Is curriculum design a ‘dictatorship’?

In England, the national curriculum can be subject to the whims of the latest education secretary – and the last time it was reviewed, critics claimed there was a lack of teacher input. Wouldn’t it be sensible to put curriculum design into the hands of teachers rather than politicians? Here, Kate Parker takes a look at Finland’s review process, which empowers teachers to regularly update their curriculum in order to keep pace with the new skills students need in a fast-changing world
5th April 2019, 12:03am
What Would Happen If Teachers Designed The Curriculum?


Is curriculum design a ‘dictatorship’?

England has been “flip-flopping” about its schools’ curriculum for three decades.

That is the damning verdict of a key participant in the most recent review of our national curriculum.

Professor Mary James’ problem is that the decision about when to change the curriculum, and how, depends entirely on the current secretary of state for education. “Because of our four-year, five-year political cycle, we don’t have consistency,” says the former Cambridge education academic.

“We should think about creating in education a kind of broad board of stakeholders so that sensible decisions can be made and not have this constant churn we’ve had over the past 30 years.”

Since its launch in the Education Reform Act 1988, England’s national curriculum has undergone four major reforms at irregular intervals.

James, previously a professor and associate director of research at the University of Cambridge, a past president of the British Educational Research Association and a teacher for 10 years, was one of four experts who led the latest reform, commissioned in 2011 by Michael Gove, then education secretary, and introduced from 2014.

The impact of this reform on the maintained schools that have to teach the national curriculum, and the many academies that base their lessons around it, has been huge. But there were serious concerns early on that actual classroom teachers had very little real say in the process.

Imagine if there was another way.

A system in which teachers choose what they teach. A process in which those at the chalkface collaborate with each other to build a curriculum, and then feed it back to the ministry. A constant - not sudden or unexplained - evolution of the model based on the advancing world and the skills needed to thrive in it. A system where decisions are not top-down, but the opposite: where the teachers design the curriculum.

Such a system does exist in Finland.

Jouni Kangasniemi, ministerial adviser on education in Finland, says that the Finnish curriculum is “almost at the opposite end to the English one”.

The biggest difference between the two? The prevalence of teacher voice.

In 2011, Gove instructed Tim Oates, research director for Cambridge Assessment, to lead an expert review panel to come up with proposals for a new national curriculum. Alongside Oates on this panel were James; Professor Andrew Pollard, head of research impact at the UCL Institute of Education; and Professor Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment, also at the UCL Institute of Education.

But after just 18 months, both James and Pollard submitted resignation letters to Gove (although he subsequently persuaded them to stay on the panel). Why? They were concerned that not enough notice was being taken of the feedback from teachers on both the previous curriculum and the proposals for the new one. That’s not to say that teachers weren’t spoken to. According to James, she, Pollard and Wiliam dedicated a lot of their time to gaining insights from teachers and school leaders.

“We did, as they always have to do, set up a consultation exercise where you invite stakeholders to give a response. The DfE [Department for Education] analysed those to a certain extent, they ticked boxes and developed percentages,” says James.

“In addition, there were lots and lots of meetings set up with different groups. There were primary groups, SEN groups, meetings with particular influencers - I went to talk to [children’s novelist] Michael Rosen, for instance - and there were also subject specialists and those sorts of things.

“As you can predict, there were very, very different views and, in the end, you have to come down and accept certain views and reject others and make some kind of reasonable adjustment. But Andrew and I were worried that some of the very strongly expressed views were not taken sufficient note of.”

In a blog for the UCL Institute of Education, published in June 2012, Pollard wrote: “In the past 18 months, a very large number of teachers, parents and other stakeholders have offered advice to the Department for Education. The report of an expert panel, of which I was a member, drew on this background in making its proposals. However, it is far from clear that these sources have influenced the proposals published yesterday.”

James pinpoints schools minister Nick Gibb as a key influence over what went into the national curriculum. At the time, Gove’s attention, says James, was mainly on free schools and academies. It was Gibb who was the driving force, and Gibb, in her view, who had “very fixed views [on the curriculum], based on his own experience.”

James said that while she, Wiliam and Pollard were consulting with teachers, Oates had a secondment at the DfE for two days a week. “Tim spent a lot of time working with an internal team [in the DfE], developing programmes of study. We weren’t entirely convinced that we could go along with what was being developed,” she says.

“In many cases, we were given drafts to look at in meetings and sometimes they went to 60 pages. There was no way we could read that in the meeting and we actually said, on one occasion, ‘Can you have it minuted that we have received these documents, we have not had time to read them and nor can we endorse them?”

When asked about how much “teacher voice” was reflected in the curriculum, Oates echoes James in terms of the time spent gathering teachers’ views. He says that he read a “substantial number” of the feedback submissions, and that teachers, ex-teachers and engaged educationalists were included in formal consultations. But he adds that, alongside their views, evidence from international and domestic research was also taken into account.

“Balancing views held in common with compelling research - which can be at odds with one another - is a vital part of evidence-based policy development,” he says.

But some felt that the balance between the teachers’ views - however varied they were - the research evidence and the views of the ministers in charge was somewhat off-kilter.

The Finnish way of doing things is quite different. There the curriculum undergoes change every 10 years, during which a set process is followed. This constant evolution, says Kangasniemi, is to ensure that pupils gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the changing world around them.

When looking towards the future of teaching and learning, the country relies on those with the most expertise: the teachers. There’s no single driving force. It’s a collaborative effort.

The process starts four or five years before the new curriculum is expected to embedded. The ministry sets up a working group with teachers, senior officials in education, union staff, administrators and financers, who work together to allocate hours to subjects. They discuss and decide: how many hours should we teach history for? Or languages? Are there any new subjects that should be included?

“Sometimes you add an extra hour of maths and science if you see that of importance; sometimes you see that now we need to put more lessons into soft skills because of trends that are happening around the world,” says Kangasniemi.

“We use research and elements like the Pisa [Programme for International Student Assessment] tests; some hints of information from all over. What’s happening and is our system balanced? It’s very technical. We have evaluations in the schools, we ask the teachers and test the skills.

“[The tests] are not ranking students, but they give us information on where there are problems or challenges.”

In this working group, there are around two members of ministry staff. Once the group comes up with its proposals for the number of hours to allocate to each subject, it presents them to the minister of education, currently Sanni Grahn-Laasonen. She, in turn, presents them to the wider government.

Once the basic time allocations are in place, the National Agency for Education - the development agency responsible for early childhood education and care, and pre-primary, basic, general and vocational upper secondary education, as well as for adult education and training - becomes involved.

It runs pilots and experiments with different course materials and consults 36 focus groups, with 200 teachers, parents and children involved. In these groups, everyone works together to address the strengths and weaknesses of the current model, and discusses what should be preserved or what needs to be introduced.

Teacher and edtech consultant Aleksi Komu is currently involved in such a pilot. With a group of teachers, he is researching how technology in education can provide meaningful ways of learning new things. One particular focus is literacy.

“I live in eastern Finland, where there’s been a problem with boys,” he says. “They don’t like to read any more, so we have these common projects: how can we get them reading more? We have been testing different-style things, and we have always had research attached to that project, and an aim.”

“We want to learn what works and what doesn’t work, so we can see what we can do better next time. People from the government, some parents, some companies work with us and we try to include the students and the whole area so that the schools are working together.”

The outcomes of such projects are then fed back to the National Agency for Education. Using this feedback, a national core curriculum is built by smaller groups of teachers. These teachers will have contributed to the process before. Kangasniemi describes them as the “forerunners of education”. These are the people who know whether what’s being proposed is feasible or not. “It’s not decided by somebody from outside because otherwise it’s just a dictatorship,” he says.

Kirsi Arino is one such teacher. She teaches biology at Vesala Comprehensive School in Helsinki and has been involved in the design of the biology curriculum for many years.

“Each subject has a small group of about eight teachers, and then we had seminars where all the groups came together. I was in the group of biology and then every group member was a guest in another group, and I was a guest in the early years environmental sciences group,” she says.

“We had rules on how to write the curriculum and discussions with neighbouring subjects like physics and so on. I think there were about 1,000 teachers across all the subjects in all.”

This process takes around three years, and teachers produce texts at home. They then gather together in the focus groups of teachers (chaired by a member of the National Agency for Education) about 10 or 15 times, Arino estimates. She describes seminars that included all the subjects so they could see the curriculum as a whole.

Gove’s review also consulted with focus groups. An advisory committee of 15 members “supported the Department for Education in the conduct of the review by helping to frame recommendations, offering a wider perspective on the proposals from the expert panel and providing advice on strategic and cross-cutting issues that may arise from the review”. But, at the time, only six members of the committee were working in state schools, and they were heads rather than classroom teachers.

The other members included an independent school head; two retired headteachers; Jon Coles, DfE director-general for education standards; Mike Harris, head of education and skills policy at the Institute of Directors; Patrick Leeson, director of education and care at Ofsted; Ruth Miskin, founder of Read Write Inc and a former primary head; Professor Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick; and Tim Oates, the chair of the expert panel.

When asked about the lack of classroom teachers on this board, Oates says: “I was not privy to the decisions about the membership of the advisory group. Submissions were made by civil servants to ministers as per normal protocol.

“But heads such as board member John Martin [one of the six state-school heads] are very active in their schools and absolutely in touch with classroom issues, school management and parental and social interests.”

Shahed Ahmed, executive head of Elmhurst Primary School, in Newham, East London, was another of the six state-school heads in the group. He feels that his voice - and, as an extension, the voice of his staff - was heard but he recognises that teachers could have more of an input into curriculum design.

“What we could do better in this country is involve teachers much earlier on,” he says. “There was a consultation process that went on but that did come a bit too late and a bit too broad basically. I certainly think you need to have experts, people who know their curriculum area really well, so a maths expert, an English expert and so on.”

Ahmed looks to Singapore, where he says a practising headteacher could work at the equivalent of the DfE for a few years, developing the curriculum and giving advice, before returning to their headship.

“[In England], it’s all decided by the DfE, who involve experts and involve teachers in different ways, but [the experts] haven’t necessarily been headteachers or teachers themselves. It’s very much driven by the ministers here: the curriculum depends on what the minister at the time feels,” he says.

Back in Finland, Kangasniemi agrees. He says that too many countries present a very finalised curriculum to teachers.

“You start implementing and start training teachers and that’s where it goes in the wrong direction,” he says.

“It’s a huge learning process to even understand what the curriculum is all about and then you have standardised testing, expectation and teachers become more like industry workers trying to produce students, instead of giving them the freedom to teach and use resources they themselves feel comfortable with and that they are good at.”

Oates is not convinced about the merits of the current Finnish education system. In April 2015, he published a report, Finnish Fairy Stories, which he claims “puts the record straight” about the “myths” that surround education in Finland. He says, for example, that allocating hours to specific subjects would cause outrage in England.

Oates argues that, during the ’70s and ’80s, Finland saw growing equity and rising attainment in education. But he continues: “From the mid-’90s, it’s clear that Finland has struggled to develop decisive and robust public policy in education, as have many nations. School closures, rising numbers of less well-trained teachers, shifts in home reading and youth culture all seem to have played a part.

“What’s clear from the latest research is that innovations like ‘phenomenon-based learning’ are worsening things, not improving them. Finland remains a ‘place of interest’ but not for the reasons that many people think: we should look to the solid and successful things they did in the ’70s and ’80s - things that genuinely raised achievement.”

However, if all the good work in Finland was done years ago, then international comparative data suggests that its positive influence has persisted. The latest Pisa statistics, released in 2015, show that Finland outperforms the UK in maths, science and reading. For maths, Finland ranks 13th and the UK ranks 27th; for science, Finland is 5th, the UK 15th; and for reading, Finland is 4th and the UK is 22nd.

And when both countries’ curriculum design processes go under the microscope, the difference is genuine teacher involvement.

James remembers a moment in Parliament when Gove was asked about her and Pollard’s attempted resignation. “[Labour MP] Stephen Twigg quoted the three of us and raised some concerns about what was happening,” she says. “Michael Gove’s response was quite interesting. He said: ‘Well, as Margaret Thatcher said, ‘Advisors advise, ministers decide.’”

And teachers, it seems, are left out in the cold.

Kate Parker is a reporter at Tes. She tweets at @KateeParker

The DfE did not respond when given the opportunity to comment

This article originally appeared in the 5 April 2019 issue under the headline “Are we victims of a curriculum ‘dictatorship’?”

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