NC27: Memorandum submitted by Professor Dylan Wiliam,
Deputy Director, Institute of Education, University of London

SUMMARY

The main thrust of our response is that we strongly support the idea of a National Curriculum, but that this curriculum needs to be less prescriptive and more coherent than is the case currently. This will require re-thinking the distribution of responsibilities at national, local and school level, and this will mean radical revision of the nature of support that is provided to schools and local authorities for the successful implementation of the curriculum.

Consultation issue 1: The principle of whether there should be a National Curriculum.

1.1 In principle, there should be a national curriculum. There are several reasons for this, but principally it is because there are a large number of stakeholders that have legitimate interests in the aims of compulsory schooling. Some of these, such as students and teachers, are able to exert a direct influence, on what happens in school, while parents might be able to exert indirect influence through exercise of school choice. However, education is consumed by the whole of society. While employers are often the most vociferous of these, it is important to bear in mind that the costs of the failures of our education system are borne by all members of society (e.g., through higher contents insurance premiums necessitated by criminal activity caused, in no small part, due to low educational achievement). The only practicable way to allow all stakeholders to have a say therefore is through the democratic process, and that is why we believe that it is appropriate that government should take a view on the curricular entitlement for all pupils as potential citizens of a complex modern democratic society. Empirically, the evidence is that without a clear statutory entitlement, it is the least advantaged and the least able that are denied access to the broad and balanced learning experiences which provide the basis for future active citizenship.

1.2 It is also worth pointing out the current global context is very different from that in place two decades ago, when the idea of a national curriculum was first given legal force. At that time, the idea of a "national" curriculum combined two distinct meanings of the word; one was the idea of a curriculum available to every student within a nation state, and the other was the idea that the curriculum content should prioritise specific national issues (witness, for example, the debate in 1990 over the definition of the national curriculum for history). Given the rapid increase in globalization over the intervening period, we think it is important to review the automatic conflation of these issues, and consider how the curriculum might address issues that are likely to be important for the current generation of school students (such as, for example, poverty, famine and environment change).

 

Consultation issue 2: How the fitness-for-purpose of the National Curriculum might be improved.

2.1 The National Curriculum has moved in the right direction since its initial introduction, when its fitness for purpose was certainly questionable. Successive reviews, and particularly the more 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.

2.2 Early versions of the National Curriculum lacked clear aims and purpose and, even more importantly, articulated too much detail. In effect, the 1988/1991 and 1994 national curricula 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.

2.3 More work needs to be done on ensuring that the curriculum appropriately emphasises creative problem-solving and collaborative work. A modern curriculum should be responsive to rapidly changing social, economic and environmental issues, but should also equip children with the skills to deal with (often) unpredictable problems when they arise, working together to solve major problems, and should help children understand that their actions and knowledge can also shape the future.

Consultation issue 3: The management of the National Curriculum and its articulation with other policies and strategies with which schools must work.

3.1 Research carried out at the Institute, and commissioned by the DfES (Moore and Klenowski 2002), suggests that NC articulation with other policies and strategies has been poor. Many secondary Maths teachers have ignored the National Curriculum in favour of the KS3 strategy, suggesting that the two do not articulate well with each other.

Specific issues

Principle and content of the National Curriculum and its fitness-for-purpose:

Consultation issue 4: Principle and content: arguments for and against having a National Curriculum

4.1 The case for a national curriculum may be thought of as combining three strands, as follows:

Only the best is good enough for everyone (assuming we have some sense of a high quality general curriculum, broad in scope and extending to the threshold of adulthood - the kind of general curriculum we would want for our own children - then we should want this curriculum to be offered to all children). To aspire to this is an ethical obligation, a matter, simply, of recognizing the equal value of all young humans;

To guard against the divisions that might threaten a society's stability and cohesion, the educational and curriculum experience of its young people should be to some considerable degree a shared experience;

To maximise the economic benefits of educational investment, contemporary societies need to pay special attention to the general, or average, levels of educational attainment.

4.2 As Denis Lawton and others argued at the time of comprehensivisation, there is little point in having comprehensive education without a common core curriculum. But, issues remain about the size and nature of that core - and whether the core should, effectively, be the 'all' or merely the part of the curriculum.

 

Consultation issue 5: Principle and content: what the purpose of a National Curriculum should be (for example, whether it should set out broad principles or detailed aims and objectives).

5.1 While we accept the need for a national curriculum, we do not believe that these needs are served by the current approach to the design of the national curriculum. Denis Lawton defined the curriculum as a "selection from culture" and we believe that it is essential that we are explicit about the principles for selection. Successive national curricula have lacked coherent design principles, and therefore have tended to be little more than incoherent collections of the favoured topics of those responsible for their design.

Clear thinking about the curriculum at national, local authority and school levels is a pre-requisite for successful curriculum design and implementation. The role of government should be to map out the larger contours of a national curriculum - its overall aims and broad framework of requirements. At national level, we believe that the national curriculum for each subject should identify a relatively small number (typically around five and no more than ten) "big ideas" for each subject. For example, in science, we might choose the idea of "equilibrium". This would mean that the curriculum might include units on population equilibrium in ecology, chemical equilibrium, and dynamic equilibrium in physics. Such an approach would mean that the curriculum would be much slimmer than is the case currently, but it would of course, be up to schools and local authorities about what to add to this curriculum to best meet the needs of their pupils.

Consultation issue 6: Principle and content:  how best to balance central prescription and flexibility at school/classroom level.

6.1 This is an abiding tension that has not been wholly recognised or addressed. The revised curriculum gives schools flexibility in one sense, but not the space in which to exercise that flexibility i.e. it acknowledges and validates the principle but does little to make the curriculum itself more flexible or less detailed.

6.2 There is little scope for schools to do what is required i.e. to take account of 'individual needs and local priorities, within the national framework'. The bottom line is that, as argued above, the statutory curriculum needs further slimming down and needs to be less prescriptive, giving schools and teachers more opportunities for school-based curriculum development within the parameters of national aims and standards.

6.3 Any National Curriculum needs to balance two competing managerial principles:

i) The balance between entitlement and choice: if the entitlement is too tightly defined, the curriculum will become rigid, will not meet the needs of all learners and will lead to boredom, disengagement and dissatisfaction; if (on the other hand) there is too much choice, individual curricula will tend to lack balance, expectations are likely to fall and some areas of the curriculum will be neglected.

ii) The balance between subject-based and cross-curricular work. Again, if the curriculum does not permit interdisciplinary collaborations, then some cross-cutting problems (e.g. global warming, community cohesion) will be excluded from the curriculum, but if there is too little emphasis on subject building blocks, there will be inadequate attention to issues of progression, intellectual coherence and challenge.

 

6.4 In some cases, difficulties which arise from one of these broad principles (e.g. entitlement/choice) are seen as a consequence of the other principle. So, curriculum disaffection which arises from over-prescription and lack of choice is actually blamed on curriculum structure (e.g. a consequence of a subject-based curriculum).  We need, then, to be quite clear about what is mandated centrally, what should be locally determined and what is a matter of learner choice.

 

On the management of the National Curriculum:

Consultation issue 7: Management: the extent to which the National Strategies are effective in supporting the National Curriculum 

7.1 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, the Strategies have not been effective in supporting the National Curriculum; they have distorted it. They have reinforced curriculum hierarchies and narrowed the curriculum. The National Strategies have over-emphasised 'pedagogical fixes' and taken teachers' attention away from broader, longer-term 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 remain over-centralised and heavy handed, despite the rhetoric of 'local ownership' since the award of the Strategies contract to Capita in 2005.

7.2 In a 2002 study carried out by the Institute of Education for the DfES, many headteachers and heads of department felt that the National Strategies limited opportunities for cross-curricular work, impacted negatively on the time available for subjects other than Science, English and Maths - and in particular the practical and creative subjects - and did not articulate particularly well with the National Curriculum Orders.

Consultation issue 8: Management: the impact of the current testing and assessment regime on the delivery and scope of the National Curriculum

8.1 Whilst we would readily accept the importance of attainment in literacy and numeracy to pupils' long-term life chances, we would argue both that sustained attainment in literacy and numeracy needs a whole-curriculum approach. E.D. Hirsch Jr. has shown that once students get beyond the basics of decoding and word recognition, increasing competence in reading requires background knowledge of what one is reading. Pupils learn to marshal complex arguments about difficult questions in Geography and History and they practice precision in the use of language in writing in a range of non-core subjects. A key function of schooling is to prepare pupils not only for employment but for the wider responsibilities of adult life: we expect pupils to learn to read and write, but we also expect them to learn to become adults in a participatory democracy, to understand something of the world they are growing into, to take healthy exercise and so on. It is also worth noting that there is currently no evidence that focusing education on short-term economic needs has any impact on the relationship between education, employability, and national competitiveness. Indeed, most of the analyses of the impact of education on employment find that it is education in general that makes the difference, and an unduly narrow approach to education might, in fact, reduce the impact on economic well-being.

These wider questions about curriculum cannot be assessed through current (or indeed any) testing and assessment arrangements. The priority given to assessment arrangements over curriculum provision has seriously distorted the management and delivery of curriculum.

8.2 A recent ESRC-funded study carried out at the Institute under the leadership of Dr Tamara Bibby pointed up the negative effects of the current testing regime on primary pupils (in terms of raised stress levels producing less good learning) and on their teachers (in terms of less 'adventurous' teaching and perceived increased workload). While this was only a single study, its results were entirely consistent with the UNICEF report on child wellbeing in developed countries published in February 2007.

Consultation issue 9: Management: the likely impact of the single level tests currently being piloted

9.1 The rationale for single level tests is that they offer more encouragement to make progress through the national curriculum levels. This is because pupils will be able to take them in December and June in any Year, rather than having to wait for the end of key stage tests. They have been presented as similar to graded tests and music grade examinations. They also meet the spirit of the personalisation agenda.

 

9.2 What has not been sufficiently recognised is that these tests will form the basis of a new set of targets for schools: progress targets. Schools will be given targets based on a historic baseline of the percentage of pupils moving through two levels during a key stage. The Making Good Progress consultation proposed additional pupil funding for every pupil who progresses through two levels in a key stage (5% per subject).

 

This high-stakes use of the Single Level Tests for narrow accountability purposes risks undermining the value of these tests. Schools will need to get as many pupils through as possible and this could encourage ever more teaching to the test, twice a year in every year. The financial incentives would make this a classic example of 'payments by results' - and all the distortions this brings with it.

 

9.3 There will be other consequences of this use of the test results. Once pupils achieve a level they will keep that level, even if they do not achieve it on the end of key stage test. It also means that at key stage 3, where a minority of children go backwards in terms of levels (since the curriculum is more demanding), they will be reported in terms of the level achieved during key stage 2. This will inflate the proportions achieving national curriculum levels and could be misunderstood as signalling an improvement in national performance at key stage 3. Given the tests are short (50 minutes for most), they will only be of limited reliability and so repeated taking may generate unreliable results.

9.4 There are also some difficult technical issues surrounding the test:

i) a key validity concern is the curriculum on which each test is based. In English there will be no testing of Shakespeare as that is not part of the key stage 2 curriculum, yet algebra will be included in level 5 maths and above, even though this is not part of the key stage.

ii) while these tests would be welcomed as a means of validating teacher assessments of their pupils, their use as targets to drive progress is likely to be counterproductive - leading to constant test preparation in every Year from Year 3 through to Year 9, a reduced curriculum, and inflated achievement of national levels.

Consultation issue 10: Management: the likely impact of the current 'root and branch' review of the primary curriculum by Sir Jim Rose

10.1 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 and, by so doing, undermine the acquisition of skills. 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.

Consultation issue 11: Management:  the implications of personalised learning, including the flexibility introduced by the new secondary curriculum (from September 2008).

11.1 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. Personalisation appears to have shifted its meaning somewhat, away from child-centred pedagogy towards greater differentiation and further setting of students according to notions of ability.

11.2 The rhetoric of personalisation is too often accompanied by a further erosion of the value we place on understanding and knowledge. Unhelpful oppositions are created between "skills" and "knowledge" and a "skills-based" curriculum is assumed to be more "relevant" than a knowledge-based curriculum. We know of no serious curriculum thinking which would sustain a distinction between "skills" and "knowledge": individuals acquire higher level skills by being asked to test their skills in the face of more challenging knowledge. The software engineer is highly skilled, but also knows a great deal of electronics; the musician is highly skilled, but also knows a great deal about the nature of music - and so on.

Consultation issue 12: Management: how well the National Curriculum supports transition to and delivery of the 14-19 Diplomas

12.1 For the reasons above, 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.

Consultation issue 13: Management: the role of the new style Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in relation to the National Curriculum

13.1 Policy developments over the last decade have distorted the functioning of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Increasingly, the key function of QCA is to act as the regulator for examinations and assessment, though this function will now move to the new Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator. Given the proposals to establish OQER, there is a case for extending the scope of the "successor" agency to QCA beyond that set out in para 3.17 of the DCSF/DIUS consultation Confidence in Standards. There is a case for 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 overall framework for either evaluation or the transfer of successful and effective practices.

Consultation issue 14: Management: the role of teachers in the future development of the National Curriculum.

14.1 The role of teachers in the future development of the NC is crucial. Teachers need to be trusted far more and provided with more time for structured collaboration with their peers so that intellectually they are in a better position to take (back) more responsibility for the curriculum. This chimes well with the Prime Minister'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 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 underlying and fundamental issues of curriculum. One clear priority is for government to ensure not only that the National Curriculum framework defines a clear entitlement for learners but that there is sufficient informed capacity through supported professional development in schools for successful school-based curriculum design.

 

March 2008