National Curriculum - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Formal Minutes

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Members present:

Mr Barry Sheerman, in the Chair
Annette Brooke

Mr Douglas Carswell

Mr John Heppell

Paul Holmes

Fiona Mactaggart

Mr Andy Slaughter

Mr Graham Stuart

Mr Edward Timpson

Derek Twigg

Draft Report (National Curriculum), proposed by the Chairman, brought up and read.

Draft Report (National Curriculum), proposed by Mr Graham Stuart, brought up and read, as follows:


1. The National Curriculum, which is followed by all maintained schools in England and, to a certain extent, by Academies, is rooted in the Education Reform Act 1988. The key principles in developing the National Curriculum were that:

  • it would be underpinned by two aims—to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils, and to prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life;
  • it would be structured around 'Key Stages' and be subject-based, covering the 'core' subjects of English, mathematics and science, and the 'foundation' subjects of art, geography, history, music, physical education and technology, with all subjects studied up to age 16, modern foreign languages from age 11, and
  • the syllabus for each subject at each Key Stage would be set out in a 'Programme of Study', which would also include a scale of attainment targets to guide teacher assessment.

Schools would also be required to teach religious education and areas such as personal, social and health education, though these subjects sat outside the National Curriculum. A number of non-statutory 'cross-curricular' themes and generic—or life—skills were added to this basic framework in the course of implementing the National Curriculum.

2. Since its introduction, the National Curriculum has been subject to frequent review and reform. Most recently, a new secondary curriculum, placing greater emphasis on pupils' understanding of the concepts, ideas and processes of subjects, on cross-curricular themes and on pupils' development of life skills, became statutory for Year 7 pupils from September 2008. The Government has also commissioned a 'root and branch' review of the primary curriculum, led by Sir Jim Rose, albeit excluding testing and assessment. The Review team published its interim report in December 2008; and it is due to publish its final report and recommendations in Spring 2009.

3. National prescription in relation to the curriculum has also gradually extended to early years provision, culminating in the introduction in September 2008 of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) as the new statutory framework for children from birth to age 5. Although early years guidance has always sat outside the National Curriculum, the stated purposes of the National Curriculum and the EYFS broadly overlap.[99]

4. The Terms of Reference for our inquiry requested views on whether there should be a national curriculum. A lot of the evidence that we received, while it did not call for the complete removal of a national framework for the curriculum, did suggest that the level of prescription under the National Curriculum has become excessive.[100]

5. Our overall impression of the National Curriculum is that it has far outgrown the initial concept and has become overly prescriptive. It has been interfered with and micro-managed by central government which has reduced the scope for teachers to innovate and take control of learning. The Department needs to accept that it must move away from a culture of imposition to a culture of trust and support, otherwise the National Curriculum, for all its virtues, will continue to be perceived by many to be an instrument of central control rather than a facilitator of excellent learning.

6. We highlight below some of the chief faults of the National Curriculum in its present form; and we conclude by sketching out the characteristics of a national curriculum that, we believe, can help revitalise curriculum development within schools and which is protected from continuous change and overload.

Failure of the status quo

7. We regret that the National Curriculum and related accountability arrangements have inhibited some schools from taking forward curriculum and pedagogical innovation. Schools can apply to the Secretary of State to have the National Curriculum disapplied for a period "to enable curriculum development or experimentation".[101] Schools also have flexibility in how they develop their curriculum from the statutory requirements without any need for disapplication. They may decide on, for example, the time allocation for each curriculum area and whether to teach subjects discretely or across different structures. Such flexibilities have enabled quite different interpretations of the National Curriculum.[102] Nevertheless, there are clearly schools that feel less able to take ownership of the National Curriculum. As the National Union of Teachers (NUT) commented:

    Some primary schools turn [the National Curriculum] inside out, cherry-pick from it and use it as a creative and flexible framework. Other schools use it for what we call post-hoc curriculum mapping: they do the teaching, then go back to the curriculum and tick off the attainment targets for the bit that they have covered. That approach is entirely deadening and not the purpose of a curriculum.[103]

8. We are concerned at the growth of centrally-produced curriculum-related guidance, and we believe that the National Strategies should be discontinued. In addition to the statutory Programmes of Study for the National Curriculum, schools are encouraged to have regard to a range of centrally-produced curriculum-related frameworks and guidance, including the National Curriculum Schemes of Work and overarching frameworks, most notably the Every Child Matters outcomes.[104] In addition there is Key Stage guidance and subject guidance, much of which is published through the National Strategies. The sheer volume and complexity of this documentation, particularly the National Strategies guidance, was repeatedly noted across the evidence that we received. As Jolly Learning Ltd noted:

    A characteristic of government curriculum advice is not just its launch, but its huge and inexorable growth. Whereas the National Curriculum of 1995 had 62 pages (for literacy and numeracy) the requirement today includes Letters and Sounds (236 pages), the Primary Framework (135 pages) and the Early Years Foundation Stage (168 pages) an over 8-fold increase.[105]

In response, the National Strategies team and the Department emphasised that the National Strategies guidance is non-statutory.[106] However, this ignores the widespread perception among teachers that National Strategies guidance is mandatory, and that they could be penalised by their local authority or school improvement partner, or through Ofsted inspection, for not following that guidance.[107]

This perception by teachers of the mandatory nature of the National Strategies is hardly surprising when Initial Teacher Training (ITT) guidance says that training must be given on the use of the National Strategies and Ofsted has specifically investigated how well ITT succeeds in preparing teachers to implement the strategies in schools.

9. We suggest that the extent of top-down prescription and direction has reduced teacher morale and commitment and de-skilled the profession. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) commented:

    There has been a danger that the guidance documents and resources for the National Strategies have been seen as THE way to deliver the curriculum and, where teachers have lacked confidence or experience, there has been a tendency to view these as "teaching by numbers", leading to a generation of teachers who are curriculum deliverers rather than curriculum developers. This leads to a detachment from the process and a move towards "de-professionalisation".[108]

This is problematic in terms of reducing teachers' confidence and skills in the classroom.[109] Over the longer term it could result in a dearth of curriculum design skills within the teaching profession.[110]

10. We suggest that having a national curriculum will inevitably result in continued pressure from interest groups to ensure that their field is covered by the national curriculum. As the Minister of State for Schools and Learners, the Rt Hon Jim Knight MP, himself noted:

    There is pressure on us from a number of people who tell me about this and that, and what should be compulsory because it is their thing and they want it made compulsory. The system becomes weightier and weightier as you accede to those requests, and eventually, in the case of the secondary curriculum, you must slim it down, because it becomes unmanageable for schools.[111]

We believe that the bloated nature of the current National Curriculum also stems from excessive ad hoc changes, which have often stemmed from the particular priorities of successive Ministers.[112] As Professor Hargreaves commented:

    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. […] [the] commitment to a regular review has disappeared and Ministers can now chip in and change it if it is something to do with obesity, or something or other. […] That is very confusing to schools. It is very difficult for them to implement.

11. Children's development and learning in the very early years are of crucial importance in terms of laying strong foundations for their schooling and beyond. The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), however, is too prescriptive, bureaucratic and damaging to innovation and diversity in provision. EYFS needs, at the very least, to be drastically rethought and consideration should be given to its abolition. Instead of fixed "Early Learning Goals" the Department should facilitate enhanced research to inform practitioners and help them develop and share early years curriculum expertise.[113]

12. We are concerned that, despite having a national curriculum, many pupils are still not able to access a curriculum that equips them with the learning opportunities available to others.

13. We welcome attempts to enhance vocational and work placed learning. However, we have concerns about the design and implementation of the new Diploma, in particular the proposed inclusion of academic diplomas in science, humanities and language. We consider that all development and future provision of these academic diplomas should be discontinued.

Trusting teachers

14. We believe that there should be a national curriculum in place, but that it should look and be managed very differently, from the existing National Curriculum.

15. The National Curriculum should set out broad goals to be reached by the age of 16, should set out a framework of the core subjects and include no further instruction as to what aspects of those subjects should be taught or how the subjects should be taught. Teachers should be able to select from commercially available schemes, text-books and examination syllabuses to augment their own and their school's curriculum development. Additional support, training and re-training will be required to equip teachers with the curriculum design skills which have been lost due to the over prescription of recent years.

16. Independent schools, free schools and Academies should not be required to follow the National Curriculum. Other schools must be able to opt out if their governing bodies vote to do so and are supported by a majority of parents who vote in a ballot. The relative ease with which schools could exempt themselves from the national curriculum would serve as a valve on the national curriculum to prevent it from becoming overloaded through political interference. We also believe that a slimmed-down and essentially optional national curriculum would enhance the professional standing of teachers, improve the localisation and relevance of lessons to pupils and make teaching more enjoyable and more effective.

17. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (or its proposed successor) should be abolished or much reduced in size and consideration given to the establishment of an independent 'National Curriculum Board' with representatives appointed by universities and employers.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Chairman's draft Report be read a second time, paragraph by paragraph.—(The Chairman).

Amendment proposed, to leave out "Chairman's draft Report" and insert "draft Report proposed by Mr Graham Stuart".—(Mr Graham Stuart).

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

Ayes, 3

Mr Douglas Carswell

Mr Graham Stuart

Mr Edward Timpson

Noes, 5

Annette Brooke

Mr John Heppell

Paul Holmes

Fiona Mactaggart

Derek Twigg

Main Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That the Chairman's draft Report be read a second time, paragraph by paragraph.

Paragraphs 1 to 9 read and agreed to.

Paragraphs 10 and 11 read, amended and agreed to.

Paragraphs 12 to 20 read and agreed to.

Paragraphs 21 and 22 read, amended and agreed to.

Paragraphs 23 to 55 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 56 read, amended and agreed to.

Paragraph 57 read and agreed to.

Paragraphs 58 and 59 read, amended and agreed to.

Paragraphs 60 and 61 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 62 read, amended and agreed to.

Paragraphs 63 and 64 read and agreed to.

Paragraphs 65 and 66 read, amended and agreed to.

Paragraphs 67 to 92 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 93 read, amended and agreed to.

Paragraphs 94 to 100 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 101 read, amended and agreed to.

Paragraphs 102 to 110 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 111 read and postponed.

Paragraph 112 agreed to.

Postponed paragraph 111 again read.

Paragraph amended and agreed to.

Paragraph 113 read, amended and agreed to.

Paragraphs 114 to 116 read and agreed to.

Summary amended and agreed to.

Annexes agreed to.

Two Papers were appended to the Report as Appendices 1 and 2.

Resolved, That the Report be the Fourth Report of the Committee to the House.

Ordered, That the Chairman make the Report to the House.

Several Memoranda were ordered to be reported to the House for printing with the Report, together with certain Memoranda reported and ordered to be published on 21 May 2008 in the previous Session of Parliament.

Several Memoranda were ordered to be reported to the House for placing in the Library and Parliamentary Archives.

Ordered, That embargoed copies of the Report be made available, in accordance with the provisions of Standing Order No. 134.


[Adjourned till Monday 16 March at 3.30 pm

99   DCSF, Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage: setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five, May 2008, p7. Related EYFS guidance can be found at Back

100   E.g. Ev 250, paragraph 2 [Malcolm Ross] Back

101   DfES, Disapplication of the National Curriculum (Revised) guidance, July 2006, section 2.1. Back

102   Qq 32 and 47 Back

103   Q 113 Back

104   Be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, achieve economic well-being. Back

105   Ev 256, paragraph 4 Back

106   Q 567 Back

107   Ev 256, paragraphs 6-7; Ev 285, paragraph 4. See also Ev 52, paragraphs 13, 16 Back

108   Ev 52, paragraph 15 Back

109   Ev 52, paragraph 15. See also Ev 257, paragraph 3; Ev 258, paragraph 7; Ev 289, paragraph 7.1 Back

110   Q 124 [Martin Johnson]. See also Ev 47, paragraph 44 Back

111   Q 201 Back

112   Q 531 Back

113   Evidence on the EYFS, HC 600-i, Session 2007-08, Ev 1-4, Ev 16-17; Evidence on the EYFS, HC 600-i, Session 2007-08, Qq 44-45, 54 [Sylvie Sklan], 59, 61 Back

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