National Curriculum - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

4  Trusting schools

Extending Academies' freedoms

70. Some categories of schools already have considerable freedom in relation to the National Curriculum. This was the case with the small number of City Technology Colleges (CTCs) introduced following the 1988 Education Reform Act. The same was true for the first waves of Academies, which represented a similar category of schools to CTCs, so much so that most CTCs have now converted into Academies. The first Academies were not required to teach to the National Curriculum but were required to teach the core subjects of English, mathematics, science and ICT and otherwise offer a 'broad and balanced' curriculum. Since 2007, all newly-signed Academy funding agreements have required Academies to follow the National Curriculum for the core subjects. There are currently 133 Academies, which represent 4% of secondary schools in England;[45] the Department is committed to establishing 400 Academies, though it does not give a date by which this should be achieved.[46] Curriculum freedoms will be considered on a case-by-case basis for a further category of schools—National Challenge schools—which in January 2009 numbered 440, around 13% of secondary schools.[47]

71. The Department's argument for Academies' curriculum freedoms is that these schools have a particularly disadvantaged pupil intake and therefore may need to spend more time on literacy and numeracy or find new ways to engage pupils in their learning.[48] The Department expects that as Academies drive up performance they will offer the full National Curriculum to the large majority of their pupils. In the meantime, however, it deems Academies' curriculum freedoms to be essential if these schools are to raise standards.[49] Furthermore, in his evidence to us the Minister was not concerned that Academy pupils' access to a broad and balanced curriculum, or coverage of particular key topics, was in any way under threat from the curriculum freedoms that these schools enjoy:

    I guess we would have confidence in the fact that [Academy pupils] had a good grounding and competence in the core subjects. Those are the core subjects because it is only with confidence in them that pupils will prosper across the curriculum. On the basis of that foundation, when pupils move schools, they can do so with some confidence.

    Some catching up might be required [in relation to particular topics], but again, one of the joys of the new Key Stage 3 secondary curriculum is that the flexibility is there for one-to-one catch-up or for groups to be able to catch up and stretch according to the needs of individuals.[50]

72. Should other schools wish to disapply a Programme of Study, whether for the whole school or particular groups of pupils, they must apply to do so through the Department. If a school is successful in its application it will be able to take forward its proposed innovation only for a specified time period, after which a further application must be submitted.[51]

73. Given that the Department sees Academies' curriculum freedoms as a key factor in their ability to raise standards, and that the Minister is so confident that Academies' curriculum freedoms have not damaged these pupils' access to a rounded curriculum, it is not clear why the Department restricts these freedoms to Academies. We recommend that the freedoms that Academies enjoy in relation to the National Curriculum be immediately extended to all maintained schools.

74. Some categories of schools, including Academies, have other freedoms that are relevant to their ability to shape their curriculum offer to best meet the needs of their pupils, most notably their ability to extend the school day. Should Foundation schools, Voluntary-Aided schools or Academies wish to change the length of the school day the only requirement is one of acting reasonably (e.g. consulting with parents, pupils and staff). By contrast, Community and Voluntary-Controlled schools—which together comprise 75% of all maintained schools[52]—face particular restrictions, as set out below:

i.  The governing body of a Community or Voluntary-Controlled school must consult with various audiences as set out in the regulations.[53] This includes the local authority, the head teacher, parents and all persons employed in any teaching or non-teaching post at the school.

ii.  If the governing body wants to change the morning start time or afternoon end time, change can only come in at the start of the school year and when the local authority and parents have had a minimum of three months notice of the change.

iii.  If change is to other times (e.g. lunch-break), change can only come in at the start of the school term and where the local authority and parents have had a minimum of six weeks notice of the change.

iv.  If seeking an exception to any of the requirements set out under (ii) and (iii), the governing body can apply to the Department for 'Power to Innovate'.[54]

Even where a Community or Voluntary-Controlled school becomes a National Challenge school (i.e. they dip below the threshold of 30% pupils achieving five GCSEs A*-C, including English and mathematics), these requirements still stand. Community and Voluntary-Controlled schools currently represent 72% of the 440 National Challenge schools.[55]

75. We note that the roll-out of extended schools will offer all maintained schools more time in the school day in which to deliver the curriculum. In the meantime, no reason has been brought to our attention for the discrepancy between different categories of schools in terms of the processes that they must follow if they wish to extend the school day. We believe that the greater freedom that Foundation and Voluntary-Aided schools and Academies enjoy in relation to changing the length of the school day should be immediately granted to all maintained schools. This would offer all maintained schools maximum scope to shape their delivery of the National Curriculum around the needs of their pupils.

Promoting local ownership of the National Curriculum

76. We recognise that simply handing greater freedoms to schools in the context of current accountability arrangements would not necessarily result in significant change to the way in which schools and teachers work with the National Curriculum and related guidance and the way in which children and young people experience the National Curriculum.

77. The response of schools to date to the opportunity to have the National Curriculum disapplied illustrates the nervousness of some in relation to curriculum innovation. As the Minister himself commented:

    […] it is interesting that the applications that [the Department has] had in respect of variation from the National Curriculum for curriculum innovation have not been refused because we do not want people to do the innovation, but because they could already have done the things that they wanted to do within the National Curriculum.[56]

78. In line with the findings of our recent testing and assessment inquiry, a range of evidence submitted to our National Curriculum inquiry commented on the way in which the curriculum as delivered to pupils tends to follow testing rather than, as claimed by the Department, testing following the curriculum.[57] It is widely believed that the Department's proposed future approach to testing, Single Level Tests, could actually exacerbate some of the problems encountered with Key Stage testing in this regard.[58]

79. Further to our Testing and Assessment Report we again draw the Department's attention to concerns that a system of Single Level Tests linked to targets, and potentially to funding, could further narrow the curriculum as experienced by all or some pupils.

80. The perception among schools is that the outcomes of Ofsted inspections are largely determined by a school's test scores and Contextual Value Added scores and that inspectors pay little attention to broader Every Child Matters outcomes.[59] This reinforces the potential for current testing arrangements to impact negatively on teaching and learning.[60]

81. Yet, it seems that inspection also impacts directly on how the curriculum is delivered in schools by encouraging adherence to the National Strategies as the means of raising Key Stage test performance. The National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) commented:

    Despite its claims to the contrary, the current inspection system focuses almost exclusively on the nature and operation of school processes rather than outcomes.[61]

    Although the [National] Strategy frameworks are not statutory […] Ofsted continues to emphasise their importance in the development of effective approaches to curriculum planning and delivery at school level.[62]

82. In such a context it seems to us that a local authority or a school would have to be very confident to decide not to 'play it safe' by following centrally-produced guidance:

    The underlying policy is one of Ministers being relentless in driving up standards and in developing the policies to do so. […] Time and again one hears of teachers who suspend their judgement and instead follow what the various curricula tell them to do because then they 'can't be blamed'.[63]

And, indeed, there was evidence to suggest that some local authority officers and school improvement partners—through which the National Strategies are increasingly brokered—are placing pressure on schools to use National Strategies guidance.[64]

83. There are also instances where the Department's emphasis on the non-statutory status of National Strategies guidance appears particularly disingenuous, most notably in the case of Letters and Sounds. This was an 'opt-out' rather than 'opt-in' set of guidance, and in his evidence to us the Minister was clear that the Department wishes to see more "consistent use" made of it.[65]

84. Part of the problem with the National Strategies guidance in this respect is that it has often promoted a particular approach as the 'one best way', whether, for example, objective-led lessons, the three-part lesson or synthetic phonics.[66] This is all the more problematic given the suggestion that the National Strategies have typically been supported by post-hoc justification based on selective use of the available evidence.[67] To take the example of literacy, it appears that the promotion of 'one best way' has resulted in some teachers being prevented from using their preferred approach due to pressure to follow centrally-produced guidance. As one teacher commented to us:

    In 2004, I was not allowed by my local authority to teach children consistently according to the principles of synthetic phonics. I was told I must use the National Literacy Strategy 'searchlights' [approach]. […] I was also told that I must use the government programmes, Progression in Phonics and Playing with Sounds. These programmes have now been withdrawn by Government and replaced by the synthetic phonics programme Letters and Sounds. In other words, government initiatives were used as justification for preventing me from teaching in a way that was later promoted through new government initiatives.[68]

While there is considerable support for the Letters and Sounds guidance, our own extensive inquiry into the teaching of early reading concluded that a range of approaches can work effectively, so long as teachers are trained to use them and they are applied systematically.[69]

85. The idea that there is one best way to teach is not supported by the research evidence and so should not be the basis for the delivery of the National Curriculum.

86. The Department must not place pressure on schools to follow certain sets of non-statutory guidance, such as it has done in the case of Letters and Sounds. We recommend that the Department send a much stronger message to Ofsted, local authorities, school improvement partners and schools as to the non-statutory nature of National Strategies guidance.

45   DCSF, Education and Training Statistics for the United Kingdom: 2008. Table 1.1: Number of schools, by type of school-time series; 2007/08 figures. For up-to-date figures on Academies see Back

46 Back

47   "Number of National Challenge schools down", DCSF press release 2009/0007, 14 January 2009.  Back

48   See  Back

49   See  Back

50   Qq 224-225 Back

51   DfES, Disapplication of the National Curriculum (Revised), guidance (July 2006) Back

52   DCSF, Schools and Pupils in England: January 2007 (Final), 2007. SFR 30/2007. Table 8a: Maintained primary and secondary schools: number of schools by their status and religious character.  Back

53   Statutory Instrument 1999 No. 2733, The Changing of School Session Times (England) Regulations 1999. Back

54   Through the Power to Innovate the Secretary of State for the DCSF is able, temporarily, to suspend or modify education legislation that may be holding back innovative approaches to raising standards. The Power to Innovate guidance and application form can be viewed at Back

55   Data supplied by DCSF. Back

56   Q 220 Back

57   Ev 111, paragraph 72 Back

58   Ev 161, paragraph 26. See also Ev 45, paragraph 33; Ev 67, paragraphs 45-46; Ev 71, paragraph 96; Ev 161, paragraph 24; Ev 282, paragraph 4(iii); Ev 290, paragraph 9.2 Back

59   e.g. Q 476 Back

60   e.g. Q 272  Back

61   Ev 56 Back

62   Ev 61, paragraph 40. See also Ev 271, paragraph 4; Q 273 Back

63   Ev 256, paragraphs 6-7 [Jolly Learning Ltd] Back

64   Ev 256, paragraph 7; Ev 285, paragraph 4. See also Ev 52, paragraphs 13, 16 Back

65   Qq 217, 596 Back

66   Ev 135-136 Back

67   Ev 135-136; Qq 273, 296 Back

68   Ev 285, paragraph 4. See also Q 36  Back

69   House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2004-05, Teaching Children to Read, HC 121. See also Ev 135-136; Ev 271, paragraphs 5-6; Ev 286, paragraph 7  Back

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