Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, writes:
It’s nice when the education secretary agrees with you. And for the majority of her speech at our annual conference, Nicky Morgan did exactly that. ASCL, she said, had made a powerful case for trusting school leaders and trusting the profession. “We accept that case wholeheartedly,” she declared. However, she did not agree with ASCL in what she described as “its suggestion of taking control of the curriculum away from ministers.” “It’s my belief,” she said, “that what our children learn in schools must be something that is decided by democratically elected representatives.” Inevitably, it was this area of disagreement which dominated news reports of her speech. Fair enough. Nobody wants to read about everybody agreeing with each other. And there will have been a fair few observers who will have agreed with the education secretary’s view. It is not at all unreasonable that parents should be able to hold ministers to account on something as important as what their children learn at school. However, ASCL is not proposing otherwise. What we are saying is that the way in which the curriculum is developed should involve more people who have a stake in the education of our children. School leaders should be involved in that process because it is vital that they have ownership of the curriculum and fully support its aims. But that process should also involve other groups such as employers and parents. The most recent curriculum changes did not remotely do this. They were developed by ministers and expert advisers and were drawn up by civil servants. What ASCL is saying is that this process should instead be carried out by an independent commission on which would sit all those who have a stake in the future of our children. The final decision would still be taken by ministers. But they would base their decisions on the recommendations of a body which would much better represent all the interested parties. The commission would make use of independent evidence to ensure that its decisions were based on what works rather than the latest political whim. And its purpose would be more clearly defined. It would give an overall framework into which teachers would fill the detail. So, for instance, it might simply say that the curriculum should include poetry of different periods rather than specifying, as the new curriculum does, that it must include “representative Romantic poetry.” Crucially, the independent commission would review the curriculum only once every five years. That would ensure that curriculum changes were given time to bed in rather than being immediately overhauled. Change could also be managed in a much more ordered and considered way. And the people that all of this matters most to is neither teachers nor politicians, but the students themselves. A better managed, more structured process for curriculum change creates greater stability for young people in their studies. They know exactly what they are expected to learn, rather than the ground shifting under them. And basing curriculum development on the latest evidence, with the input of employers, means that what they learn will be better tuned to what they need to know to prepare them for employment and life in general. Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools, said: “You can mandate adequacy; you can't mandate greatness. It has to be unleashed.” It is a quote that ASCL has taken to its heart and it applies to our proposals over curriculum. What we are saying is that a great curriculum – which is relevant to the things young people most need to know – cannot be imposed from above but needs to be informed by all those who have a stake in the education of our children. There is a danger that a curriculum mandated by politicians will only ever manage to mandate adequacy - rather than unleashing the greatness that is vital to the future of our children and our country.