NC09: Memorandum submitted by Geographical Association
1. In principle there should be a national curriculum. There are several reasons for this, but principally all pupils as young citizens should be guaranteed access to a broad and balanced curriculum which will equip them with useful knowledge, understanding, skills and values for future active citizenship.
2. The NC has moved in the right direction since its initial introduction, at which time it was not fit for purpose. Recent reviews have opened up the curriculum to greater flexibility and the deployment of teacher professional expertise, including the flexibility to adapt curriculum structure to individual circumstance, which we support. Early versions of the National Curriculum lacked clear aims and purpose and, even more importantly, articulated too much detail. In effect, the early national curriculum set out to do the local curriculum design job that is better done by teachers in schools (essentially, selecting and arranging the content of what is to be taught). A national curriculum is best conceived as a broad enabling framework, working to broad educational principles; in a democratic society, these principles need to be articulated, open and defensible.
3. One significant pressure on the National Curriculum since 1998 has been the National Strategies. Whereas the National Curriculum provides the curricular framework, the National Strategies seek to provide an underpinning pedagogy. In practice, and despite some achievements, the Strategies have not been effective in supporting the National Curriculum, especially in the primary phase where curriculum planning skills are now weaker and many younger teachers find it difficult to teach creatively outside of the 'core'. They have distorted the notion of 'broad and balanced'. They have reinforced curriculum hierarchies and narrowed the curriculum. The National Strategies have over-emphasised 'pedagogical fixes' and taken teachers' attention away from educational purposes. A classic example of this has been the secondary national strategy encouragement to schools to experiment with a two year Key Stage 3, chiefly on the grounds on acceleration of learning in core subjects. In practice, a two year key stage 3 weakens curriculum entitlement by reducing the access to foundation subjects (less time is available). The National Strategies are over centralised and heavy handed, despite the rhetoric of 'local ownership' since the award of the Strategies contract to Capita in 2005.
4. Much the same can be said of current testing and assessment arrangements, which have privileged attainment in a small number of areas. Whilst we would readily accept the importance of attainment in literacy and numeracy to pupils' long-term life chances, we would argue that much can be gained in this respect by encouraging the foundation subjects (eg geography) - in which pupils learn to marshal complex arguments about difficult questions. This encourages high level literacy skills, but also helps prepare pupils for employment and for the wider responsibilities of adult life. But it takes time and gives emphasis to aspects that are not easily assessed. The priority given to assessment arrangements over curriculum provision has seriously distorted the management and delivery of curriculum.
The primary review reporting this year is an important opportunity to consider the primary curriculum. We hope to see a framework (or range of frameworks) that will encourage disciplined innovation and high expectations in a broad and responsive curriculum; we fear it may over-emphasise 'skills' at the expense of knowledge and understanding. The logic of the argument here is a simple one: children will attain best when they are engaged by a stimulating and varied curriculum, well-taught. Our feedback suggests that primary colleagues would welcome a KS3- style conceptual framework for the subject, so that ways can be devised locally to incorporate appropriate subject knowledge and understanding in to the curriculum
5. Government is rightly concerned about personalisation and new local curriculum flexibilities. Too often, national policy and, indeed schools' own curriculum practices have treated pupils as groups rather than as individuals. However, the rhetoric of personalisation is too often accompanied by a further erosion of the value we place on understanding and knowledge. For this reason, we would argue that the best preparation for the 14-19 Diplomas is a broad and balanced exposure to subject disciplines, which in different ways shape our understandings of the world in which we live. New curriculum flexibilities must not be interpreted as an invitation to drop or reduce schools' commitment to 'humanities' subjects. Personalisation should strive for the realisation of pupils' potential across the full range of curriculum areas: this implies a greater emphasis than at present on teachers' subject knowledge (especially in primary), with implications for initial training and CPD programmes.
6. Policy developments over the last decade have distorted the functioning of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. There is now a case for the creation of a national curriculum institute. The national curriculum institute would act as a research and development centre for the curriculum and would articulate the relationships between centrally-directed entitlement and local curriculum innovation and experimentation. Currently, schools are experimenting with curriculum innovation - both within and outside the national curriculum with almost no framework for either evaluation or the transfer of successful and effective practices.
7. The role of teachers in the future development of the NC is crucial. Teachers need to be trusted far more and provided with more 'think time' so that intellectually they are in a better position to take (back) more responsibility for the curriculum. This chimes well with the PM's ambition for an all Masters profession. Professional networks of all kinds, including subject associations need support and encouragement and teachers/schools need to be members. There are vibrant and successful subject associations, though no obvious framework (yet) within which they can collaborate. More critically, because of the dominance of the national strategies and the assessment regime, too little attention has been given to supporting teachers' engagement with what to teach and other fundamental issues of curriculum.
8. Three aspects of debate are of particular importance in the future; they are to do with the purposes of the curriculum, with learners' entitlement, and with who should decide what is in the school curriculum.