National Curriculum - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

3  Scaling down the National Curriculum

Limiting the reach of the National Curriculum

49. There is strong support for retaining some form of national framework for the curriculum, principally for the purpose of signalling pupils' shared entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum.[23]

50. Several written submissions to our inquiry pointed to the very varied nature of the curriculum across schools prior to the introduction of the National Curriculum. This variety resulted in the least advantaged and least able pupils covering a very narrow curriculum,[24] in significant social class and gender bias with regard to what pupils studied[25] and in poor levels of progression in pupils' learning.[26] The National Curriculum has been particularly advantageous for pupils with special educational needs (SEN). As Treehouse, a national charity concerned with autism education, commented: [the National Curriculum] helped to push forward thinking about the education of children with [SEN] well beyond an historic approach of merely keeping these children safe in schools […]".[27]

51. However, these submissions, like the majority of others, took the view that the National Curriculum should be much more flexible than it currently is and, ideally, significantly slimmed-down.

52. Of course, one individual's idea of what would constitute an appropriate basic entitlement might not be the same as another's and we note that no submission made a concerted attempt at illustrating what such a curriculum might look like. Nevertheless, as a starting-point, the root causes of the current tendency towards over-prescription through the National Curriculum are much more easily identified and addressed.

53. The assumption that has underpinned the National Curriculum to date is that it should account for essentially all of the teaching time available to schools. We would like to see the National Curriculum underpinned by the principle that it should seek to prescribe as little as possible and by the principle of subsidiarity, with decisions made at the lowest appropriate level.

54. Another problem is that any national curriculum is a potential 'bloating mechanism'. In England the level of political interference in the National Curriculum has been striking. Robert Whelan, Deputy Director at Civitas, commented:

    [the National Curriculum] is very appealing if you like to control what happens in school, because you can always make a new announcement every week that this and that is going to be added […]. All sorts of things are being piled on to schools […].[28]

As Professor Hargreaves similarly remarked:

    The mistake we have made in recent years is that there has been a tendency for Ministers, when something comes up, to think that we can impose new regulation through the National Curriculum. […] This constant changing of the curriculum […] is politicisation in the negative sense, as opposed to the positive sense that politicians should have a say on what goes on in our schools.[29]

55. Indeed, only last October, just a month after the new secondary curriculum came into force, the Department announced its intention to add a further statutory subject area to the National Curriculum—personal, social and health education.[30] This is in addition to its recent decisions to make cookery a compulsory part of the National Curriculum,[31] and to add modern foreign languages to the primary curriculum.[32]

56. In order to keep the amount of prescription through the National Curriculum to an absolute minimum we recommend that a cap is placed on the proportion of teaching time that it accounts for. Our view is that it should be less than half of teaching time.

57. Wherever the parameters of the basic entitlement should lie, that entitlement should be drawn up from the perspective of the learner—setting out the learning experiences that children and young people should have a right to access in order that they can be enabled to operate as effective citizens. We return to the issue of the learner's perspective in our discussion of the review and reform of the National Curriculum in a later Section of this Report.

58. In the context of such a National Curriculum, presented clearly and concisely, we would envisage parents having a more pronounced role in overseeing the curriculum that their child has access to. Parents should be provided with a copy of the National Curriculum for their child's Key Stage so that they might be better informed of the curriculum that their child should experience.

Recent and ongoing reform of the primary and secondary curriculum

59. The timescale of and a number of specifications for the Rose Review of the primary curriculum were set out by the Secretary of State.[33] Here we note the disquiet at the strong steer given by the Secretary of State to the Rose Review.[34] By contrast, the Cambridge Primary Review is a much more wide-ranging review[35] and is seen as truly independent (see Appendix 2 for a more detailed comparison of the two reviews). Consequently, it has the potential to offer a much more comprehensive assessment of the shortcomings of current primary education and of how the curriculum might be changed in order to address them. However, we do not believe that this potential has yet been realised. The very welcome Cambridge Primary Review report on the primary curriculum contains extensive analysis of the problems but has not enough to say about what might be done in practice to address them. The Rose Review and the Cambridge Review both recognise that the primary curriculum is overly full, but neither offers a practical basis that appeals to us for reducing the load. As we have indicated, we would see greater merit in stipulating a basic entitlement for literacy and numeracy and offering general guidelines on breadth and balance to be interpreted by schools and teachers themselves.

60. The style of the Programmes of Study for the new secondary curriculum has been subject to similar criticism.[36] As Mathematics in Education and Industry, a UK charity concerned with improving mathematics education, noted:

    Encouraging schools to make links between different subjects and to adapt the National Curriculum to produce something tailored to their students is excellent in principle. However, the repackaging of the current curriculum into the new Programmes of Study does not necessarily make it easier to achieve this. Moreover, the revised structure of the Programmes of Study for mathematics does not seem to provide a good fit to the nature of mathematics as a subject and obscures what needs to be taught; this will be particularly problematic for less experienced teachers.[37]

61. In our view, the Programmes of Study for the new secondary curriculum are overly complex and lack clear and concise statements on what should be taught. We believe that there is much to be learned from other countries in this regard.

The Early Years—getting the entitlement right

62. High profile research using data from the national Birth Cohort Study has shown how the impact of a child's socio-economic background on their early development is evident before they start school—and that the gap between the development of children from higher and lower socio-economic backgrounds widens thereafter throughout the primary school years.[38] The much cited Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project has shown the positive contribution that good quality early years care can make to children's development and learning.[39] Taken together, these studies suggest that the extension of a shared curriculum entitlement to cover children from birth to age 5 is potentially tremendously important in terms of laying strong foundations for all children. The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) offers that shared entitlement, but there is considerable debate about whether all of its prescriptions are appropriate—and some suggestion that a number of them might even be harmful to young children's development. On this we heard the view that children must be supported, encouraged and provided with appropriate learning opportunities, but not rushed in their development. There are more general concerns that the EYFS is too prescriptive and too detailed.

63. The Early Learning Goals that come under the heading of 'communication, language and literacy' have faced the strongest criticism. There is opposition to the Goals relating to reading, more so to those relating to writing and punctuation:

    Over the years, a lot of evidence from the Foundation Stage profile suggests that although such goals are achievable for some children […] they do not seem to be consistently achievable for all children at the end of the year in which they become five. […] Certainly, the British Association for Early Childhood Education feels that they are more appropriate for Year 1. Therefore, we would wish to see those goals apply to slightly older children, so that the goals are genuinely something that children at the end of their fifth year would be able to achieve, rather than having unrealistic expectations for [younger] children.[40]

The evidence that we received called for five Goals to be removed from the EYFS—that, by around the age of 5, children should:

  • read a range of familiar and common words and simple sentences independently;
  • use their phonic knowledge to write simple regular words and make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex words;
  • attempt writing for different purposes, using features of different forms such as lists, stories and instructions;
  • write their own names and other things such as labels and captions, and begin to form simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation, and
  • use a pencil and hold it effectively to form recognisable letters, most of which are correctly formed.[41]

64. In responding to these concerns the Minister of State for Schools and Learners, the Rt Hon Jim Knight MP, expressed his impatience for the EYFS to be implemented so that it could begin to support the work of early years practitioners. Nevertheless, the Department has asked Sir Jim Rose to re-assess two of these Goals as part of his review of the primary curriculum—that, by around the age of 5, children should "use their phonic knowledge to write simple regular words and make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex words" and "write their own names and other things such as labels and captions, and begin to form simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation".

65. We welcome the Department's decision to review two of the communication, language and literacy Early Learning Goals within the Early Years Foundation Stage. Nevertheless, we draw the Department's attention to the near universal support for the reconsideration of the Early Learning Goals directly concerned with reading, writing and punctuation.

66. We recommend that the Early Learning Goals directly concerned with reading, writing and punctuation be removed from the Early Years Foundation Stage pending the review of the Early Years Foundation Stage in 2010.

67. We recommend that, through its review of the Early Years Foundation Stage in 2010, the Department takes the opportunity to evaluate whether the statutory framework as set out in Setting the Standards for Learning and Development and Care for Children from Birth to Five is too prescriptive and too detailed.

68. We have strong reservations regarding the interim recommendation from the Rose Review that entry into reception class in the September immediately following a child's fourth birthday should become the norm.[42] As a predecessor Committee of ours pointed out, when a child starts reception class is less of an issue than what they learn.[43] Given our concerns that literacy is being covered with children at too young an age, we fear that, as currently constituted, reception classes cannot deliver this recommendation in a way that is appropriate for younger children. We note that, unlike nursery settings, a reception class needs only to be staffed by one teacher for 30 pupils, and that the number of additional adults in a reception classroom, such as teaching assistants, varies. We learnt of one example where one teaching assistant was shared between three reception classes.[44]

69. We recommend that the Rose Review does not pursue its interim recommendation that entry into reception class in the September immediately following a child's fourth birthday should become the norm.

23   See, for example, Ev 41, paragraph 3; Ev 50, paragraph 6; Ev 63, paragraph 2; Ev 157, paragraph 1; Ev 257, paragraph 1; Ev 266, paragraph 1; Ev 272, paragraph 2.1.1; Ev 285, paragraph 1; Ev 287, paragraph 1.1 Back

24   Ev 287, paragraph 1.1. See also Ev 273, paragraph 2.1.2  Back

25   Ev 273, paragraph 2.1.2a; Q 122 Back

26   Qq 309-310 Back

27   Ev 291. See also Ev 273, paragraph 2.1.4; Ev 292, paragraphs 3-5; Ev 293, paragraph 1.4; Ev 314, paragraph 3.1 Back

28   Q 91  Back

29   Q 531  Back

30   "All pupils to get healthy lifestyle lessons", DCSF press release 2008/0235, 23 October 2008. Back

31   "Compulsory cooking lessons for all young people", DCSF press release 2008/0015, 22 January 2008. Back

32   "Johnson backs Dearing's blueprint for a renaissance in language learning", DCSF press release 2007/0041, 12 March 2007. Back

33   The Secretary of State's terms of reference for the Rose Review can be viewed at Back

34   Q 520; Ev 255, paragraph 6.2; Ev 45, paragraph 34; Ev 53, paragraph 26; Ev 72, paragraphs 101-104 Back

35   The Cambridge Primary Review takes in ten themes: Purposes and Values; Learning and Teaching; Curriculum and Assessment; Quality and Standards; Diversity and Inclusion; Settings and Professionals; Parenting, Caring and Educating; Children's Lives Beyond the School; Structures and Phases, and Funding and Governance. Back

36   Q 478 Back

37   Ev 263, paragraph 21. See also Ev 274, paragraph 3.1.2c Back

38   Feinstein, L. Birth Cohort Study, 1999; Feinstein, L., Economica, 2003.  Back

39   For full information on this and related projects see Back

40   Evidence on the EYFS, HC 600-i, Session 2007-08, Q 2  Back

41   Evidence on the EYFS, HC 600-i, Session 2007-08, Qq 34-38 Back

42   The Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum, interim report, December 2008, recommendation 10(i), p 51. Back

43   House of Commons Education and Employment Committee, First Report of Session 2000-01, Early Years, HC 33-I, paragraph 57. Back

44   Evidence on the EYFS, HC 600-i, Session 2007-08, Q 53 [Anne Nelson]  Back

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