NC37: Memorandum submitted by Independent Schools Council (ISC)


1. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about a national curriculum: the variables are in its content, administration, interaction with assessment and the consequences of assessment

2. A national curriculum will tend to produce greater conformity. This has potential benefits and potential dangers. The benefits will be rising standards, greater geographical mobility within the nation and social cohesion. The dangers are that teaching methods will ossify; engagement of teachers and children will reduce; innovation will be stifled; and educational output will be damaged

3. There is a spectrum between rigid prescription of content, teaching and outcomes at one extreme and limitless flexibility (with no monitoring) at the other. It is unlikely that either extreme will produce the best results

4. Just as in economics, in education, the concept of limitless flexibility is more theoretical than real. In practice, flexibility is limited by the requirements of public examinations, and by the entrance requirements of universities. These examinations and entrance requirements are close to being a proxy for a national scheme of assessment, and consequently a national curriculum.

5. England is engaged in an unintentional but real and massive parallel exercise in testing the government's national curriculum against this proxy system. The question therefore is whether a national curriculum is really necessary.

6. Evidence from the 1200 ISC schools in England has an important role to play in this debate. These schools are not obliged to follow the national curriculum and many of them do not. This means there is an opt-on to those elements of the national curriculum which schools approve, and an opt-out from those elements - which can be major - which schools think are of no value

7. Given the generally very good results of independent schools it is hard to argue that the proxy system is worse than the NC system. OECD PISA research shows that results in the UK independent sector are - arguably - the best in the world, and that the gap in achievement between the independent and state sectors is wider in the UK than in other countries

8. The implication is that the independent sector style of teaching is more effective. It is difficult to be more certain, because the intake into the independent sector, though far wider in its social and economic mix than is generally believed, is not the same as the intake into the state sector. The most that can be said is that there is no discernible advantage from the NC system as compared with the proxy system, and that the proxy system may well deliver better educational outcomes

9. It is worth examining why this might be the case. The independent sector is responsible to its (mostly) fee-paying parents for delivering good academic results, and for developing the potential of the children it educates. The primary aims are (in no order) for the child to:

· Achieve good GCSE and A-level (or IGCSE and IB or Pre-U) results

· Gain entry to a suitable university or college

· Be articulate in speech and in writing

· Develop musical or sporting or artistic talents

· Become a well-rounded person.

10. In these objectives, the national curriculum arguably plays a small part. Notably, the independent sector goes considerably beyond the national curriculum in its emphasis on verbal articulacy and on extra-curricular activities

11. The more academic independent schools are increasingly moving to the IGCSE examinations, which do not conform to the national curriculum, and which are not counted in the published league tables. The paradoxical result is that some of the best academic schools in the country perform very badly in the published league tables, and this does not matter: league table placings are of less importance to many independent schools than to state schools. This distinction is important

12. The contrast with state schools is marked. League table placings are of prime importance, and a poor result can affect the freedom of the school to govern itself. These placings are related to the requirements of the national curriculum, and are in turn related to Government targets for improvements in measurable results against the national curriculum

13. The UK therefore has a very "high stakes" approach to the national curriculum in state schools: the curriculum is prescribed; performance against the curriculum is measured; the results are published; schools are ranked against their results; and a school's freedom of action can depend on the published performance. Each of these factors raises the stakes, and increases the importance of doing "well" in tests related to the national curriculum

14. Here we should pause for thought. As explained in "Freakonomics", state-imposed targets to improve figures tend to have the effect of improving figures. They may not necessarily improve the underlying reality

15. Leaving aside actual manipulation of results there is the problem of teaching to the test (i.e. delivering a devalued educational experience which concentrates on the test results to the detriment of education)

16. The danger is that evidence of attainment becomes the attainment itself: i.e. the evidential factors which ought to indicate attainment become a goal in themselves

17. In summary: the concept of a national curriculum is neither good nor bad in itself. The UK model is a particularly "high stakes" model, and this brings dangers of distorting educational input (teaching) and damaging educational output (learning). In a fast-moving world, the dangers of ossification need to be balanced against the dangers of flexibility. The independent sector provides an example of greater flexibility which seems to have some strengths. The sector would like to be part of the continuing debate.



A1 Whether there should be a national curriculum


A1.1 This response develops a model which attempts to assess the impacts of a national curriculum per se. England & Wales, Japan, France and the United States of America are used as case studies. These countries were deliberately chosen to reflect similar levels of economic development and national stability. The impacts of national curricula are likely to vary significantly depending on these variables. For example, the UN's recent report shows the benefits of national curricula in countries suffering civil disunity.[1]


A1.2 We started with the basic assumption that if the benefits of a national curriculum outweigh the disadvantages, a national curriculum should be considered. Several key issues were noted when developing the model framework. First it is difficult to quantify the impacts of any education policy. It will take several decades for the full effects to be seen. Second, there is surprisingly little consensus on what these impacts are and how they can be measured. Third, whether impacts are seen as advantages or disadvantages is subjective. Fourth, media can play a large role in public perception and attitude towards national curricula. These are not always well founded. Fifth, there is considerable debate over establishing causality between outcomes and education policy. Coulson (1999) was ultimately pessimistic: where education systems have been successful he claimed, 'it is not as a result of real choice or research ... it is often just down to luck'. Establishing causality becomes even more complex when we try and separate out the impacts of just one element of an education policy, the national curriculum.


A1.3 Comparing the impacts of national curricula across the world it became clear that they are the result of a complex interplay between the national curriculum's content and the systems of accountability and assessment that accompany it. Behind this model sit the specific cultural and identity values of an individual nation.


A1.4 Applying this model to the case study countries we conclude that national curricula per se are not necessarily damaging. Negative impacts tend to result from inflexibility in curriculum content and the characteristics of the accountability and assessment systems that accompany the curriculum.


A2 How the fitness-for-purpose of the national curriculum could be improved


We identify features of curriculum content, assessment and accountability that can make a curriculum best fit-for-purpose. It is important to note however, that this list is compiled on the basis that there 'has' to be a national curriculum. There is significant evidence that parents make good decisions for their children, society and the economy regardless of the presence or extent of government intervention.

ü National curriculum content must be relevant and meaningful to pupils. If not, pupils become disengaged. Discipline and pupil-teacher relationships suffer.

ü National curriculum content must be flexible and responsive to developments in pedagogy and national needs. If not, educational thought can stagnate and the curriculum can quickly become irrelevant.

ü National curriculum content should be broad. Subject details should not be heavily prescribed either by government or exam boards. Doing so reduces teacher autonomy, job satisfaction and narrows the learning experience of the child.

ü National curriculum content, accountability and assessment should allow teachers freedom and time to stretch bright students, help the less able and investigate subject areas that pupils are interested in understanding more.

û National curriculum assessment should not entail excessive testing. Universally, a focus on testing was found to narrow children's learning, teacher's autonomy and children's engagement in learning.

û National curriculum accountability should not be dependent on test performance. Universally, this can lead to the same negative results as above.

û National curriculum assessments should not be high stakes. High stake assessments increase pressure on students and can instil a sense of failure, particularly among the less able.

û A national curriculum framework should not penalise parents who choose alternative forms of education for their children.

B Analysis framework


A national curriculum should be considered in principle if its positive impacts outweigh its negative impacts.


B1 What do we mean by a national curriculum?


At its simplest level a national curriculum describes the course of learning that all children of that nation should go through. This definition is deliberately basic. It aims to strip away the complex interpretations and connotations with which 'national curriculum' is often burdened.


B2 What are the potential positive and negative impacts of a national curriculum?


Numerous studies have constructed frameworks to assess outcomes of education policy. It seemed obvious to use these in this response. However, three problems were immediately apparent:

(i) Few studies have isolated the impact of national curricula from the wider outcomes of education policy.

(ii) There is little agreement over how the impacts of education policy can be quantified.

(iii) It is difficult to establish causality between education policy and observable outcomes.

These issues are discussed in detail in Appendix 1.


B2.1 When assessing the impacts of national curricula we have to look, in part, at the educational outcomes of that country's education policy, bearing in mind the issues identified above. However, we must also define a set of impacts that relate specifically to the use of a national curriculum. These are outlined below as advantages and disadvantages of an education policy, incorporating a national curriculum.






Economic growth (shown through rising GDP, strong research outputs)


Economic growth limited (caused by lack of flexibility in curriculum content)

Pupil enjoyment and engagement with education


Disengagement of bright pupils who are not challenged and less able pupils who are not supported

National consistency of standards - fostering equality across families and geographical mobility


Parents are not satisfied and remove their children from the state education system if possible, leading to geographical immobility and potential social inequality

Shared values, helping community cohesion


Some groups feel excluded from the education system, leading to a lack of community cohesion

Teacher support


Teachers are disempowered and therefore disengaged. This can have negative impacts on pupil experiences and lead to teacher shortages.


B3 What determines the impact of a national curriculum?


B3.1 We have outlined above how difficult it is to separate the impacts of a national curriculum from the impacts of an education policy in its entirety. The extent to which a national curriculum delivers the advantages and disadvantages tabulated above will depend largely on the interplay of its content and the systems of assessment and accountability that accompany it. Behind these sit the cultural values and identity of the nation. This can be shown visually:














B3.2 Despite the simplicity of this model, it has two key advantages. First, by focussing on these areas we are capturing not all, but arguably the most important factors that determine the impact of a national curriculum. Second, relatively good data is available to allow us to compare the nature of each and the degree of government involvement across countries. The following areas are considered under content, assessment and accountability for each of Japan, France, the United States of America and England and Wales.







School financing


National test setting


Use of pupil assessment to control schools

What is taught


National test accreditation


Use of pupil assessment to control school funding

How it is taught


Use of pupil assessment to determine pupil progress / opportunities


Use of pupil assessment to set targets and inform government policy

Text book provision


Frequency and nature of testing


Teacher accountability




International review of curriculum and assessment frameworks (INCA) tables of curriculum content show little difference between countries.[2]



Since the end of the Second World War, Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology (MEXT) has maintained strong central control of education and a focus on egalitarianism.


D1 Content


Description / government involvement

School financing

Government finances state sector schools for compulsory education (ages 6-15).

At senior high school (ages 15 to 18) a student's family contributes c.£1,000p.a. with the government meeting the remainder.

The government subsidises private schools: families contribute c.£2,000p.a. and the government meets the rest, capital projects authorised by the education ministry (MEXT) are subsidised, MEXT pays 50% staff salaries.

What is taught

MEXT sets precise curriculum content and how it is to be taught for compulsory and post-compulsory education.

MEXT introduced "Integrated Learning" reforms in the late 1990s aiming to allow more teacher freedom.

Teaching instruction

Universities offering teacher training must have their syllabuses approved by MEXT. They have freedom over detailed curriculum content and delivery.

Text book provision

All textbooks and teacher manuals are MEXT approved. Most are produced by private publishers. MEXT produces some textbooks. These tend to be for vocational courses and special education institutions.


D2 Assessment


Description / government involvement

National test setting

Government testing is limited.

After compulsory education (age 15) there are entrance exams for senior high schools. Schools set their own exams and control admissions. Some local authorities may set exams and allocate places by results.

In post-compulsory education pupils work towards the Certificate of Upper Secondary Education. This is earned by credits from attending courses. The final grade awarded is based on teacher assessment, with no external moderation.

To enter university most pupils sit the test set by the National Centre for University Entrance, under MEXT's jurisdiction. Individual universities often set their own exams in addition to this.

National test accreditation

Frequency and nature of testing

Use of pupil assessment to determine pupil progress / opportunities


D3 Accountability


Description / government involvement

Use of pupil assessment to control schools

There is no national assessment of pupils so it cannot be used to control schools or school funding.

Use of pupil assessment to control school funding

Use of pupil assessment to set targets and inform government policy

MEXT uses nationwide scholastic achievement surveys in different subject areas to help inform policy. These are conducted by the National Institute for Educational Research (under MEXT's jurisdiction and affiliated to the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement)

Teacher accountability / testing

After one year's probation newly qualified teachers gain teacher status if approved by a local authority.

Continuing professional development is compulsory for all teachers.

MEXT holds training workshops for senior teachers.


D4 Education outcomes and the national curriculum's role


D4.1 Japan's education system is much lauded for its successes in international comparisons such as PISA, TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study) and PIRLS. The 2000 PISA survey of 41 OECD countries ranked Japan first in mathematics, second in science and eighth in reading. Subsequent PISA results have shown a decline in ranking....Individual returns to education by year of schooling are 13.4% for primary education. This is level with the OECD average. Returns for secondary education are 10.4%, just below the OECD average of 11.4%. The percentage of pupils graduating from secondary school was 93% in 2005, well above the OECD average of 82%, and up on 89% in 1995.


D4.2 By these measures, Japanese education and its national curriculum seem quite successful. However, since the 1980s calls for education reform have gained pace. Concerns over some of the negative impacts of a national curriculum identified in B2.1 have emerged.


D4.3 From the 1980s worry has grown that the education system fails to produce enough creative people for Japan to continue to succeed in the world economy. As Gainey and Andressen (2002) reported, "Japan's education system ... does not produce human resources that have the individuality and creativity which are needed today". And Hood (1997) claimed, "there is a general belief that the Japanese education system does not help develop creativity and that the Japanese are not creative".


D4.4 Problems were also reported in schools, with a rise in bullying, violence and adolescent suicides, perhaps likely indicators of disengaged and demotivated pupils (again, identified as a potential problems in A2.1). Fenwick (2004) cites moral panic setting in in the 1990s after teenage prostitution, joy riding and child murders dominated the media. Crimes reported by the police also rose by 60% in the ten years to 2001, compared to an average increase of 15% across 55 countries. The probability of being a victim of a crime also rose during the 1990s, from 8.5% to 15.2%. The decline in behaviour was frequently blamed on the rigidity and uniformity of the curriculum and the system. Cave (2008) claimed, "By the 1980s, there was a widespread feeling that narrow, exam-focused study was placing children under too much pressure, warping them into listless, desk-chained conformists who relieved their stress by bullying less popular classmates".


D4.5 Concern has also been expressed over the system's emphasis on preparation for passing the university entrance exam. Education consequently focused on imparting knowledge, rather than the encouragement of self motivated enquiry and creative thought. As Coulson (1999) writes this created 'exam hell' with a 'narrowing effect on children's education'.


D4.6 There were also clear signs that parents did not feel that the schools and the curriculum were adequately educating. As suggested in B2.1, discontent in a national curriculum may be shown by parents withdrawing their pupils from the system or seeking to supplement it. This is evident in Japan. A large proportion of children attend juku or 'crammers'. These are privately run 'schools' held outside of school time. The proportion of elementary school children enrolled in juku more than trebled from 1976 to 2002, catapulting from12% to 39%. Among middle school children there was a near doubling in the share enrolled over the same period (38% to 75%)[3]. These startling increases reflect parents' discontent in state education. This is also reflected in survey evidence. The percentage of parents who think that school study is serviceable for increasing scholastic ability of children decreased rapidly from 71.7% percent in 1976 to 23.3% in 1996. Parents who send their children to juku give as reasons "helping children better understand school curriculum," (34.1 %) and "making children more interested in study" (27.3%)[4]. Alarmingly the percentage of those who think "juku and tutoring services are more helpful than formal schools" increased from 9.2% to 15.3% from 1976 to 1996.


D4.7 Despite the fact that so many parents use the juku, they are concerned that they may damage their children's development. Over two thirds of parents agreed that "Juku attendance is overheated" and that they may be dysfunctional for children's well-integrated development (Nihon PTA Zenkoku Kyogikai 1997).


D4.8 The prevalence of juku may also have negative impacts on equality of opportunity and social mobility. Juku provision is greater in urban areas and among higher social economic groups. OECD 2006 findings on variance in school performance might support this. Variation between schools at 33% is above the OECD average of 53%. Half of this can be explained by the social and cultural status of schools and pupils. Comparisons with 2003 findings also suggest that performance differences between schools have increased.


D4.9 In response to many of the problems indicated here, in 1989, MEXT set out a new view of academic achievement. Emphasis shifted to include students' interests and motivation, alongside knowledge and understanding. In 1999 changes were made to curriculum content. "Integrated learning" was introduced as a new cross disciplinary subject. It was hoped this would foster children's ability to independently explore, learn, create and problem solve. Teachers were also given relative freedom over how this was taught. However, critics argue that it has had little difference in the classroom. Teaching in junior high schools is still dominated by a teacher-centred lecture format. Moreover, there is concern that diversification within the curriculum might actually lead to stratification and a breakdown of the egalitarianism on which the Japanese education was built. Perhaps the limited impact of this change reflects the stagnation that can set in after years of an inflexible curriculum and the novel experience of freedom for teachers.


D4.10 Japan is a useful case study. The limited system of assessment makes it relatively easy to identify the impacts of having a national curriculum per se. However, many of the disadvantages proposed in A2.6 have emerged. Perhaps, more importantly, many would argue that the positive education outcomes in Japan are due to cultural and pedagogical ideas rather than the use of a national curriculum.


D4.11 The emphasis in Japan is on the group and group success. This is powerful in a society which is fairly homogenous linguistically and ethnically. Parents are also often heavily involved in their children's education. As a testament of this, schools exist for mothers so that they are better able to help their children. Mothers doing this are referred to as 'mamas juku'. The influence of Buddhist and Confucian religions should also be considered. They are founded on respect for learning and respectful, benevolent hierarchical relationships.


D4.13 Coulson (1999) would attribute much of Japan's success to the pedagogical methods used. Topics are looked at once, but covered thoroughly. This differs from the preferred use of spiral curricula in the US. Stevenson (1992) spent decades comparing Asian and American education and concluded that the Japanese pedagogical approach 'leads to greater understanding and allows new topics to be introduced at a younger age, since class time in higher grades is not spent reviewing elementary topics'.




E1 France's national curriculum

In France the education system is highly centralised. It is built on a republican ideological tradition with a strong notion of equality and commonality. Schools are expected to provide the same curriculum and pedagogy to all pupils regardless of who they are, where they live or even, within limits, of their ability level.


E2 Content


Description / government involvement

School financing

Government finances state sector schools for compulsory education (ages 6-16). Central government pays all staff salaries. Local authorities now responsible for other expenditure.

In the private sector, nearly all schools have entered into a contract with the State, where the government has responsibility for teacher remuneration.

What is taught

The Ministry of Education determines subjects taught and the number of hours dedicated to each subject.

Teaching instruction

Primary school teacher training: One year is spent studying for the state teacher recruitment examination. Another year is spent acquiring the practical knowledge necessary for teaching. The professional skills expected of trainee schoolteachers are detailed in the government's "skills reference book".

Secondary school teacher training: Students must spend two years studying in classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles to prepare for competitive exams to enter ecoles normales supérieures. These Ecoles are funded and indirectly controlled by central government. A ministerial circular defines a broad national framework for teacher training at this level. 

Text book provision

The Ministry of Education draws up a list of approved texts, from which teachers can choose.


E3 Assessment


Description / government involvement

National test setting

The Ministry of Education controls examinations, diplomas and university degrees. Since 1985 assessment has been obligatory during compulsory education.

At the end of the final year of Collège, aged 15, pupils sit the Diplôme National du Brevet. This considers a child's marks during their final year and exam results in French, Mathematics, History & Geography. This is not an entry exam for the next stage of education.

After the brevet there is one more year of compulsory education, Seconde (age 15 to 16). After this pupils can do: a general, technological or vocational Baccalauréat or a technical certificate.

The Bac is the key to entry into Higher Education. All Bac holders are entitled to go to university.

National test accreditation

Frequency and nature of testing

Use of pupil assessment to determine pupil progress / opportunities


E4 Accountability


Description / government involvement

Use of pupil assessment to control schools

Aggregate national and regional results of the Brevet and Bac are published.

In accordance with the notion of equality that dominates French education, results are used to identify common problems which all schools should address.

Bac results are published by school. An added value measure is also published which takes account of school selection, socio-economic background and age of students.

Use of pupil assessment to control school funding

Pupil assessment is not used to allocate school funding. This would contradict the aims of equality and commonality in education.

Use of pupil assessment to set targets and inform government policy

Trends and differences in results at national and regional level inform policy making.

Teacher accountability / testing

Teachers who have secured appointment on full tenure have to undertake a minimum of three weeks' training during the first year in service, and two weeks during the second year.



E5 Education outcomes and the national curriculum's role


E5.1 France sat broadly in the middle of PISA's 2006 tables of OECD country performance in mathematics, science and reading. However, its rankings were significantly down on 2000.


OECD ranking












Downward trends are also visible in other variables used to measure education achievement. In 2005 France contributed 5.1% of the world's scientific publications, -5% down on 1996, but still above the EU15 average of 2.4%. In 2005 France's tertiary education enrollment rate was 13% up on 1995, below the average OECD increase of 49% and 26% and 24% increases in the UK and Germany respectively. Data on returns to education in France is thin. At the secondary level the private return is estimated at 14.8%, above the OECD average. Estimates for primary education or social returns are not available.


E5.2 Recent government figures show two fifths of pupils leave primary school with "serious learning gaps" in basic reading, writing and arithmetic. One fifth finishes secondary school with no qualification at all. The Bac is also under fire. Although the most recent pass rate was 83%, up from just over 60% in the 1960s, some claim grade inflation is rife. Jean-Robert Pitte, president of the Sorbonne-University of Paris IV claimed, "The Bac is worth absolutely nothing." This is perhaps not a criticism of the Bac curriculum but more an outcome of the publication and ranking of Bac school results.


E5.3 Sarkozy listed the current challenges facing France's education in a letter to teachers in Autumn 2007. He cited: too many school drop-outs, little respect or authority in the classroom, too little value placed on the teachers. These are perhaps examples of pupil disengagement, similar to those seen in Japan. This may reflect the curriculum's content and delivery. Sarkozy went on to say that there was too much passive rote learning and too much "theory and abstraction". These are indeed factors that are likely to disenfranchise both students and teachers.


E5.4 A potential advantage of using a national curriculum cited in A2.1 was increased equity amongst pupils. However, despite the government's emphasis on egalitarianism through the national curriculum there is large disparity in pupil performance. PISA 2006, found that half of 15 year olds match the standard in writing, mathematics and science of the very best performers in the OECD. However, the bottom 15% of 15 year olds rank among the OECD's worst. This could be an indication of where a national curriculum might fail to help the less able.


E5.5 There is little translated evidence on what parents think of the national curriculum and education system in France. Due to the lack of true independent schools, parents' choices to take their children out of the system are limited. However, Hirsch (2002) claims that 'even in countries like the Netherlands and France where choice is supposedly mainly about religious preference: this is decreasingly the case... The effects are tangible. In France, for example, some secondary schools in deprived areas are now suffering severe declines in enrollments because parents find ways of enrolling their children else where despite official zoning'. There seems then some evidence of parental disquiet.


E5.6 In France it seems that the education system as a whole has not produced good outcomes. But it is hard to 'unwrap' the impact of the curriculum from assessment, accountability and France's cultural context of egalitarianism. The apparent discontent among pupils however, is likely to be reflection of how relevant they perceive the curriculum to be. Sarkozy has indicated desires for wide-ranging curriculum changes, including increases in art, sport, civic education, comparative religion and general culture.


F United States of America


F1 America's national curriculum

In 2000 central government passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Education Act. NCLB applies to all states. The Act represented a commitment to outcomes based education policy. Such policies are based on the idea that targeting high expectations and standards will benefit all students. The US government was particularly concerned with tackling poor achievement among minorities and lower socio-economic groups. NCLB includes a basic curriculum outline.


F2 Content


Description and government involvement

School financing

Schools are funded by their state.[5] Federal funds are provided if NCLB is adhered to, creating a strong incentive for schools to comply.

What is taught

NCLB provides (i) a basic core curriculum focusing on science, mathematics, English, social science and physical education (ii) an elective part which may include modern foreign languages, visual and performing arts and more vocational subjects.

Teaching instruction

Teacher training is controlled by individual states.

From 2005 all teachers must be 'highly qualified' for a state to qualify for federal funds.[6]

Text book provision

Teachers choose textbooks. 50% of states publish lists of recommended texts.


F3 Assessment


Description and government involvement

National test setting

Compulsory testing was introduced for the first time with NCLB.

States administer tests.

States can choose whether they use criterion based tests (assessment against established standards) or norm based tests (assessment against comparison groups)

Federal government does not set test standards. These are set by individual states.

National test accreditation

States decide what tests are taken and the design of the tests. They vary greatly between states. Five publishing companies dominate 90% of this market: CTB/McGraw-Hill, Educational Testing Service, Harcourt Assessment, Pearson Educational Measurement and Riverside Publishing. The market has become a $1.1bn industry since the start of NCLB.

Frequency and nature of testing

NCLB introduced testing in mathematics, reading and / or languages arts once during each of the age groups: 8-11, 11-14,14-18

In 2005 testing in mathematics and reading became annual between ages 8-14.

From 2007 schools must also assess science once in each of the three age bands above.

Use of pupil assessment to determine pupil progress / opportunities

NCLB tests are not used to determine individual pupil progress. They are used to assess overall state and national targets.


F4 Accountability


Description and government involvement

Use of pupil assessment to control schools

Accreditation of schools is linked to the annual pupil test scores.

Use of pupil assessment to control school funding

Federal funding is given to schools using the NCLB framework.

Use of pupil assessment to set targets and inform government policy

Test scores are used to inform state policy. Individual states set their education targets year on year. They need to show annual improvement to the federal government. What happens if they don't?

Teacher accountability / testing

Teachers need to show that they achieve NCLB standards. How?


F5 Education outcomes and the impact of the national curriculum

F5.1 It is difficult to look at wider outcomes such as economic returns to education, tertiary enrollment rates etc as it will be several years before the impact of NCLB and its associated curriculum will be observable. NCLB seems to have had positive impacts so far, particularly in raising the performance of groups that have under achieved in the past. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) looked at reading and mathematics results between 2000 and 2005. Scores for African-American and Hispanic nine year olds were at an all time high. Achievement gaps between nine year old white and African-American and Hispanic pupils were at an all time low.

F5.1 However, already these initial findings on the first five years of NCLB are being questioned. A Texas based study, released in January 2008, found that school drop out rates were highest amongst ethnic minorities. 60% of African American, 75% of Latino and 80% of English as a Second Language students dropped out. The overall average drop out rate was 33%. This was one of the areas of concern expressed in B2.1. We said that a national curriculum might lead to greater inequalities between students as teachers move quickly to cover content. PISA also found that within school variations in pupil performance increased from 78% in 2003 to over 90% in 2006. This may indicate that NCLB is not helping all pupils.

F5.2 However, overall NAEP reported that the academic performance of nine year olds improved dramatically between 2000 and 2005. Gains in reading skills over these five years were more than the cumulative gains made in the 28 years to 2000. Their mathematics results also rose sharply. Results for 13 year olds were encouraging too. While reading skills only showed marginal improvement, mathematics skills were up dramatically. The group that showed the least improvement was 17 year olds. Their reading ability slipped back to 1971 standards and no improvement was evident in mathematics. The inequality of progress across age bands partly reflects when NCLB was introduced. It may also signal one of the criticisms levied at outcomes based education policy: in order to guarantee improvement, initial standards will be set very low. Gains in education will therefore not be 'real'.


F5.3 It is also interesting that the American public seems fairly critical of NCLB. In the Centre for Public Educations (2007) survey, of those that felt they knew something about the Act, 55% viewed it unfavourably, compared to 38% who viewed it favourably. Over a third felt NCLB actually hurt schools. Interestingly, what comes under fire is not the curriculum itself, but the standardized testing that comes with it. In 2007 43% felt there was too much testing, up from 31% in 2002. Within this sample, public school parents showed even more concern: 52% felt there was too much, compared to 32% in 2002.

F5.4 In view of parental discontent we might expect to see increasing numbers of parents withdrawing their children from state education. But there has been no significant change in the share of children enrolled at private schools. This may be due to tighter economic conditions and rising school fees. There has, however, been a strong rise in the number of home educated children. Some estimates put the number of children educated at home as high as two million, or about 4% of the student population - nearly half as high as the rolls of private schools.

F5.5 NCLB framework and curriculum introduced outcomes based education. Critics of this type of policy argue that teachers become disempowered. They teach to the test and do no more. Pupils become disengaged and see school as the accumulation of facts. Evidence from pupils perhaps supports this. The Public Education Network's 2004 survey of children in eight states suggested that some of the disadvantages highlighted in B2.1 had emerged. For example, 'rather than help to engage students in the goals of schools, the testing and narrowing of school offerings are further alienating them'. Further, 'The extreme emphasis on preparing for a single test to comply with either state and / or federal accountability policies is skewing the curriculum and the use of time inside schools, and creating cynicism among students'. It is also perhaps creating a notion of failure among children if they cannot continue to jump through high target hoops. In an article in the Washington Post (2007) a teacher reported, 'We are expecting more from our students, and many are delivering.' However, he notes that for less able children we may be teaching them that 'hard work and amazing increases in achievement are just not enough...despite great gains (lower ability children) still see themselves as they always have: a failure.'

F5.6 This leads us to other evidence that teachers also seem discontented. In July 2007 a poll of teachers found that 76% felt they had become the 'scapegoats for all the problems facing education'. When asked why, the majority of teachers highlighted a mixture of reasons ranging from 'teachers are the public face of education and have to take the blame for bureaucratic decisions beyond their control' to 'NCLB has - perhaps unfairly - made it teachers' responsibility to produce high test scores. If scores are not high enough teachers are held responsible'.[7] But defenders of NCLB would say that teachers should be held accountable. Wider concerns expressed in the survey suggested teachers felt that the integrity of teaching was being challenged by the focus on targets and testing.

G England and Wales


G1 England and Wales's national curriculum

A national curriculum for England and Wales was introduced as part of the 1988 Education Reform Act. The Act represented a move to an outcomes based education policy. As defined in the US section. Focus was on traditional subject specific knowledge and skills, often employment related. On its election in 1997 the Labour government focused on basic skills via the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, introduced in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Since then there have been further moves to make the curriculum more child and society focused. This has been done by extending content to include Personal, Social and Health Education (2002) and Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (2006).


G2 Content


Description and government involvement

School financing

Maintained schools are partly funded by their local authority (LA) and partly by central government.

Voluntary-aided schools typically receive 90% of funding from their LA.

Schools specialising in a particular subject receive additional funding from central government and local industries.

Academies have sponsors. Central government supplies the rest of the funding.

What is taught

The national curriculum identifies and sets the content of:

· core subjects (English, mathematics and science) for ages 5 to 16

· foundation subjects (Design and Technology, ICT, history, geography, art and design, music) for ages 5 to 14

· physical education for ages 5 to 16

· citizenship for ages 11 to 16

· modern foreign languages for ages 11 to 14

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) sets out the overarching aims of the national curriculum in its document 'The Big Picture'.[8]

Teaching instruction

Central government regulates teacher training. Schools are in charge of recruitment and remuneration of teachers. Teacher pay scales are set by government.

Text book provision

Teachers are free to choose textbooks and teaching materials. Some exam boards recommend books.

G3 Assessment


Description and government involvement

National test setting

National tests were introduced as part of the1988 Education Act.

National test accreditation

National tests at ages 7 (Key Stage 1), 11 (Key Stage 2) and 14 (Key Stage 3) are written by the National Assessment Agency.

Tests at age 16 (Key Stage 4) and 18 (Key Stage 5) are written by exam boards that are accredited by QCA. QCA is a government funded body. The exam boards take the broad subject areas specified by central government and create detailed syllabuses for examinations.

Frequency and nature of testing

National testing occurs at ages 7, 11 and 14.

At age 16 pupils sit GCSEs, the final exams of compulsory schooling. Usually 8 or 9 subjects are taken.

At age 18 pupils sit A-levels in three or four subjects. In 2000 an AS-level was introduced to be taken, if wanted, one year into A-level.

Use of pupil assessment to determine pupil progress / opportunities

National testing at ages 7, 11 and 14 is mainly used for school, rather than child evaluation.

GCSE and A-level results play a large role in determining pupil progression to other forms of education and employment.


G4 Accountability


Description and government involvement

Use of pupil assessment to control schools

Test results are used to monitor school performance. They form part of government's inspection of schools. Consistently poorly performing schools receive sanctions and may be closed.

Use of pupil assessment to control school funding

Schools do not receive additional funding for good test results. However, a high position in national league tables will encourage more applications and therefore more funding.

Strong performance in one subject may allow a school to achieve specialist status and subsequent additional funding from central government and local businesses.

Use of pupil assessment to set targets and inform government policy

Assessment outcomes are the major informant for national government, LA and school targets.

Results are published in raw form. They are also shown using a value added measure (taking account of prior pupil ability) and a contextual value added measure (additionally taking account of socio-economic pupil Background).

School league tables are published in national press. They often use government targets to rank schools. These targets are used to direct policy. The DCSF science indicator introduced in January 2008 is an example of this.

Teacher accountability / testing

Teachers are held accountable by their schools. The government's inspectorate assesses teaching at all government schools.


G5 Educational outcomes and the national curriculum

PISA results suggest a decline in educational achievement in the UK. In 2000 the UK sat in the top 10 of OECD countries in mathematics, science and reading results. In 2006 the UK tumbled down the rankings, with the largest fall evident in reading:


OECD rankings













Other indicators, however, are perhaps more positive. From 1995 to 2003 participation in all levels of education rose 19%, above the OECD average of 13%. Increases in tertiary education enrollment rates also show no signs of a lack of enthusiasm for education: up 31% on 1995, ahead of France's 10% increase and Germany's 19% increase. Two caveats should be noted however. First, PISA assesses the UK, not England & Wales. Second, as with many countries presented here, it is perhaps too early to judge the impact of the Education Reform Act and its national curriculum.


G5.1 In A2.1 we noted that a national curriculum could have potentially negative and positive impacts on the equity of pupil performance and opportunity. Evidence for England and Wales is mixed. There is some evidence of frustration among teachers that they do not have the time to help the less able or challenge the very bright. This is perhaps borne out in PISA's 2006 results. The UK had the second largest within school variation of pupil performance of all OECD countries. There is, however, more equity between schools. The same PISA survey showed the UK had relatively low variance in pupil performance between schools, at around 25%, compared to the OECD average of 33%.


G5.2 Rising truancy and school exclusion rates suggest that pupils are discontented and disengaged from the current education system. Many would attribute this to the national curriculum, along with its methods of assessment and accountability. Edward and Malcolm's (2002) review of the causes of truancy highlighted the role of 'the content and delivery of curriculum, seen as lacking in stimulus and relevance'. Pupils' perception that the curriculum is irrelevant is borne out by Cullingford's (2001) research, 'one of the underlying perceptions that pupils share is that no-one has ever explained to them the purpose of what they are doing.' MacDonald (2001) also pointed to the deteriorating relationship between teacher and pupil. He found that burgeoning workloads prevented teachers from providing what pupils wanted most: to be listened to and respected. Rustique-Forester (2001) concluded it was more than just workload that was causing these problems: 'Four basic needs of teaching and learning -time, patience, tolerance and knowledge- are what ironically, have been most eroded by the pressure and demands of the current system'. Many observers have also reported that the curriculum is viewed by pupils and teachers as something to be 'got through', with every target met or exceeded on the way. Cullingford (1999) claims the education system 'makes it difficult to imagine a personal sense of anything but failure. How can anyone get through all that? The notion of failure is deeply embedded, even if it is at a subconscious level'. Some observers would say that this aspect of the education system contributed to the finding that UK teenagers were the unhappiest in Europe. Finally, on school exclusion rates, Rustique-Forester (2001) claimed: 'The national curriculum, in confluence with other policies, appears to have created a set of conditions and dynamics in schools, which...have encouraged the recent growth of school exclusions'. It is important to note that the curriculum is placed in context, 'in confluence', with other policies.


G5.3 Teachers are also concerned by pupil disengagement. The NFER 2007 Annual Survey of trends in education showed a rise in the proportion of heads concerned about pupil attendance from 11% in 2005 to 20% in 2007. There is also evidence of widening discontentment among teachers themselves. Teacher drop out rates are high. 10% of teachers do not finish their initial training. A further 20% drop out immediately afterwards. Transfers of teachers from the maintained to the independent sector are also rising. The focus on tests and the detailed syllabuses set out by exam boards may be diminishing teacher autonomy and therefore job satisfaction.


G5.4 There is also evidence of parent discontent, with the numbers of pupils in private and home schooling increasing. There has been a rapid growth in alternative qualifications, even those which are not accredited by QCA, such as IGCSEs. Cullingford (1999) summarised findings of parental surveys. He highlighted feedback on less inspired teaching, more stress on pupils and a greater feeling of parent alienation from their children's learning. However, more recent surveys show a more mixed, and perhaps more positive picture. In Continental Research's 2003 study, 82% of parents of primary school children rated primary education as 'good' or 'very good' and a third of parents felt that primary education had improved over the last few years. Satisfaction with secondary level, however was lower. 69% of parents rated education as 'good' or 'very good' and worryingly, less than half of parents (42%) agreed that their children were 'very well taught'.


G5.5 Discontent seems to extend beyond pupils, teachers and parents. The CBI (2003) reported that over a third of employers were not satisfied with the literacy and numeracy skills of school leavers. Public belief in the system also seems low. In the Continental research survey cited above, satisfaction of primary and secondary schooling was much lower among the whole public. Only 60% and 49% rated education as 'good' or 'very good' in the primary and secondary sectors respectively. But here we should exercise caution. Ratings of an education system will vary depending on the interest group questioned. An OECD (2006) report warned that, 'different individuals and groups have demanding, not necessarily compatible expectations, giving schools the problem of accommodating different expectations.' First, they observed that the more involved a group was with education the more likely they were to be satisfied, e.g. parents and teachers. Second, they found that dissatisfaction with education systems is voiced more by those with higher educational attainment and by urban dwellers, compared to rural dwellers. Nor can we ignore the powerful influence of media in shaping opinion. Just as in Japan, in the UK, media have had a significant role to play. We need to be aware as the OECD noted that 'negative stories about violence or underachievement can predominate, generating a sense of crisis about the state schools are now in... even parents with readier access to what is taking place inside schools can be ambivalent between these messages and their own experiences'. In particular in the UK, the media's attention tends to centre on exam results and government targets. This shapes how the curriculum is perceived.


G5.6 It seems that many of the negative impacts discussed above stem from the systems of assessment and accountability that accompany the curriculum, rather than the fact that there is a curriculum per se. The national curriculum only outlines the subjects to be covered. It is the exam boards that interpret these and write detailed programs of study. Competition for candidates is fierce. Exam boards are often accused of lowering standards to raise pass rates and encourage more schools to use them. Concern has also been expressed that exam boards work too closely with textbook publishers, leading to a possible narrowing of the curriculum to specific tests.


G5.7 It is also odd that lessons were not taken from the introduction of the 'Revised Code' in England in 1862. One of its aims was to ensure all pupils were covering basic subjects adequately. Schools were awarded funding based on pupil test scores. It became know as 'Payment by Results'. As Coulson (1999) described, 'the results were tragic...students were simply being made to memorise words without understanding their meaning' to ensure the school achieved good results and consequently more funding. Although today's schools do not receive funding in the same way, the obsession with results and target delivery is perhaps having the same sad consequences. Many argue that this is due to the emphasis on needing to 'do' subjects and the inevitable testing is narrowing children's learning and ultimately teaching progress.


G5.8 Initial findings from a study in Wales are particularly illuminating. Educational standards seem to be rising where schools are not obliged to submit their exam results to league tables. The removal of this pressure seems to be allowing teachers more freedom to respond to pupils' issues and needs when they arise. Previously, they would argue, these had to come second to the need to keep going through the syllabus in the right order.


G5.9 What is worrying, and what can be perhaps directly linked to having a national curriculum, is government's consequent involvement in pedagogy. Coulson (1999) warned 'a single pedagogical vision is being imposed by central government', meaning that pedagogical ideas cannot be tested and progressed. This could lead to stagnation in educational thought.


APPENDIX 1 - Measuring outcomes of education and establishing their causality


We use Belfield's (2000) discussion of the potential impacts of education policy on the individual and at the aggregate level as a framework. We then identify specific impacts we will need to investigate to compare national curricula outcomes in different countries.


One of the key gains of education for the individual is earnings premia. Returns for education pre-university are typically measured against years of schooling. Wolfe (2004) finds, 'For just about any country you care to name, there is, indeed, a consistent and positive relationship between length of education and earnings'. Summarising the extensive literature on this Harmon, Oosterbeek and Walker (2003) estimate the average return at 6-8% per year of schooling. However, this well-known relationship is not straightforward. Often these analyses have not considered what Stiebert (1985) called the 'alpha factor', the returns to education that are due to innate ability rather than the education received. He estimated that around 40-80% of earnings premia might be due to this. In response to this, Moll (1998) argues that higher ability students may simply invest in more education until their return to education is equal to that of lower ability students. Groot (1998) also raised concerns over the depreciation of education over an individual's life (estimated between 11-17% per year). Further, skills and training gained as part of working life rather than education are often ignored as our family Background and genetics. Miller et al (1997) used data on Australian twins. They estimated that the returns to each year of schooling were around 6%, of which only a third was due to schooling. For males, family Background was the most important factor accounting for over 50% of earning returns.


Belfield (2000) also discusses the non-pecuniary benefits of education to an individual. These include higher fertility rates, smaller households and more comfortable working conditions.[9] Also considered is 'more rational behaviour' (ibid p194), observed in higher saving rates, lower crime rates and higher voter turnout.[10] A strong correlation has also been observed between education and improved levels of health, in particular lower incidence of smoking and drug related illnesses. There is also a belief that there is a positive link between education and happiness. Hartog and Oosterbeek (1998) studied workers in the Netherlands and found a strong positive relationship between education and happiness.[11]


Many of these non-pecuniary benefits of education will have positive effects on society and the economy as a whole; as they occur 'outside' the market they are, however, harder to quantify. Wolfe and Zuvekas (1997) produced estimates of the annual value of additional schooling. While results for individuals were small, once aggregated up to a national level, they found that the non-market effects of education were almost equal in value to the market effects witnessed through earnings premia. However, evidence on all these factors is not conclusive, particularly on how education affects behaviour.[12]


With this multitude of apparent benefits education has been given a weighty task: 'education is the best anti-poverty and social and economic development strategy. It provides ... the skills to transform [people's] lives and lift their nations' (Brown and George in the Financial Times, 2002). This brings us to the link between education and economic development, firmly embedded in the politics of the late 20th century. This link, however, is questionable. Wolfe (2004) provides a clear summary of the weaknesses of the assumptions that much of this work is based on. Levin and Kelly (1994) also questioned the link between educational attainments and productivity. They investigated the other complementary conditions that might need to be in place and called for more longitudinal analysis to balance the evidence of cross-sectional studies. Belfield (2000) also highlighted the problems in an increasingly global economy of 'brain drain', where a country educated individuals and they generated economic growth elsewhere. Finally, Pritchett (1996) suggested that education was a signalling mechanism to employers. As such it redistributes rather than increases wealth.


March 2008


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Cave (2008)

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[3] Ministry of Education 1976, 1985, 1994

[4] Ministry of Education 1994

[5] Compulsory school ages vary by state. Starting ages range from five to eight years old. Finishing ages range from 14 to 18 years old. More states are raising the compulsory leaving age to 18.

[6] A highly qualified teacher is one who has (1) fulfilled the state's certification and licensing requirements, (2) obtained a Bachelor's degree (3) demonstrated subject expertise (for example by specializing in their subject during a degree)



[9] It could be argued that these may be more strongly observed in developing countries. See Sullivan and Smeedling (1997) and Haveman and Wolfe (1995)

[10] See Becker and Mulligan (1997)

[11] Interestingly this result does not seem to relate to UK adults. Clark (1996) found that those with the highest education were not the happiest.

[12] See Behrman (1996) and Belfield et al (1999).