The ‘Year by Year’ Approach

Michael Gove sets out in his letter to Tim Oates his desire to ‘ensure that the necessary knowledge has been mastered before moving on to more stretching content, and indeed to wider curricular choices’.

He goes on to explain his belief that ‘it is particularly important for us to lay out the content that each child should be expected to master in mathematics, science and the grammar of the English language every year’.

With the release of the resignation letter Mary James and Andrew Pollard sent to Michael Gove in October, some of the Expert Panel’s misgivings about the year-by-year structure have been made public. They describe this as far too prescriptive and showing a lack of trust in teachers’ professional judgement.

On a simple level, the year-by-year approach is very appealing. Theoretically, if we could get every young person to the same demanding level of expectation every year, these incremental steps would ultimately lead to high levels of achievement for all.

However, education professionals and, indeed, those with any experience of children know that it is not that simple. Children develop at different rates. Some fly from an early age and would be frustrated if restricted by age-related expectation. Others struggle to keep up with their peers and make steady if slower progress when taught appropriately.

Nations around the world with a year-by-year curriculum structure have to grapple with implications such as what to do about those who do not make the grade. Should they be held back and made to repeat the year? If so, how many repetitions should be permitted? How can repeat year students be motivated in a more junior cohort? How is a high drop-out rate to be avoided?

Particular problems in jurisdictions with such systems are:

  • some young people do not leave school until long after the standard school leaving age (sometimes into their twenties)
  • some complete their education without ever having any experience of success 
  • others simply give up and do not complete at all

We clearly need a curriculum which will stretch every learner and ensure all make the maximum possible progress. A great danger of the year-by-year approach is that, like league tables based on attainment thresholds, it will provide a strong incentive to schools to focus attention on those at the middle of the ability range. Governments around the world are recognising the need to adopt a curriculum which will maximise the potential of every learner to participate in the global economy. The international evidence does not provide a basis for a decision to shift to central government prescription of annual mastery of content.


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