December 2011, this schedule had been deemed too exacting, with English, maths and science content now pushed back for first teaching from September 2014, alongside the other subjects.

The method by which the curriculum has been drawn up may strike non-English readers as extremely centralised. We no longer have a quasi-independent development body, as the coalition scrapped the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, established under the former Labour government in succession to a string of similar organisations, in 2010. Instead, groups of experts – academics and teachers - were commissioned by ministers to produce advice on individual subject content under the auspices of in-house Department for Education civil servants. But the experts’ curriculum drafts were not made public and, it appears, in several subjects were simply rejected if they did not agree with ministerial priorities.

A separate “expert group” of four academics was commissioned to provide advice on the structure of the curriculum as a whole, but three of the four went on to make fundamental criticisms of the review. (See http://bit.ly/NHmKAl and http://bit.ly/LQIF7l) Those political imperatives have included, in mathematics, a stress on formal calculation methods, including, very controversially among experts, long division in primary schools; phonics teaching and spelling lists for primary pupils in English; and a focus on a very detailed programme of historical knowledge, with the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, contentiously talking about the importance of pupils learning about England’s “national heroes”.

Indeed, controversy around centralisation of political decision-making is epitomised by the existence of a widely-believed and credibly-sourced rumour that the latest version of the history curriculum – or, at least, large chunks of it - was actually written by Mr Gove himself. That version seems to be opposed by most history teachers. (See http://bit.ly/15hmKjj)

Critical response by academics and unions

Citing as a reason for reform the United Kingdom’s stuttering progress in the OECD’s PISA tests, ministers have said their proposals will raise expectations of all pupils, with “harder” topics taught earlier, especially in maths.

But there has been no end of controversy. In March, a group of 100 education academics sent a letter to a national newspaper ( http://ind.pn/10elPfG) making a string of criticisms, including that it was setting up children to fail by asking too much of them at a young age. Mr Gove responded with his own newspaper article in which he highlighted some of the authors’ past writing and denounced them as Marxists.

Most substantively, most teachers’ associations have been highly critical.  (See National Union of Teachers - http://bit.ly/X6hIRZ, National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers - http://bit.ly/10Q9jki, Association of Teachers and Lecturers - http://bit.ly/ZC8eBb) The Council for Subject Associations, which represents more than 30 of them across the curriculum, said in its response ( http://bit.ly/178JliN)  to consultation on the plans that they “lacked coherence”, overemphasising factual recall over understanding.

“Schools in high-achieving jurisdictions, such as Finland, emphasise critical understanding, reasoning and creativity, not the rote learning of facts,” it added.

Yet, at the time of writing, with the plans out for consultation and due to be finalised by September, there seemed few signs of any major concessions by the government, other than the Design and Technology curriculum, which is being completely rewritten following criticism from leading employers, and in history, where only four per cent of teachers responding to a Historical Association survey backed Mr Gove’s plans. ( http://bit.ly/15hmKjj)

There remain serious worries about the schedule, with little time now to finalise teaching resources and with ministers seeming to make few plans to improve teachers’ subject knowledge in support of their proposals, the philosophy being that schools are best-placed to make their own training plans. The coalition seems to have viewed rapid change as a priority, since, in our system, cross-party agreement on the curriculum has not been achieved in recent times and the government’s term will end in 2015.

The coherence of what ministers have been trying to do is another frequently-voiced concern. Ironically, academies, the charter school-like institutions which operate outside of the auspices of local authorities, won’t have to follow this new “national” curriculum. With the government wanting as many schools as possible to become academies, and with around half of secondary schools already having done so, many question how this fits with the standardisation implied by the curriculum reforms. Ministers respond that the “national curriculum” still serves a purpose, even in academies, in providing a reference point for all schools, which some are now free to accept or reject.