NC34a: Memorandum submitted by Mick Waters, Director Curriculum, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA)
The national curriculum: a national treasure
The curriculum should be treasured. There should be real pride in 'our' curriculum: the learning that the nation has decided it should set before its young. Teachers, parents, the wider education community, the media and the public at large should all see the curriculum as something that they embrace, support and celebrate. Most of all, young people should relish the opportunity for discovery and achievement that the curriculum offers to them.
Context and background
The development of the national curriculum has been a long process. From Callaghan's Ruskin speech in 1976 to the introduction of the national curriculum in 1989 as part of the Education Reform Act, argument ranged about the level of prescription and central control. With the associated assessment arrangements leading to teacher boycotts and continuing concern about levels of demand and bureaucracy for teachers, there were attempts to rationalise complexity through reforms in 1996 and again four years later.
The pattern of 'change through default' has emphasised that the role, purpose and influence of the national curriculum is open to debate, often critical. As our country engages in discussion on values, beliefs, identity and history, the national curriculum becomes more than the framework for what is taught in schools. It is easy to focus upon the curriculum as the starting point for addressing the ills of society. From obesity to climate change, law and
order to the performance of international sports teams, the national curriculum becomes a simple focus for many. Similarly, frustrated ambassadors for social change often blame the perceived outdated curriculum for the lack of progress they experience. Argument is often less than measured and invariably at the extremes of the generalised and specific. Given the emphasis on knowledge content, in the early national curriculum the focus of critique is often
The principle of a national curriculum is not often contested. Notions of entitlement and public scrutiny and engagement accord with a plural democracy. However, detail of the content is the subject of heated debate; Shakespeare, phonics, authors and artists become iconic battlegrounds in the curriculum. Many who comment most loudly and negatively about the curriculum have not looked closely at it and instead choose to enjoy their sport. The curriculum, therefore, can be a public scapegoat, though its intent and endeavours are
appreciated by the vast majority. In England there is a tendency to criticise most of our
national institutions. QCA\ How much easier might it be for young people to feel affiliated and connected with their society if they felt that their learning was commonly valued by the adult community?
It is widely accepted that the original national curriculum was in effect 'backwards looking', born of an attempt to ensure that those elements of knowledge and understanding necessary for success in a previous age were not lost. There emerged possibly too much emphasis on summative assessment and not enough emphasis on skills, values and personal development. The detailed specification meant that the weakest teachers gained prescribed content and clear expectations, but at the same time the strongest teachers lost influence
over planned learning and professional intellectual curiosity.
Over time, there has been a gradual recognition of the need to keep the best and adjust the rest.
Potential benefits and blocks
A national curriculum offers a benchmark for a broad, balanced curriculum with a common entitlement. It should provide equality of access to a high-quality learning experience. While some schools build their curriculum confidently and conscious of the needs of their pupils within a context of accountability, others appear unable to do so. They appear unaware of the flexibility available under the national curriculum and claim that the accountability framework has had a restricting affect on their curriculum. The arrival of the national strategies and the perceived requirements of Ofsted are seen by some to limit flexibility. Yet other schools have grasped opportunity in the curriculum, recognised the opportunities for interpretation that exist and do not feel the need for permission to shape learning to their own pupils' needs. Indeed, outstanding curricula are recognised and acknowledged in Ofsted inspections and there is evidence of the impact of good curriculum design on school results, attendance, attitudes and relationships.
Successive reviews seek to reshape the curriculum. The need for pupils to learn about the local, the national and the international aspects of their lives has become more accepted. The recognition that children learn through good explanation and exposition, strong instruction, effective questions, fieldwork, practical application, meeting influential people, going places and taking part is voiced by most representative groups with a wish to see their own agenda well represented. A minority see the curriculum as sterile; to be endured while
other experiences elsewhere offer enjoyment.
Many of the current criticisms of the national curriculum relate to misconceptions based on ongoing criticism of earlier versions that are believed not to be adequately addressed, such as the skills agenda. Other criticisms relate to aspects of the education system that have grown from the national curriculum but are in themselves not the curriculum: the accountability framework, over-prescription within the national strategies, over-prescription in non-statutory schemes of work and previous inspection models based on compliance.
The curriculum, well designed and implemented, has a significant and important part to play in stretching the most able and talented, closing the gap in attainment, supporting the respect agenda, building healthy lifestyles, promoting civic participation and encouraging long-term involvement in education, employment and training. The achievements of the curriculum are not intended to be limited to any particular key stage but instead seen as improving life chances: setting young people on a path to lifelong learning and a successful, responsible
and enjoyable adult life. The curriculum achieves little if it does not motivate the learner. This is the essential contribution the curriculum can make to the Children's Plan.
Because so much of the education system has a national curriculum and assessment levels as its cornerstone, any proposed change has major implications. For example, if changes in programmes of study can be recommended, changes in level descriptions are harder to achieve because of knock-on effects upon targets, tests and strategies. There is therefore a
force for the status quo and minimal change. This is one of the significant anchors holding back the modernisation of learning and constraining flexibility.
What can be done to create a better curriculum? How can we move from periodic review to an evolving set of principles that shape the conversation at all levels? The challenge is to see the curriculum as a big picture of learning. Each school should work to design its own curriculum within clear national parameters so that entitlement can be married to local need, aspiration and opportunity. Learning bodies, employers, teachers, governors, parents and pupils themselves should be engaged in the curriculum at national and at local levels. The consensus about what is best for the nation's children should be established at national level; locally, the challenge is to make the national vision a practicable reality.
For too long the school timetable has been synonymous with the school curriculum. This has led to the inflexible straightjacket at one extreme with fairness assured for all subjects on the basis of time allowed. At another extreme is the serendipity of valuable experiences and events for miscellaneous groups of children in an unstructured offer. The design of a school curriculum is far more complex than coverage or delivery of content.
The curriculum is the entire planned learning experience encountered by the pupil. The content, whether knowledge, skills, attitudes or attributes, can be learned and consolidated through lessons, events and the routines of the school as well as beyond and outside the typical school day. This is not about an extra curriculum offer, treats or recreational activity. It is about making learning fit-for-purpose, planned and recognised as important. It is also about recognising progress and giving credit for the progress and development of a whole
It is within this context that a cultural offer or an expected time allocation for physical education fit. An emphasis on learning outside the classroom, or music, or cooking, or singing or representative visits to Auschwitz are the response of government to the intent of the curriculum at national level. At local level enhanced work experience, real emphasis on lifestyle choices or a focus upon work with older people give a context for learning for individual schools as they set their goals for their own pupils.
The challenge of making assessment fit-for-purpose goes back to the very origins of the national curriculum itself. Assessment that sheds light on progress, influencing learning immediately, has a different purpose from that which proves progress over time. The coming together of single level testing with concepts of 'when ready' and 'on demand' assessment will open up curriculum opportunity and truly personalise the curriculum, tailoring planning to react to individual need, specialism, choice and diversity. Aspects of choice, real options and decisions about pathways become vital in sustaining the capacity and willingness to continue to learn. Similarly, an emphasis on helping young people to understand the essence of specialism is crucial to the nation's need to develop the next generation of scientists or geographers.
A search for status leads lobby groups to want their agenda to be recognised as a subject. Being a subject does not guarantee a good curriculum experience. There are many 'Cinderella subjects' trying to go to the school curriculum ball. There are some already there who sometimes get little chance to take part; music, drama, even dance itself are often neglected as schools focus on their best bets for success in the accountability stakes. There are currently concerns for example over subjects such as languages, engineering or mathematics. As with all subjects these need good teaching, resourcing and a strong qualification framework, but they also need to address curriculum design to invigorate those
learners for whom particular subjects are not enticing.
Curriculum dimension, confronting changes in society appeal to the young and offer a way of seeing learning in context. The hierarchy of subjects is regularly brought into question, often by subject communities. Indeed, a clear framework for core knowledge and understanding, skills, attitudes and values would give schools the opportunity to shape the learning experience for their pupils in the context of local circumstances. This would lead to learning opportunities in a range of subjects, lessons, events and routines reinforcing each other,
being repeated in context, having relevance to young people's lives and achieving a growth in performance. To help schools interpret this core guidance should be offered, pointing schools to learning experience and opportunity which would tailor and personalise.
The national curriculum has helped create a focus upon education and is a potential source of national pride and endeavour. It is open to public scrutiny, debate and participation. It has built a shared language and established standards and expectations that provide a means to discuss and debate quality and achievement. These are real benefits but more remains to be
In recent years the QCA has sought to be more proactive in developing new frameworks for the curriculum and more supportive of schools in helping them to engage in 'disciplined innovation' in curriculum design. Developments such as the inclusion of financial capability, citizenship and skills development are applauded by some, while others detract and see the curriculum as being watered down and focusing on the social rather than intellectual. At the
same time, there is wide recognition that individuals and society have need of a range of outcomes from learning such as further engagement in education, employment and training, making healthy lifestyle choices and participating as responsible citizens. In this context QCA has engaged more widely with stakeholders about how best to develop a curriculum for the new century as opposed to defining content. There has been engagement with schools to
develop design principles to promote a high-quality learning experience rather than to ensure coverage and delivery of all content. A wide-ranging skills framework has been developed, largely welcomed by the employer and higher education communities. In the review of the secondary curriculum the importance of subjects is emphasised through the identification of key skills and processes as well as the range and content to be studied. Across the national curriculum age range, the publication of case studies of good curriculum practice and the
articulation of processes of curriculum design have helped schools to move forward with confidence in offering effective learning and measuring impact.
In the future this will develop greater innovation in curriculum design and delivery; more flexible use of time; the engagement of local businesses and the community to support learning; more creative use of the locality; out of classroom learning; and the use of technology to support learning partnerships. The curriculum is nothing if it fails to engage and motivate the learner and while many are committed to their own learning there is evidence of school withdrawal for growing numbers. The curriculum has to make learning worth it for the young.
School accountability can be better secured by the development of a 'balanced scorecard' approach to curriculum effectiveness; valuing the wider outcomes of education and learning; and recognising the endeavours of a school to build goals suited to its locality within the context of national parameters.
A national organisation such as QCA is therefore important in building consensus, helping to balance different and competing influence, advising ministers and communicating with schools. A curriculum body can help the drive towards a world class education system. Engaging with the widest community, including children and young people, their parents and carers, helps the plurality of interests to be represented. A national body which builds credibility with schools and the teaching profession and is looked on as an authoritative
resource will support the nation's endeavours in raising the performance of school and the achievements and successes of young people. This is entirely in keeping with the spirit and intentions of the Children's Plan and especially in the achievement of the five outcomes of the Every Child Matters agenda.
We welcome this inquiry by the Committee, which is taking place at a good time - shortly before the new secondary curriculum starts being taught and at the same time that work on the primary curriculum review gets underway.
Director of Curriculum
Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
17 March 2008