NC20: Memorandum submitted by New Vision Group's sub group on the aims of the Curriculum

 

Summary of main points.

There should be a National Curriculum Framework to structure the curriculum. This submission makes a clear distinction between a National Curriculum and a Curriculum Framework (see section 1.ii).

The current framework supports an inflexible and highly prescriptive curriculum that is test-driven and directed towards 'human capital' production, to the relative neglect of other purposes of education (see section 2.i).

There is a need for a new framework that supports the development of a less prescriptive and more flexible National Curriculum by opening up a space for teachers' to play a more generative role in curriculum planning and development at both the school and local area levels.

A new Framework should support whole person development for every child through a Wholistic Curriculum, which balances the economic, moral and cultural purposes of education (see section 2.iii-x).

Policymakers and citizens in this country have been slow to acknowledge that the distinction between 'academic' and 'vocational' curriculum content is now largely redundant. The issue at stake is no longer that of 'parity of esteem' but of how to create curriculum experiences that bring the different purposes of education - economic, moral and cultural - into a harmonious relation. The task of a new National Curriculum Framework would be to provide guidance in this respect for curriculum planning and development (see section 2.iv-vii).

A new Framework should provide a unified view of the different purposes outlined. We would argue that they should reflect and promote the democratic values by which we live as members of society i.e. promote the freedom of individuals to make informed choices of life style, equal opportunities to live lives they have reason to value, and a socially just distribution of educational goods. This implies that the over-riding purpose of education is to enable all pupils to choose a way of life they value and have reason to value (see section 2.vii).

A new Framework should emphasise the importance of a curriculum that enlarges the space of learning for all pupils, thereby expanding rather than narrowing the range and variety of the things they are capable of doing. It should also increasingly, over time, support the development of a capability to engage in evaluative reasoning as a basis for constructing a chosen way of life. The current 'policy talk' about the need for more personalised learning appears to be highlighting the importance of such a capability in the context of the 14-19 Curriculum (see section 2. vii, but also section 4.v).

Moreover, a new Framework should prevent policy makers from conceptualising the production of 'human capital' in ways that are quite dysfunctional in 'knowledge intensive' economies; namely, conceiving it in terms of discrete functional skills or 'competencies' that are abstracted from forms of appreciative experience. The capabilities required to augment production processes in 'knowledge intensive' economies are not discrete, mechanical skills that can be routinely applied to stock situations. Rather they are combinations of different elements - knowledge, skills, and dispositions - that are shaped by the requirement to exercise discernment and intelligent judgement in particular kinds of complex and unpredictable situations (see section 2.x).

The guidance provided by a new National Curriculum Framework should take the form of setting broad curriculum aims and procedural principles (rather than rules) for realising the aims in practice in ways that are sensitive to context (see section 2.xi for the different kinds of principles to be specified in the Framework, and section 2.xii-xv for examples of each kind).

The new Framework proposed would need to set realistic time-scales for the development of a new National Curriculum. We are of the opinion that a 10 year lead-in time would be required to allow for school initiated curriculum development, experimentation, formation of collaborative arrangements between teachers, their schools and local and national groups of stake-holders. Current time-scales have been too fast to allow for such change processes to develop (see section 2.xvi). However, in order to maintain motivation and commitment to change, and provide a consistent direction to the reform process, the Framework should also outline staged intermediate goals and time-scales for completing different aspects of the curriculum planning and development process (see section 2.xvii).

The government should set up a National Forum or Standing Education Commission to identify the aims of the National Curriculum and a broad framework of values and principles to guide curriculum planning and development at national and local/regional level (see section 3.ii).

The proposed Forum/Commission would have an independent voice from government and while engaging with the world of politicians will also preserve a sense of distance from it. Only in this way will curriculum continuity be protected from disruptive discontinuities caused by changes of personnel in government and indeed changes of government (see section 3.iii).

The proposed Forum/Commission would consist of individuals drawn from different walks of life who are known for their ideas and achievements in civil society. Although they would be drawn from a cross-section of society the members of the Forum would be publicly appointed rather than delegated by different stakeholder groups to represent their interests. In this way the Forum would be detached from the power politics of special interest groups (see section 3.iv).

It would be the responsibility of the proposed Forum/Commission to specify implementation stages for the reforms, and to continuously monitor and review the Curriculum Framework's fitness-for-purpose by commissioning independent and national evaluation studies of curriculum development programmes that would report at the end of each stage (see section 3.ii).

The proposed Commission/Forum should have responsibility for issuing guidance, based on commissioned research, about the implications of the National Curriculum Framework for organisational practices in schools (see section 3.v).

Section 4 of the report addresses specific issues concerning the management of the National Curriculum (see section 3). The other specific issues raised by the Committee are dealt with in sections I and 2.

 

 

1. Should there be a National Curriculum?

i. Objections to a National Curriculum are likely to stem from teachers', childrens' and parents' experience of the prescriptive and inflexible nature of the present curriculum in spite of attempts to make it less so. The problem resides in a framework that is structured around targets, detailed content objectives, and attainment levels for the purposes of testing at different key stages and constructing school league tables. A National Curriculum Framework does not have to be test-driven. On the contrary we are of the view that assessment methods should be shaped by the curriculum. A National Curriculum Framework should be there, not to support the testing regime, but to control testing at all levels of accountability. It should make it difficult for teachers to simply 'teach for the tests' at different Key Stages.

 

ii. A clear distinction needs to be drawn between a National Curriculum and a National Curriculum Framework. In the context of the current National Curriculum there is a Framework whose key elements are a core test-led curriculum, subject-based learning targets, and attainment levels. This Framework has shaped a centrally planned, highly prescriptive and inflexible curriculum in the form of detailed programmes of study that specify the learning content and the learning tasks to be performed in relation to it in the light of pre-specified content objectives. The curriculum was designed to guarantee the delivery of standards as defined by Key Stage tests and GCSE results. However, its critics have pointed to the fact that the claim of government to have improved standards via the National Curriculum appears to have been undermined by increasing levels of pupil disaffection that has spread down the Key Stages as a result of its prescriptive and inflexible nature.

 

iii. There should be a National Curriculum Framework, but one that is structured very differently to the present Framework. The new framework should support the development of a less prescriptive and more flexible National Curriculum by opening up a space for teachers' to play a more generative role in curriculum planning and development at both the school and local area levels. This would include space for more 'assessment for learning' i.e. teachers'-based assessment, which is curriculum-led and takes the form of formative feed-back to pupils on their progress in learning. Such a framework would enable teachers to be more responsive to the learning needs of their students and thereby reduce current levels of disaffection from learning. This implies a reduction in the amount of time and resources devoted at the level of the classroom and school to meeting the requirements for 'high stakes' testing across the Key Stages. A New Framework should sanction teachers having more control over how and when particular content is taught (e.g. mathematical and scientific content could be organised in terms of themes rather than subjects), and over the assessment process.

 

2. How can fitness-for-purpose of the National Curriculum be improved?

i. The new Curriculum Framework should be open to a broader conception of the purposes of education. The current National Framework supports a centrally controlled curriculum that is largely geared towards the government engineering the production of 'human capital' (abilities that have high commodity value in labour markets) in order to satisfy the national economic growth imperative. The new framework should portray children as more than 'economic subjects' who's human flourishing and well being depends solely on their income levels and capacities for consumption.

 

ii. The framework should support whole person development for every child through a Wholistic Curriculum that balances the economic, moral and cultural purposes of education.

 

iii The moral purposes of education will be concerned with developing children's capabilities to empathise with an increasing diversity of individuals and groups - extending their sense of we - and thereby to engage in practices that contribute to the well being and human flourishing of others in a range and variety of social situations. They should also cover people's responsibilities to the natural environment. The introduction of a Citizenship Education Curriculum by David Blunkett, when Secretary of State for Education, may be viewed as a rather belated attempt to carve out a space within the current framework for the moral purposes of education. However, this inevitably meant that it shaped up as a curriculum subject with its own distinctive subject matter, rather than a broad curriculum aim that can be pursued across a range of subject content. In the process it excluded a consideration of 'sustainable development' issues - drawing on scientific, geographic, and economic content - from the Citizenship Education curriculum.

 

iv. The cultural purposes of education will be concerned with the development of children's capabilities to appreciate activities for the intrinsic qualities that are experienced in pursuing them e.g. qualities of the intellect and of the imagination. Some traditional curriculum subjects - the humanities and the arts (known as the 'cultural subjects') - have been regarded almost exclusively as forms of appreciative experience that are pursued for their own sake rather than for the sake of some further end. Certainly, the cultural subjects may be regarded as intensifications of the elements that render human activities intrinsically worthwhile, but capabilities for appreciative valuing can possess instrumental value in augmenting productive process and developing moral sensitivities.

 

v. Subjects that have been viewed as instrumentally worthwhile, such as Maths and Science, may also be viewed as intensifications of appreciative experience, inasmuch as they engage the imagination and powers of the understanding. Simply to regard them as no more than instrumentally valuable is to run the danger of reducing their elements to easily measured 'competencies', in the form of mechanical skills and instrumental knowledge that can be routinely applied to job functions and tasks. The more complex occupational skills, which are increasing demanded by work in knowledge-based economies, also depend on the activities in which they are developed being regarded as forms of appreciative experience. This applies not only to particularly intensive forms of appreciative experience, but also to activities that more directly serve the interests of productive enterprise. Hence vocational curricula - such as the new Diploma's - designed to serve particular occupational interests need to provide pupils with opportunities for an appreciative valuing of the intrinsic qualities of occupationally relevant experience.

 

vi. The development of 'Knowledge Intensive' occupations is leading to a new appraisal of cultural subjects that constitute particular intensifications of appreciative experience, but are traditionally viewed as of little instrumental significance for the economy. For example, Philosophy is now beginning to be seen by employers as an important source of the kinds of thinking skills they are now seeking in their employee's. It is very important that the National Curriculum provides every pupil with access to a wide range of subjects that constitute intensifications of appreciative experience, while also providing ample opportunities for them to transfer, and further develop, the capabilities they have acquired to activities that serve economic and moral ends.

 

vii. Policymakers and citizens in this country have been slow to acknowledge that the distinction between 'academic' and 'vocational' curriculum content is now largely redundant. The issue at stake is no longer that of 'parity of esteem' but of how to create curriculum experiences that bring the different purposes of education - economic, moral and cultural - into a harmonious relation.

The task of a new National Curriculum Framework would be to provide guidance in this respect for curriculum planning and development. It should provide a unified view of the different purposes outlined. We would argue that they should reflect and promote the democratic values by which we live as members of society i.e. promote the freedom of individuals to make informed choices of life style, equal opportunities to live lives they have reason to value, and a socially just distribution of educational goods. This implies that the over-riding purpose of education is to enable all pupils to choose a way of life they value and have reason to value. Maximising freedom of choice in this respect will consist of both an opportunity and a process aspect. On the one hand it consists of expanding a pupils' capacity to perform a range of complex activities, which they may come in the process to appreciate as valuable pursuits in themselves. On the other hand it will consist of developing their capacity for evaluative reasoning, which involves finding reasons to select certain activities that they have come to value, as part of their self-chosen way of life.

 

viii. A new National Framework should emphasise the importance of a curriculum that enlarges the space of learning for all pupils', thereby expanding rather than narrowing the range and variety of the things they are capable of doing. It should also increasingly, over time, support the development of a capability to engage in evaluative reasoning as a basis for constructing their chosen way of life. The current 'policy talk' about the need for more personalised learning in the curriculum appears to be highlighting the importance of the process aspect of freedom in the 14-19 Curriculum. Enabling pupils' over this period to take responsibility for selecting their own curriculum pathways as autonomous learners implies that they are engaged in the process of choosing a way of life. What may not be appreciated is that the National Curriculum needs to provide space in which pupils' can be helped to develop a capacity for Evaluative Reasoning. However, this presupposes that the curriculum at earlier stages has expanded their range of capabilities rather than channelled them along a restricted set of pathways.

 

ix. A New National Curriculum devised to realise the overarching purpose set out above should offer a different yardstick for assessing the outcomes of education for every child to the narrower 'human capital' approach. However, the two aims, although distinct, are not incompatible. They should not be treated as alternatives, since many of the human qualities and capacities that satisfy the moral and cultural requirements of education also have instrumental value as 'human capital'.

 

x. The guidance provided by a new National Curriculum Framework should take the form of setting broad curriculum aims and procedural principles (rather than rules) for implementing them in practice in ways that are sensitive to context. The construction of such a framework will require policymakers to have the courage to dismantle the present Curriculum Framework in favour of one that supports the development of human capabilities that are not exclusively restricted to those that policymakers assume will constitute human capital for labour markets. Moreover, the Framework should prevent policy makers from conceptualising the production of human capital in ways that are quite dysfunctional in 'knowledge intensive' economies; namely, conceiving it in terms of discrete functional skills or 'competencies' that are abstracted from forms of appreciative experience. The capabilities required to augment production processes in 'knowledge intensive' economies are not discrete, mechanical skills that can be routinely applied to stock situations. Rather they are combinations of different elements - knowledge and understanding, skills, and dispositions - that are shaped by the requirement to exercise discernment and intelligent judgement in particular kinds of complex and unpredictable situations.

 

xi. The aims and principles that constitute the new Framework should furnish criteria against which to monitor the curriculum's fitness-for-purpose and for holding those involved in its planning and development to account. A new National Curriculum Framework should provide principles for:

Selecting a common core of curriculum content -

objects of learning - in the light of the curriculum aims as clarified above;

Organising and sequencing content in forms that are 'fit for purpose';

Developing teaching and learning strategies for handling different types of curriculum content in the light of the curriculum aims;

Studying and evaluating pupils' progress in learning in ways that enable

pupils to self-evaluate and self-direct their own learning.

 

xii. One criterion for selecting content would be the need for a Common National Learning Requirement that also reflects an international/global perspective on what is worth learning. A National Learning Requirement will need to acknowledge pupils' rights to compete for entry into international as well as national and local labour markets, and to secure equal access to international as well as national qualifications. Another criterion for selecting content would be that it should be the responsibility of the democratically elected government to specify this Learning Requirement as opposed to the responsibility of the teaching profession. This implies that the working groups, which meet to plan the requirement, should reflect the interests of different groups who have a legitimate stake in what pupils' learn at school, and also reflect the perspectives of intergovernmental organisations.

 

xiii. One criterion for organising and sequencing curriculum content for the purposes of teaching and learning would be that it should be the responsibility of teachers at the school and local area levels in close association with school governors, parents, local employers, and other local stake-holder groups. At the local area level teachers and community representatives should participate in curriculum development by forming Curriculum Area Groups (CAG's)

 

xiv. One criterion for the development of teaching and learning strategies, in the light of the principles set out in the Framework, would be that they should be developed experimentally by teachers undertaking action research in networked learning communities operating at school, local area, and national levels. Such research would give pupils and their parents a voice in shaping and testing strategies in the light of the principles and aims set out on the Framework.

 

xv. One criterion for the development of formative assessment methods would be that they should be accompanied by significant reductions in the amount of time teachers spend on 'high stakes' testing for the purpose of meeting the requirements of the target culture. Another, would be that any tests used in schools for purposes of formative assessment should be pedagogically valid i.e. there should be evidence to show that they yield good diagnostic information for the purpose of improving learning.

 

xvi. A Framework of the kind outlined above would need to set realistic time-scales for the development of a new National Curriculum. We are of the opinion that a 10 year lead-in time would be required to allow for school initiated curriculum development, experimentation, formation of collaborative arrangements between teachers, their schools and local and national groups of stake-holders. Current time-scales have been too fast to allow for such change processes to develop. In the past there has been a pronounced tendency for policy makers to under-estimate the problem of securing real and sustainable changes in the curriculum field. The result has been a series of chaotic changes in reaction to minor external circumstances (e.g. test results failing to improve). However, in order to maintain motivation and commitment to change, and provide a consistent direction to the reform process, the Framework should also outline staged intermediate goals and time-scales for completing different aspects of the curriculum planning and development process.

 

xvii. A new Framework should not only establish a clear direction for change but also set out guidelines for monitoring and evaluating progress in relation to the change process. Such programme evaluation should provide formative feed-back to those engaged in the process and be the principle means of securing consistency between the direction for change set out in the Framework and the implementation strategies and processes.

 

3. How to manage the National Curriculum and articulate its relationship with other policies and strategies with which schools must work

i. The national curriculum needs to be protected from the exercise of arbitrary power.

 

ii. The government should set up a National Forum or Standing Education Commission to identify the aims of the National Curriculum and a broad framework of values and principles to guide curriculum planning and development at national and local/regional level. It would be the responsibility of the Forum/Commission to specify the implementation stages referred to above and to continuously monitor and review the frameworks fitness-for-purpose by commissioning independent and national evaluation studies of curriculum development programmes that would report at the end of each stage. Such studies would be informed by OfSTED reports on schools and local authorities, which should include a close scrutiny of the implementation and impact of the reforms in particular schools at appropriate stages. The Forum/Commission would also commission research into persistent problems at the national and/or local level that the curriculum development process needs to address.

 

iii. Such a body would have an independent voice from government and while engaging with the world of politicians will also preserve a sense of distance from it. Only in this way will curriculum continuity be protected from disruptive discontinuities caused by changes of personnel in government and indeed changes of government.

 

iv. The proposed Commission or Forum would consist of individuals drawn from different walks of life who are known for their ideas and achievements in civil society. Although they would be drawn from a cross-section of society the members of the Forum would be publicly appointed rather than delegated by different stakeholder groups to represent their interests. In this way it would be detached from the power politics of special interest groups.

 

v. The Commission/Forum should have the resources to commission research studies that enable it to articulate principles governing the relationship between the curriculum and organisational structures in schools, particularly with respect to the needs of pupils' from socially disadvantaged back-grounds. Organisational practices, such as vertical or year group teaching; setting, streaming; formative or normative assessment and marking; behaviour policies and practices that achieve a positive weighting on the rewards and sanctions spectrum; the use of language; the experiences offered by the school - all have a positive or negative impact on individual pupils' learning. A school may be successful for many, some or few pupils. Existing evidence is that schools are less successful with children from apparently disadvantaged backgrounds but that a few schools buck that trend. The Commission/Forum should therefore have responsibility for issuing guidance about the implications of the National Curriculum Framework for organisational practices in schools.

 

 

 

4. Specific Issues concerning the Management of the National Curriculum

i. National Strategies. The current national strategies should be scrapped as soon as possible. They are far too prescriptive. The primary strategies have done some good work because they had a long incubation period, but they are nevertheless too prescriptive e.g. three-part lessons, how many lessons, and detailed content objectives for each lesson. The new strategy changes in Maths are a disaster. They were not negotiated and many stake-holders were resistant to them. Teachers are being handed down meaningless orders with little support for implementation. At secondary level it is difficult to identify much gain at all. Some enlightened consultants were appointed to support teachers but on the whole those appointed tended to be less enlightened than those they replaced.

 

ii. The impact of the current testing and assessment regime on the delivery and scope of the National Curriculum (See sections 1.i and 2.ii above). A valid alternative to the current system of 'high stakes' assessment for accountability purposes would be to sample (with little prior warning) only a small part of the curriculum in each student's assessment.

 

iii. The likely impact of the single level tests currently being piloted. There are some good principles underlying the development of such tests (egg, at KS2 low attaining students do not have to be coached for questions they don't understand and high attaining students don't have to be coached for what they already know well. However, in the context of the current 'high stake's' testing regime such tests are likely to result in pushing pupils through tests too fast and too often - coaching for the test every 6 months and not just every 3/4 years. Also they provide a context for meaningless policy-talk e.g. "Flatliners" (pupils who may have advanced by 2 years development, but because they started from just having achieved a level they don't appear to have progressed, as they have not quite made it to the next level).

 

iv. The likely impact of the current 'root and branch' review of the primary curriculum by Sir Jim Rose. It is very important that it is set alongside Robin Alexander's Nuffield Review. There is a wide-spread fear that Rose will reduce learning to mechanical rote learning and exclude forms of appreciative experience that enable pupils to enjoy learning and to establish learning agenda's for themselves, to carry them through their educational careers in ways that enable them to lead lives they have reason to value.

 

v. The implications of personalised learning, including the flexibility introduced by the new secondary curriculum (from September 2008). The concept looks good in principle but its meaning has never really been understood by most people. It is sometimes interpreted to mean physical activities for kinaesthetic learners, although the introduction of more varied activity has been a good thing on the whole. At other times it is interpreted as pupils' choosing their own curriculum pathways (See 2.viii).

 

vi. How well the National Curriculum supports transition to and delivery of the 14-19 Diplomas. Since we have a new KS3/4 curriculum starting in September it is too early to say, but there is certainly a muddle at KS5 created by drawing a false boundary between Vocational (Diplomas) and Academic (A-level) pathways. There is a grave danger that the introduction of Diplomas alongside A-levels, rather than as an overarching structure of 14-19 qualifications, will in practice reinforce this traditional and damaging distinction.

 

vii. The role of the new style Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in relation to the National Curriculum. It has to be seen as much more accountable to the teaching profession and other stake-holders such as parents and employers. What has to stop is the current tendency for personal philosophies to get imposed by officials on teachers and schools in a top down manner for implementation in over rushed time-scales.

viii. The role of teachers in the future development of the National Curriculum (see above, section 1.iii).

 

14th March 2008