In the United Kingdom it is the National Curriculum and in the USA, Common Core. The commonality between the two is the level of control of the leading political party. But, what if there was another way to approach a national curriculum?
On 21st March 2015 the Times Educational Supplement ran an article with the headline “Nicky Morgan: Control of national curriculum content must stay in hands of elected politicians“. In the article Ms. Morgan was reported as saying that it was right for politicians to decide what was taught in the classroom because they were democratically accountable. She was responding to a request from the Association of School and College Leaders who were proposing an independent commission made up of teachers, parents, employers, academics and politicians, to have responsibility for setting the national curriculum which would then stand unaltered for at least five years.
What if we looked at the national curriculum in a different way? What if it returned to being a minimum entitlement on which schools were free to build. The key to this would be well trained teachers able to work together in schools to design a curriculum relevant to the needs of the children in their schools. We wouldn’t have to sacrifice standards nor accept poor quality teaching but we would have to move away from the ‘teaching by numbers’ approach that was the legacy of the previous administration. With a national curriculum regularly supplemented by non-statutory guidelines which for most schools became obligatory teachers were being told in minute detail what to teach, but also, how to teach. We had the three part lesson, the four part lesson, I believe even the five part lesson. Non-statutory guidance and expensive training sessions for all teachers clearly marked out how long should be spent on a whole class teaching input, where the time divide between guided and shared work should fall and how long should be spent on a plenary. It was non-statutory but the ‘teaching by numbers’ mentality affected the inspecting body too and feedback from observations often focussed on too much or too little time being spent on a particular part of a session. Feedback that was not about the session itself but rather about whether or not the session matched the diktats of the non-statutory guidance.
Now, in an effort to thin out the national curriculum politicians have in fact produced a statutory national curriculum document that is considerably longer than the previous statutory documentation. Much of the content that was previously in non-statutory supplements now makes it into the national curriculum. A quick glance also shows that the weight of curriculum is in fact in primary school. When children enter secondary school the national curriculum leaves behind the many pages of specific year group content and instead provides a few short paragraphs of what should be taught in secondary Key Stages. I am guessing that may be because of political meddling in exam boards.
I would propose a return to an end of Key Stage achievement expectation. The route taken to make that achievement could be planned by schools. This in turn might encourage a broader education that would benefit all of our students. It may even help with engagement in primary and with the some of the mental health issues that have now become a focus in our schools.
Who would set this minimum expected standard? I can’t see that politicians is a sensible solution. What we have undergone recently highlights the problems with political parties of power setting a curriculum. With a change of party comes a completely new ideologically driven curriculum. The notion of involving more than just the party of power in setting the curriculum is therefore a sensible approach. Allowing an expert body to set the minimum expectations for the end of Key Stage would answer the “what?” and then schools and teachers would be free to answer the “how?”. Inspections then would also need to consider whether the curriculum a school was employing was fit for purpose.
Unfortunately, as long as politicians think they are the best people to decided the “what?” and also drive the “how?” then the responsibility for standards should lie more firmly with the politicians than with the teachers and schools. In the current system where politicians are deciding every detail of the national curriculum it would certainly be interesting to hear back from an independent inspection body as to whether the curriculum being imposed is in fact fit for purpose.