NC01: Memorandum submitted by Professor Stephen Gorard
· The principle of equal entitlement underlying the National Curriculum is valuable. This should not be discarded without a clear evidence-based (or equally principle-based) alternative.
· The National Curriculum is part of a historical trend, following 1994 and 1965, towards equity in theory, organisation and then process for the delivery of state-funded education.
· It helps pupil and teacher mobility, helps minimise geographical, social and economic disparities between schools, and so leads to a more equal education system than in many international comparators.
· A major objective of state-funded education is to minimise the link between socio-economic background and life chances. We are currently reasonably close to this objective in the sense that most schools are equivalent (despite increasingly wayward attempts to portray them as radically different), and the National Curriculum is a part of this.
· Pupils in England and Wales have higher aspirations, more trust in society, a greater willingness for those in difficulty to be helped, and a general sense of equity, than pupils in other European Countries. The National Curriculum set within a comprehensive system could be a key part of this.
· In modelling the determinants of aspiration, for example, the school mix and the pupil's experience of others at school is a major factor. In statistical terms it is as important as family and social background, explaining around half of the variation in outcomes.
· A range of recent measures, including specialist schools and the use of CVA for 'performance' monitoring, have led to a shift away from the principle of equal entitlement underlying the National Curriculum.
· Changing the National Curriculum, by expanding entitlement to vocational and generic study for example, does not destroy its underlying principle.
· However, ethically we should have a very good reason and scientific evidence of impact before going any further to interrupt the late twentieth century trend towards an enviable, while imperfect, equity in the UK education system.
Why retain a National Curriculum?
The National Curriculum was unpopular with many commentators and practitioners on its introduction, partly due to the political ideology attributed to its origins and partly due to its associations with contemporaneous reforms concerning school choice and the testing regime of SATs. In retrospect, however, it can be seen as a natural and perhaps almost inevitable further step towards truly comprehensive schooling. Where the 1944 Education Act created free universal schooling, and Circular 10/65 moved that schooling away from selection, the Education Reform Act 1988 began the creation of a school structure that was not merely comprehensive in organisation but was also comprehensive in nature and process (Gorard, Taylor and Fitz 2003). Subsequent legislation from the 1998 School Standard and Framework Act onward has attempted to make provision of schooling and allocation of school places fairer, but it is perhaps these three earlier steps that have defined the nature of UK (and specifically English) compulsory education. Everyone was entitled to a place at school, that place should not be allocated on the basis of ability or ability to pay, and it would not matter where one lived in the country because the provision should be equivalent in all areas. This is part of what the National Curriculum has achieved. It is part of the reason that social, economic and regional stratification of pupils is lower in England than in developed countries such as Austria or Germany which have pupil tracking, lower than in countries such as Belgium or the Netherlands which have much less state control of schools, and why pupils' experience of equality and justice in school is greater even than in countries such as France in which egalite is considered a paramount principle of public provision (Gorard and Smith 2004a, European Group for Research on Equity in Educational Systems 2005, Gorard and Fitz 2006, Gorard 2007a). An additional, but perhaps less important, consequence of the National Curriculum is that it makes the transfer of both pupils and teachers between schools much easier.
One of the main reasons that developed countries have universal, free, compulsory education for the young is that without it access to knowledge, skills, and advancement would be more clearly a product of the 'accident' of birth. Maintained schools are meant to help break the link between an individual's family or socio-economic background and their access to learning opportunities. One indication of the success of an education system would be that it made little difference which school a pupil attended (Gorard 2007b). And this is what research indicates is happening, in general, in England and indeed in most developed countries with non-tracked school systems (Gorard and Smith 2004b, Gorard 2006b, Gorard 2008a). In terms of examination results, around 80 to 100% of the variation between schools is attributable to variations in the pupil intakes of those schools. The variation is caused by regional disparities in population figures, differential access to transport and the socially segregated nature of much of England's housing. Thus, the intakes to schools are not completely balanced in terms of prior attainment or SES. Around one third of pupils from families living in poverty would have to be exchanged between schools for all schools to have the same proportion as each other, for example. The imbalance in school intakes almost completely explains the imbalance in outcomes. The remaining 0 to 20% of variation in outcomes would have to include serendipity, patterns of entry to examination, and lack of comparability between subjects, boards and modes, plus gender imbalances, errors in measurement and marking, mis-specification of the statistical models and missing data (among other things). Therefore, to a very real extent, it does not matter in examination terms which maintained school a pupil attends. Note that this is very different to saying that it makes no difference to go to school as opposed to not going to school. Rather it means that within a free, universal, compulsory system, almost equally funded per pupil with national standards for teachers (QTS) and testing (SATs) it makes almost no difference which of these schools a pupil attends. The National Curriculum is currently (or historically) a key part of this clear equivalence between schools.
The equality of England's schools, though not much talked about or celebrated, has become part of the culture to such an extent that England stands out in international comparisons for the attitude of its pupils. Pupils in England are more likely to want all pupils treated equally, but are also happy for those struggling to be given extra attention. And, overall, this is what they report experiencing in their own school. Pupils in other European countries are less likely to express support for equal treatment and are also more likely to report that preferential treatment is shown towards high attainers (Gorard and Smith 2004b, Gorard 2007c). Internationally, the impact of schools on what pupils think and their future aspirations and their trust of wider society is much greater than the differential impact of schools on examination outcomes. Socially mixed schools are associated with greater aspirations among those from less prestigious occupational backgrounds, greater post-compulsory participation in education and training and, if meta-analyses are to be believed, with marginally better examination outcomes anyway (Gorard and Selwyn 2005a, 2005b, Gorard and Smith 2007). Again, the National Curriculum is currently part of this culture of equity, which is almost unique to England.
Of course, the National Curriculum is likely to have opportunity costs as well as benefits. And of course, none of the above is necessarily dependent on the National Curriculum remaining the same over time - it is the ideal of a common entitlement to schooling and equivalence between all maintained schools that is probably key to the advantages listed. The argument above does not suggest that the previous or current mix of subjects is the right one, or indeed that it should be academic in nature as opposed to vocational, generic, or to do with personal development. But it is irresponsible to try and undermine this historical progress since 1944 without clear evidence that the gains in changing it outweigh what we might lose.
The trend from 1965 was towards uniformity of provision and from 1988 towards less social and economic stratification between schools. Since 1997 both of these trends have been interrupted and even reversed to some extent. Specialist schools have undone the clear idea of equivalent treatment underlying the National Curriculum provision, for example. And they do so with no clear gain in terms of attainment. Quality and equality are conjoined to some extent, so that specialism which is equivalent to inequality was unlikely to lead to increased quality. Specialist schools were merely selected and self-selected on the basis of pre-existing provision and then given preferential funding on the basis of a mythical local area concentration of pupil aptitude in one curriculum subject. Similar arguments apply to faith-based schools, and of course to the remaining grammar schools (Taylor, Gorard and Fitz 2005). In fact, most of the school diversification since 1997 is associated with increased stratification of provision with no overall gain on attainment (Gorard 2005). They are all zero-sum or worse in their impact. The recent introduction of contextualised value-added measures (which are flawed both in theory and in practice) is perhaps the most symbolic component of the attempted destruction of the comprehensive ideal (Gorard 2006a, 2008b). By using the family and socio-economic origin of pupils in its calculation, CVA now makes it impossible to discern whether and to what extent maintained schools are meeting their key objective of breaking the link between pupil origin and outcomes. A more retrograde step for the ideal of equity in education it would be hard to imagine - except perhaps the complete abolition of the ideal of equal entitlement for all as operationalised in the National Curriculum.
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