A contemptuous and contemptible curriculum?

By Professor Colin Richards, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Cumbria

In setting such an outrageously short and deliberately ill-timed deadline for responding to his latest attempt at producing a 1950s-type curriculum Michael Gove has treated the teaching profession with contempt. He clearly does not want a considered professional response informed by consultation with a range of interested parties. His dismissal of the many objections to his previous curriculum efforts, whether voiced by practitioners, by professional associations or by members of what he derides as the academic “blob”, is equally contemptuous. To my mind the most appropriate response for those tempted to comment on each of the DfE’s thirteen (unlucky for some?) consultation questions might be an equally contemptuous “no comment”!

Everyone, including the Secretary of State, agrees that the curriculum is important. But that is the total extent of agreement about the curriculum in a democratic society. The curriculum is inevitably contentious. There has, however, to be a consensus for a national curriculum to be produced at all but a consensus has to be sought, worked for, and worked through. That has not happened. That consensus needs to start with a statement setting out the aims of English state education and from that a framework curriculum providing an outline entitlement for all children and young people in whatever type of state school can be devised. But that takes time, goodwill and understanding of educational complexities – none of which characterise the Secretary of State, his advisers and, presumably, many of his officials.

There is something very peculiar about this particular national curriculum. To begin with, of course, it’s not “national” – academies and free schools are exempt, as is the rest of the United Kingdom. Then it can’t be all that valuable or essential otherwise it would be mandatory. It’s scarcely a fully worked-out curriculum - more a series of syllabuses embroidered with high-sounding subject aims only having a passing resemblance to the content, especially in the primary core subjects. Yet again, it has emerged in a peculiar fashion from a secretive approach managed by DfE civil servants and involving an unrepresentative group of so-called “experts”. It is also illegal in certain respects. The Education Reform Act of 1988 which is still on the statute book specifically prohibits the Secretary of State from prescribing teaching methodology, though this has now been smuggled into the current proposals for primary English and mathematics in the guise of synthetic phonics and formal written methods for multiplication and addition. Finally the curriculum has been developed independently from a review of assessment policy. The link between statutory end of key stage assessments including national curriculum tests and this curriculum is not worked through. This artificial separation of curriculum and assessment is fundamentally unsound . The government’s whole approach to curriculum reform feels, and is, all very ad hoc and  amateurish  - more a “notional” rather than a “national” curriculum. I can’t believe many other countries, especially our much-quoted “competitors”, produce their curricula in this secretive, cack-handed “back of the envelope” fashion!

Despite the pleas of those many respondents arguing for the importance of both skills and content this triply revised curriculum remains content-dominated. Its first aim is` to provide “pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens” – an aim whose wording has been retained intact from previous drafts.  Drawing on a phrase of Matthew Arnold HMI but used in a context of which he would have thoroughly disapproved, the government intends to introduce pupils to the “best of what has been thought and said” - presumably brooking no contemporary re-interpretation, let alone, challenge by contemporary students, teachers or academics. As the last of its stated aims the national curriculum is supposed to foster an appreciation of human creativity and achievement but the content of the various syllabi (especially in history) reveal a very skewed view of whose creativity and whose achievements are to count.

Compared with its immediate predecessor some relatively minor changes have been made, largely, though not entirely, as a result of specialist subject lobbies. The programmes of study for design and technology have been given a Dyson-type “spring clean” and now include a broader range of industrial applications and higher-level technical skills. History is somewhat less wedded to chronology and to a “little Englander” view and does not require quite such a scamper through the ages at Key Stage 2. As a token (but in reality unrealistic?) gesture schools will have a “free” choice of second language study in Key Stage 2. Most importantly the primary English programmes of study include a new section on spoken language skills but this is dwarfed in length (and presumed importance?) by the massively detailed sections devoted to reading and writing. All in all these relatively minor changes are to be welcomed as long as that welcome is not a substitute for reasoned, fundamental criticism of the curriculum package as a whole.

Structurally the re-re-revised curriculum is identical to its predecessors. The national curriculum is still described in terms of the same twelve subjects with the exception of ICT, now renamed “computing”.  The “light-touch” nature of the secondary proposals, largely welcome, is retained from its predecessor. Secondary teachers are to be mercifully free from tight prescription, at least in key stage three but not necessarily in key stage 4 given the government’s examination reforms.

However, their primary colleagues are clearly not being trusted to “deliver” (note the term) the so-called but mis-named “basics”. Tellingly all the much more contentiously detailed content specifications for the primary core subjects have been retained despite the wide-ranging criticism they have received from many primary sector organisations and groups.  Of the 212 pages spelling out the aims and content of the programmes of study 154 (73%) are devoted to key stages 1 and 2; 19 pages only relate to key stages 3 and, to a lesser extent, 4..  Of the 154 pages devoted to the primary curriculum a massive 92% relate to English and mathematics and, to a lesser extent, science. This hyper-specification which includes a multitude of facts, rules, statutory spelling lists and details of arithmetic procedures is both highly constraining and out-facing for schools – and with initial implementation only a year away! Because the proposals do  not take due account of how young children  learn or make due allowance for individual differences, their faithful implementation is likely to result in an  increase in the incidence of rote learning or at best only semi-comprehension by children and these risk  giving many young learners a sense of failure leading to progressive disengagement with learning.

Ironically given the massive prescription levelled at primary education, the government continues to parrot the rhetoric that “it is the role of schools and teachers to design and develop a balanced and broadly based wider school curriculum”.  Certainly it is possible to argue that in key stages 1-3 the proposals do constitute a reasonably “broad” curriculum but how can they possibly result in “balance” at the primary stage?  Use of that term does not imply the same amount of time for each and every subject but it does involve value judgements about the importance of subjects and corresponding judgements over time allocations. How much time is likely to be left over for the less tightly prescribed “also-ran” subjects, let alone other aspects of personal education, once content knowledge has been “delivered” in just the three subjects of mathematics, English and science?   Those children from disadvantaged backgrounds who need a broad and balanced curriculum the most are least likely to receive it, given the amount of time schools will feel required to devote to the core subjects to achieve that notional but dubious “mastery” of subject content. Because of the perceived pressures of inspection and testing many schools will feel constrained to follow the yearly or two-yearly syllabuses set out in the specifications for all children of a certain age, irrespective of the latter’s varying degrees  of understanding .  How small schools with two, three or even more year groups in each class will manage remains a curricular mystery. With its plethora of prescription how can the government blithely and blindly claim that “there is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the National Curriculum specifications?” Which alternative universe does Michael Gove inhabit?

The leaders of the professional associations have already roundly criticised the rushed, politically-driven, time-scale for the implementation of the reforms. Michael Gove blithely expects  that, along with professional teaching and subject associations, the government’s cadre of teaching schools and system leaders will play a major part in meeting  the development needs the new curriculum poses but fails to realise that its so-called self-sustaining, self-improving system is still in the process of being built rather than being fully functioning. And there is a further irony. Many of the teaching schools will themselves have become academies, where the writ of the proposed national curriculum does not run.

Another Michael, Michael Oakshott, once referred to “culture” as “the conversation which takes place between the generations of mankind”. A national curriculum, properly conceived, should be a major medium through which that culture is transacted  and that “conversation” between past and present generations takes place. In Michael Gove’s curriculum that “conversation” has become not so much a genuine dialogue between past and present as an arrogant monologue from a minister locked into a 1950s past who ignores present realities and fails to engage with those who think differently. In treating his opponents with contempt, he seems determined to foist his own contemptible curriculum on schools to which he would never consider sending his own children.

Colin Richards