The National Curriculum

It seems impossible to believe but before 1989 there was no legal requirement to teach anything except Religious Knowledge in UK schools. That was the year the National Curriculum for England and Wales was launched and for the first time in history a body of knowledge was written down and enshrined in law as an entitlement for every child.

It was a lengthy and complicated document which set out every detail of what every child should learn in every subject. There was a Programme of Study for every subject which described exactly what should be taught. There was also a set of Attainment Targets which described exactly what a child should be capable of at each of ten levels.

It was a sound idea but, as you can imagine, it contained far too much content. Science, for example, had seventeen attainment targets and each one contained dozens of topics to be taught and assessed. "Death by a million tick-boxes" became a common phrase as teachers struggled to implement an unwieldy curriculum. Lord Dearing was brought in to slim it down as teachers drew near to striking and the resultant slimmed down national curriculum was far more realistic.

League tables
From the outset the government decided to publish test results in the form of league tables. These deliberately set schools in competition with each other and placed them under immense - some would say unfair - pressure to compete. Schools in leafy suburbs unsurprisingly got better results than schools in deprived inner city areas and this would have been fine if the results guided future funding and support. The reality was that people simply abandoned schools that were lower in the tables. Social mobility favours the rich and so the gap between rich and poor grows. This is not a fault of the curriculum but of the decision to publish league tables. It is government policy and those in power believe that it leads to better education. Personally I disagree.

Is the curriculum right for the 21st century?
Any curriculum must be relevant to the modern world. The National Curriculum is, at its heart, the same set of subjects that we followed at school and there are those who argue that this set of discrete subjects is not the best curriculum for the 21st century. It was, after all, designed by the Victorians for the industrial age and there is strong argument about its relevance. (Find out more in the Education section of this website).

It is also a very academic curriculum. SATs and GCSEs largely measure whether you can remember things and write about them under examination conditions. It's open to question whether this is the best measure of a rounded education. Is the child who doesn't score highly in exams less able than one who does? The present system doesn’t favour creativity, practical skills or the arts. It is also based on the “one right answer” type of knowledge and neglects the need for creative thinking and entrepreurial skills that the modern world demands. This may even be part of the cause of much of the social unrest we see among young people today.

Raising standards
One of the problems of having a national curriculum and national tests is that it gives the government something to count and publish and also a measure of accountability so it forces schools to "teach to the test" or risk dropping in the tables. "Level 6 at Key Stage 2" or "5 good passes at GCSE" become the goals of education even though they don't suit every child and may even be turning out adults who lack the creativity and collaborative skills that the modern workplace demands..

This quest for improved standards tends to make the results more important than the children and this leads to anomalies. For example, after Christmas each year many primary schools pretty well abandon everything except SATs practice. And incredibly, secondary pupils could take an ICT exam that was "worth" five GCSE passes.

Another problem is that the rules change slightly each year so it's difficult to measure past results against present with any real accuracy - except to be sure that the government will do all it can to make sure the numbers move in what it considers to be the right direction.


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© Brian Smith 2015