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.

See http://tinyurl.com/cz62xyw

Please take part in the current consultation that closes on April 16th 2013.  You can find it on the DFE site or click here: http://tinyurl.com/c9n66hu


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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 http://tinyurl.com/bt4pxs6 ). 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 http://www.oph.fi/download/47675_POPS_net_new_2.pdf

Or Singapore’s Desired Outcomes for Education at http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/desired-outcomes/

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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It’s not new. It’s not national. And it’s not even a curriculum.

As autumn drifts into winter we are presumably nearing the point at which the ‘full public consultation on the revised drafts which will start towards the end of this year’ should have begun. This was promised when the new national curriculum primary proposals were first unveiled, although the DfE website now suggests it will be early next year. So, before the consultation gets underway, we examine the ‘new National Curriculum’ starting point.

Do you remember a jokey television advertisement for a drink called “Red Rock Cider”?  It ended with the punch line, delivered deadpan to camera by ‘Naked Gun’ actor, Leslie Nielsen, “Red Rock Cider.  It’s not red, and it has no rocks in it”.

It is hard to escape that advertisement coming to mind when you think of Michael Gove’s new national curriculum.  In fact, Gove has taken it one step further, so perhaps the tagline should be:

The New National Curriculum.  It’s not new.  It’s not national.  And it’s not

even a curriculum.



It’s not new

It’s not new because it appears to have sprung from a ‘folk memory’ of some idealised version of what went on in schools in the 1950s. It is consistent with the view that things were somehow much better then, and if only pupils would stand up when teachers entered a room, then things would be much better now.  It ignores the fact that after some decades of this approach, the adult literacy programme in the late 1970’s had to deal with over two million illiterate adults in England.

It does not seem to take account of changes in technology or society since then, or the rapidly increasing knowledge base.  As the sum total of human knowledge is said to be doubling every five years, the curriculum cannot stand still.  The world we are preparing young people for is very different now.  People used to come out of school and into traditional jobs in industries such as manufacturing, mining, construction or agriculture, and then do that job in pretty much the same way for the rest of their lives.  The Michael Gove version of learning may well have prepared young people adequately for such a static world (apart from not teaching two million of them to read and write).  In those days, one set of knowledge would last a lifetime.

However, the world is now very different place.  If young people are lucky enough to get a job at all, they are likely to change that job frequently during their lifetime.  They need to be equipped not only with a set of knowledge, but with a set of skills that will enable them to apply that knowledge in new situations and to continuously refresh their knowledge set.  They need a curriculum that will enable them to become lifelong learners, flexible, adaptable and resilient in a changing situation.  They need a curriculum that enables them to think critically, solve problems and work together in teams.  These are the skills that employers demand.  And, interestingly, the application of knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving are the skills that are tested by PISA.

And, of course, education is not just to prepare young people for employment.  But it is not just employment that has changed over the last fifty years; social life is very different too.  Who would have thought, fifty years ago, that young people’s main form of social intercourse would be through a hand-held electronic device?

It’s not national

It’s not national because it is not going to apply to all schools.  Academies and free schools are to be exempted, and now that over half of secondary schools are academies, the national curriculum is no longer national.  Perhaps we should coin a new name that better describes a curriculum that applies only to those state schools that have not opted to change their status.

People who subscribe to the conspiracy view of history suggest that Michael Gove has come up with such an odd, narrow and unappealing set of learning deliberately to encourage more schools to opt for academy status.  We could end up with a national curriculum that applies to only a small minority of schools – or to none at all!

And it’s not even a curriculum

There is a difference between a curriculum and a syllabus.  And there is a further difference between a syllabus and a scheme of work.  The Michael Gove ‘programmes of study’ are much closer to a syllabus or a scheme of work.  They do not constitute a curriculum.

Since its inception in 1989, the English national curriculum has set a broad framework of learning, and has left schools to devise their own schemes of work to turn this framework into learning experiences for their pupils.  Examination Boards have been responsible for turning the framework into syllabuses leading to qualifications.

The new programmes of study have gone way beyond this, and contain a level of detail that has never been prescribed before in this country.  Which is odd when schools were promised more freedom and flexibility.

In going into such a level of detail, the programmes of study miss the essential feature of a curriculum, which is to provide a structure of how learning fits together.  There is no structure here showing how aims are to be achieved, how knowledge will be set in a conceptual context, or how the different parts will come together to produce deeper understanding.

It’s not new, it’s not national, and it’s not even a curriculum.  Red Rock Cider may not have been red, and may have lacked rocks – but it least it was cider!

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Not A Good Summer For The Curriculum 2 – School Sport

The news in early summer was dominated by all the pre-Olympic excitement, counter-balanced with very British concern and speculation over what might go wrong. Who could possibly have foreseen (a) that it would all go so very well and (b) that this success would lead to state school sport taking such a battering from leading political figures?


With Team GB excelling itself (3rd place; 29 golds; 65 medals) and the feel good factor having such a positive impact on the spirit of the nation, here was a chance for our elected leaders to celebrate the nation’s success and to join Mo Farah in thanking PE teachers for all their hard work, skill and dedication. 


We saw the daily pictures of the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London who were clearly very keen to associate themselves with our sporting success. However, not only did they fail to give credit to those who devote their working lives to inspiring our young sportsmen and women, they subjected state school sport to sustained criticism. 


There was even, from the PM, a stipulation that the new National Curriculum will require all primary school pupils to engage in competitive sport (as well as a mocking side swipe at Indian dance). Boris Johnson showed his level of understanding of the maintained school curriculum by proposing his old Eton model of two hours of sport per day, despite the fact that his own party dropped the requirement for schools to provide two hours per week


So how could Team GB’s success at the Olympics possibly have provided a platform for condemnation of state school sport?


The trigger seems to have been reports of statistics relating to the balance of Olympians from the public and state school sectors. However, unsurprisingly, the quality of the analysis and the conclusions drawn left much to be desired. The logic seems to have been that since a high proportion of Olympic medallists came from public schools, state sector sport must be deficient and state school teachers must be culpable. Interestingly, the proportion fell as the games went on, the balance of events shifted and Team GB’s tally included more medals from cycling, athletics and boxing  (see state school v public school Olympians blog).


The next stage in the criticism of state provision was the attempt to explain the disparity in terms of commitment to competitive sport. Competitive team sports have, of course, always been central to the ethos of public schools and the PM was quick to spotlight one of his favourite soap box issues, namely that state schools have a ‘prizes for all’ philosophy and fail to develop any competitive spirit in their young people


There was some, but very little, attempt by the media to explore the truth behind this simplistic analysis. Rather than questioning the validity of these conclusions, the focus was almost entirely on how to deal with these ‘problems’.


Comparing Like With Like


Those of us with experience of school sport know that comparing provision in the two sectors is a classic case, if ever there was one, of the absence of a level playing field (sincere apologies for that – resistance was useless). There are a number of reasons for this.


Regardless of their subject specialisms, teachers in the private sector are normally expected to double as sports teachers / coaches, at least on a Wednesday afternoon, when almost the entire UK senior public school population is engaged in (mostly competitive) sport. Public sector sports teachers can only dream of the resources and the acreage of playing fields required for such a high proportion of the school population to be involved in sport simultaneously. Even prior to playing field sell-offs, few state schools could compare their provision with that of their public sector colleagues.


One of the reasons behind public schools’ allocation of so much time to sport lies in the boarding tradition. Boarding house masters and mistresses have long appreciated the benefits of having exhausted their charges with strenuous exercise before lights out. Although the proportion of day students in public schools has risen over the years, daily and week-end sport has largely retained its high profile. Presumably it was in these sessions at the end of the school day that Boris honed his Eton Wall Game skills (and possibly where he perfected the head butt to the stomach he famously deployed in the charity soccer match against the Germans in 2006).


When it comes to the most resource-heavy sports, there is, of course, no comparison between the two sectors. The level of investment required for rowing and sailing equipment and access to rivers or other bodies of water put these sports far beyond the reach of almost all state schools. Olympic equestrian sports remain almost exclusively the preserve of those whose parents are wealthy enough to own horses, to meet all the associated expense and, of course, to send their children to public school. The balance of provision of a number of other Olympic sports also lies predominantly in public schools including hockey, archery, fencing and tennis. With rugby sevens and golf joining the list of Olympic sports in 2016, there is likely to be a rise in the proportion of public school Olympians in our Rio Team GB. The state school v public school Olympians blog shows the 2012 proportions in our medal sports.


These differences between the state and private sectors are well known and will not be news to anyone with any knowledge of school sport. What is remarkable is the way that the comparative figures led straight to political sound bites critical of state school sport without any acknowledgement of the diversity of opportunity and of the established routes through which sportsmen and women reach the top in different disciplines. 


For all these reasons, in a wide range of Olympic sports, Team GB representatives are extremely unlikely to come from public sector schools. Team GB fans did not seem to mind, cheering every success and, indeed, every competitor. Perhaps a more appropriate focus for our political leaders would have been to celebrate the diversity and the unity of Team GB.


Competitive Sport in State Schools


Games teachers across the country, whose lives often revolve around the complexities of organising and fulfilling home and away fixtures in all seasons (and weathers) alongside a full teaching timetable, were perplexed by the PM’s blanket statements about the absence of competitive games in their schools.  


Primary schools often operate a policy of introducing the youngest children to sport in such a way that they are all encouraged to enjoy taking part. Competitive sports are rightly introduced gradually in an effort to develop a love of sport and exercise in all and to ensure that competitive sport is seen in this context. As the wonderful Jessica Ennis said when asked about competitive sport in her post gold medal interview, “You have to get them interested first”.


Getting the balance right with respect to competitive and non-competitive sport in schools is certainly not easy. Some facts are indisputable:


•There are far too many people in this country who rarely or never take exercise 

•There is too much obesity 

•Many people are put off sport for life by their experience of school sport 

•Something needs to be done to address these issues

•Schools are part of the solution


To what extent the nation’s ill health results from a negative experience of competitive sport, however, is not clear. What is also unclear is the intended outcome of the Prime Minister’s intervention in the primary National Curriculum. His statements to the press seemed to suggest that his focus was competitiveness. 


Perhaps, now that the heat of the Olympic summer is past, the PM will take time to explain what he was hoping to achieve and why he feels he has the knowledge and experience to make curriculum policy in such haste and without consulting experts in the fields of education and sport. Otherwise people may think that he feels it is right for elected politicians to dictate the curriculum to suit their own ideology. 


How dangerous would that be?





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Not A Good Summer For The Curriculum 1 – GCSE Results

In a normal year there are two certainties about the English summer: the weather will be disappointingly cool and there will be a heated debate about GCSEs getting easier after the results show another small improvement.


Thousands of students, their parents, teachers and Headteachers would all be much happier if 2012 was a normal year, not to mention AQA, Ofqual and politicians of all parties.


At the time of writing the issue has been headline news for nearly a fortnight, rare indeed for an education story, and the indications are that it will continue to run for some considerable time yet.


Much has been said and written since results day but there are some obvious truths:


  • It is fundamentally unfair to change criteria part way through a course so that students in the same cohort receive different grades depending on the date they sat the exam.
  • Ofqual’s response (their admission that they got it wrong in January and their assertion that everything was fine in June) is bizarre. They have made a bold attempt to defend the indefensible but in doing so have brought their credibility into question.
  • It is hard to believe this is not a case of ‘hyper-correction’ (i.e adjusting the outcome of the entire exam after marking of the final module) to ensure a match with the desired normal distribution curve.
  • When students and their teachers embark on a course believing there are criteria against which success will be judged, exam boards should be obliged to keep their part of the bargain.
  • What has happened is wrong and grade boundaries should be re-set to their original levels.
  • There are bigger issues about the examination system but these need to be tackled methodically and they cannot be properly addressed in this haphazard fashion.


One of the biggest issues, and one with major implications for the curriculum, is the question of whether our examination system should be norm or criterion referenced.


Fittingly in this Olympic year, Dr Brian Male draws on athletics for an analogy. In 1954 one man in the world could run a four minute mile whereas there are now many thousands who can do so. Should we maintain the distance and time criteria and accept that people are now better at running than they were back then? Alternatively, should we take a norm referencing approach and lengthen minutes or miles so that we maintain the 1954 one man standard?


In a norm referenced system, instead of an A* standard we have an A* percentage of the cohort and, of course, the same applies to all the other grades. Every teacher’s judgement about the standard of a student’s work should carry the rider ‘depending on the performance of others in schools across the country’.


As has been pointed out by a number of commentators, annual rises in examination outcomes should not be guaranteed, but equally they should not be ruled out by rigid adherence to statistical application of a normal distribution curve. If we can accept that there have been dramatic improvements in performance in athletics, surely we can conceive that academic performance might also improve.


In the short term, this year’s cohort of GCSE candidates needs to be treated justly. Rightly, there have always been surprises, positive and negative, in terms of the outcomes of individual candidates but downgrading on such a scale at the key stroke of an exam board statistician cannot be right.


In the long term, we need a curriculum in which the nation can have confidence. Students and parents need to know that hard work will be rewarded according to performance against clear criteria rather than through comparative statistical analysis. Teachers and Headteachers need to be sure that they know the position of the goalposts is fixed, at least for the duration of each examination course.


A nation with an achievement culture would surely establish a system which encourages a higher proportion of students to achieve higher grades, as long as this is aligned with improved learning. Rigour is about ensuring standards are demanding which is not the same as setting predetermined proportions of successful learners.


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Today’s Lecture…..Talking Down (to) the Education Profession

Perhaps journalism and politics do not provide the best preparation for anyone finding themselves in charge of the nation’s education system.

Both politics and journalism are professions that tend to cultivate mindsets inclined to present almost everything as a clash between two competing views.

Journalists and broadcasters like to look for opposing voices because conflict makes for drama.  And drama makes for good copy and compelling TV.

Similarly, locking party political horns on every issue is the main mode of discourse for politicians. Rarely does a debate in the house appear as a quest for understanding or a search for a truth that might be nuanced, multifaceted or even uncertain. We are usually presented with simple soundbites and encouraged to take sides.

Everything is presented as a contest between two opposites. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the current Education Secretary’s approach to curriculum reform.

Time and time again it appears that those with different views to his own are marginalised. Expert groups that fail to tell him what he wants to hear are brought to an end.  Advisory groups are packed with like-minded people. One only has to look at the level of representation from Civitas and The Prince’s Teaching Institute engaged with the current review to appreciate the partial perspectives shaping the proposals.

Link to list of those consulted about primary programmes of study:


Worse still, those educators with a different perspective, many of them dedicated professionals who have committed their working lives to serving others, are dismissed as ‘Trots’ or ‘apologists for low standards.’ Incredibly, or perhaps simply because he selects his audiences for such offensive remarks, he has not been taken to task.

Recently Mr Gove has targeted Governors by dubbing them ‘local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status and not a job of work.’ While not caring whom he upsets has earned Mr Gove some respect, there can be few who fail to recognise the lack of sound reasoning behind this ‘the only way is my way’ bulldozer strategy.

So here are some obvious (nuanced) truths about the curriculum for Mr Gove.

Just because you want more emphasis on knowledge does not mean you have to dismiss those educators who believe that developing skills and attitudes are equally important to children.

Just because you want to support the use of phonics doesn’t mean that you have to marginalise other approaches, such as word recognition, contextual clueing and the use of real books to nurture a love of language.

Just because you want more subject specific teaching doesn’t mean you need to undermine all the creativity, meaning and purpose that can flow from inter-disciplinary and thematic projects.

Just because it is challenging to assess more authentic expressions of capability through coursework does not mean that everything has to be reduced to pencil and paper tests.

Just because you want more people taking science or a language doesn’t mean you have to reduce the opportunities for those with a passion for design and making or expressing themselves through the arts.

Education is about rising above the debilitating effect of narrow polarised arguments. To be educated is about having a broader perspective, the ability to put oneself into the shoes of others. It is about having the wit and wisdom to recognise that the more you learn, the more you discover how much more there is to know.

We desperately need an open and balanced education debate. We need a little more humility from policy makers. We need them to listen and not just to a partisan few. We need evidence-based education policy.

What we do not need is a lecture.

Have your say about the new curriculum reforms when the DfE consultation opens ‘later in the year’. In the meantime, we would welcome your comments here.

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