Monthly Archives: March 2013

National Curriculum Consultation: Questions 3: Do you have any comments on the content set out in the draft programmes of study? Post 3.1: Why consultation responses must dig deeper than the content in the proposed programmes of study

There has been a torrent of comment in the press and digital media since the draft programmes of study were published, certainly enough to present a challenge to anyone trying to keep abreast of it all. The comment has covered the whole spectrum from individual subjects by Year Group or Key Stage through to the curriculum as a whole.  

Curriculum Aims

One of the difficulties for those wishing to respond to the consultation is the absence of curriculum aims (see previous posts relating to Questions 1 and 2). Logically the evaluation of curriculum content should take place against a framework of curriculum aims so that judgements can focus on the potential of the content to deliver those aims.

The proposed overall aims (Q1) offer very little against which to make these judgements, referring to:

  • introducing pupils to ‘the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens’
  • introducing pupils to ‘the best that has been thought and said’
  • helping to ‘engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement’

The perverse thinking behind the NC proposals is highlighted by the ‘cart before the horse’ / ‘what’ before the ‘why’ approach in Question 2. Remarkably, this asks whether teachers should frame their own aims based on the content!

Other criteria for evaluating content

So, without carefully considered aims for the curriculum, what criteria should be used to evaluate the proposed content?

One obvious course of action is to cross-check the proposals against the existing National Curriculum. However, if the new curriculum is to be an improvement on the old, there should be differences and, if teachers are to be given greater freedom, there should be a significant reduction in the quantity of prescribed content.

Another possible approach is to compare the proposals with the curricula of successful jurisdictions around the world although, with so many nations engaged in curriculum review, the international picture is constantly evolving.

Both of these approaches are, to some extent, deficit models. The dissection of the curriculum is carried out to discover what is missing rather than what is needed. Content is then included for its own sake, according to its own perceived merits, rather than for its contribution to the curriculum as a whole. The consequence is a process of ‘curriculum inflation’ which has long been recognised, with the addition of more content very rarely being counter-balanced by any redundant topics being removed.

This process undeniably results in a comprehensive (in some respects), content-heavy curriculum, but it is certainly not what our young people need if they are to develop twenty-first century knowledge, understanding, skills and abilities.

Indeed, a striking feature of the criticism of the current proposals relates to their match not just with the current National Curriculum, but with curricula of decades long gone.

Looking Forward

It is interesting to compare the outcomes of this backward-looking approach to those emerging from analyses which take account of the impact of modern technologies on life now and in the future. For example, in their book ‘21st Century Skills’ Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel [1]conclude that:

‘Our historic shift to a 21st century Knowledge Age ….. has forever tilted the balance of what is needed and valued in our work, our learning, and our life. In the 21st century, lifelong learning is here to stay.’

The National Curriculum proposals certainly do not reflect this historic shift and there is clearly a danger that, with so much traditional content to consider and without future-focused aims, consultation responses will not provide an appropriately forward-looking steer.

Comments on Content

Hence the National Curriculum consultation questions relating to content are flawed. If the consultation is to lead to the curriculum our young people need and deserve, responses will have to go beyond comment upon the minutiae of the proposed programmes of study.

When answering the questions, respondents will have to bear in mind not just the core knowledge referred to in the aims but, more importantly, the big picture of the over-arching purpose of the National Curriculum in an era of globalisation.

If the premise that the curriculum should focus purely on knowledge is accepted and comments are restricted to the content in the proposed programmes of study, there is a risk that the National Curriculum will seriously disadvantage our young people.

(Further posts will follow relating to specific elements of the content of the draft programmes of study)

[1] 21st Century Skills – Learning for Life in our Times; Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel; 2009; Jossey Bass



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Dumbing Down in the Name of Rigour

Today’s Independent carries a warning from 100 highly respected academics of the dangers of the new National Curriculum. See link:

As the letter points out, the Education Secretary has repeatedly ignored expert advice. However, it is hard to imagine that he can ignore the consensus of such a broad and well-informed group that ‘the proposed curriculum for England will result in a ‘dumbing down’ of teaching and learning’. After all,in his speeches the word ‘rigour’ has been oft repeated and he has presented himself as a St. George-like figure standing alone against the dragon of dumbing down.

Part of the problem lies in the interpretation of the word ‘rigour’. For Mr Gove the word seems to apply only to knowledge so that increasing rigour leads to the NC proposals having ‘endless lists of spellings, facts and rules’ and ‘mountains of detail for English, maths and science’ highlighted in the letter. However, there is no reason why the word ‘rigour’ should be applied particularly to knowledge, rather than other aspects of learning, as is clear from the dictionary definition of the word (the use of demanding standards). If we start with the misguided premise that learning is all about knowledge, then ‘rigour’ means remembering more. This premise has also led to another policy change: the switch to terminal examinations so that learners must remember for longer, with inevitable consequences for teaching strategies and students’ enjoyment of their learning.

Trained education professionals everywhere are familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy:


Jurisdictions around the world, including those occupying the top slots in international league tables, are recognising the urgency of adapting their education systems to focus increasingly on the upper levels of the pyramid. In a global economy, the most successful nations will be those with the most highly educated populations. There is a growing realisation that rigour must be applied to ensuring young people understand what they learn, can apply their learning, can analyse and evaluate and go on to develop the confidence and ability to create for themselves.

China and other Asian countries, in particular, are aware of the need to move away from their over-reliance on memorisation and are taking steps to address the issue.

So the obvious question is:

Why is it that, when the rest of the world has a focus on deepening learning, are we in England swimming against the tide?

Of course we can do better. Of course knowledge is important. However, as the 100 academics stress in their letter, this National Curriculum ‘…will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity’.

The Curriculum Foundation joins in urging ‘parents, teachers and other stakeholders to respond to the Government consultation in its few remaining weeks, and demand a fresh start’.

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National Curriculum Consultation Question 2: Do you agree that instead of detailed subject-level aims we should free teachers to shape their own curriculum aims based on the content in the programmes of study?

This question serves to highlight just how poorly the proposed National Curriculum has been conceptualised. Asking this question also illustrates the absence of any ethical framework underpinning these reforms.

Let’s look at both points.

The authors of the proposed curriculum model, and it is generous to call it a model, have put the cart before the horse. Subjects, with all their ‘vast and inspiring resources’, are there for two reasons. They offer one way to engage in valuable disciplined thinking but they are also there to serve the overall aims of the curriculum.

We make the case, for example, for scientific and historical enquiry by showing how these wonderful subjects help to nurture open-minded citizens who can make informed judgments about what the see, hear and read. We want history to help nurture a sense of belonging and identity not only to the nation but to the wider ‘family of man’. Both these subjects help to show the best and worst of what humans can do and help us realise that we all share one planet and we need to find ways to live together peaceably and fairly.

Having a bigger picture in mind shapes the way in which teachers and learners engage purposefully with the ‘facts and figures’ of the content. Aims reflect the purposes of education and should reflect the deep values and purposes that matter to us a nation and to wider humanity.

Secondly, asking if teachers should be free to shape their own curriculum aims based on the content of the programme of study is problematic for a number of reasons. In the absence of clearly articulated values, aims and purposes, the ‘content in programmes of study’ does not provide any meaningful ethical framework.

Is it OK, for example, for an individual teacher to be free to promote eugenics on the basis of content in science or history? Is it appropriate to use the content that involves the naming of parts of plants or the anatomy of the eye to endorse intelligent design? Is it OK for a teacher, in a curriculum that requires infant children to study the ‘concept of monarchy’, to promote the divine right of kings or the idea that only certain pedigrees should be considered eligible for power?

Teachers should have many freedoms, including elements of content and pedagogies, but these freedoms need to be exercised within a clear ethical framework. It was heartening that previous curriculum models talked about aims, values and purposes in a thoughtful and coherent way. Sentences that

reaffirmed education’s ‘commitment to the virtues of truth, justice, honesty and a sense of duty’ for individuals and society are motivating to educators and offered a form of Hippocratic oath.

The current curriculum framework, and the abandonment of the concept of an entitlement for all children, fails to provide this structure. The lack of overall conceptual integrity and coherence means we will have a fatally flawed curriculum.

A curriculum that allows primary children to learn Mandarin at KS2 but only encounter China in Geography at KS3 simply illustrates that nobody has looked at the curriculum through the eyes of a learner. When taken as a whole, there is little evidence that this curriculum has benefitted from very much intelligent design.

Perhaps if an experienced curriculum designer and educationalist had been put in charge of this review,  we may have had a much more coherent set of proposals.

Curriculum completists may wish to read HMI’s document ‘The Curriculum from 5 -16’. It was written in 1985, is still brilliant and has been completely ignored by this and previous administrations.


Please take part in the current consultation that closes on April 16th 2013.  You can find it on the DFE site or click here:


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National Curriculum Consultation Question 1: Do you have any comments on the proposed aims for the National Curriculum as a whole as set out in the framework document?

Question 1: Do you have any comments on the proposed aims for the National Curriculum as a whole as set out in the framework document?

A curriculum that seeks to call itself world-class should begin with aims. The first and most important question a curriculum review should begin with is ‘What are we trying to achieve?’

There has been no public debate about the overall purpose of the curriculum. Why not?

Unless there is clarity, and some democratic consensus, about what a curriculum is seeking to achieve it is impossible to properly consider how a curriculum should be organised. The way learning is designed (its form) should reflect what it is trying to achieve (its function).

The Geographical Association wrote wonderfully about this in a former review when they said “Let us finish with the traditional school curriculum in which subjects are served up as ends in themselves. Let us dig deeper and use subjects as the vast and inspiring resources they are for serving the educational goals we value.”

In previous reviews undertaken by educational experts there has been such a debate. For example, you might examine the ‘Futures Challenge’ undertaken by the former QCA as part of the preparation for the last Secondary review. (Now quietly hidden away in the National Archive see ). You might also look at the work on aims undertaken by the Cambridge Primary Review or by the Rose Review.

In these reviews there was widespread public debate. For example a whole series of booklets produced by QCA captured the views of employers, parents, teachers, pupils and subject associations. One booklet, titled ‘1000 Words to Shape the Future’ received contributions from more than 56 different organisations including submissions from organisations as diverse as the Institute of Directors, Youth Justice Board, Amnesty International and the Girls’ School Association.

The current review has enjoyed no such public debate and does not seem to have looked to nurture any sort of democratic consensus. In fact, questions are still being asked about the authorship of a number of the programmes of study.

This current review asks us to learn lessons from high performing jurisdictions. Take a look at the aims and vision from countries, such as Singapore, Finland and New Zealand. It is possible to see how the organisation of subject content and guidance on learning reflect the wider aims.

In addition to setting out essential subject knowledge these curricula indicate how, in order to achieve the aims, children are also entitled to learning that nurtures skills and positive attitudes.  They also indicate that this is sometimes achieved, dare we say it, through interdisciplinary and thematic work as well as subject specialist teaching.

If you have time take a look at:

Finland: Integration and cross-curricular themes at

Or Singapore’s Desired Outcomes for Education at

You may notice that the Singapore outcomes are remarkably similar to the aims proposed by Sir Jim Rose. Ah! but that was a curriculum framework (as opposed to a detailed syllabus) that was built on the evidence from a national debate, widespread participation and was developed by and with teachers…  and, of course, took place under a different political party.

I hope you will all participate in the National Consultation that closes on April 16th 2013.


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