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'Exams shouldn't be the foundation on which the curriculum is built'

Secondary curricula are skewed by GCSEs – it is a triumph of testing over teaching, says Kevin Stannard

The curriculum

Secondary curricula are skewed by GCSEs – it is a triumph of testing over teaching, says Kevin Stannard

It is a monotonous mantra that the structures of schooling lag behind the needs of the times.

This includes the regularly rehearsed revelation that schools persist in perpetuating a "factory" model even when most factories have moved on. The standardised approach, with everyone assembling at the sound of a bell, and moving through the day en bloc in a routinised style, apparently remains true only of schools, prisons and slaughterhouses.

The "knowledge versus skills" pseudo-debate ploughs the same furrow, with critics despairing of the persistence of a curriculum model devised in the mists of time, and for very different purposes. How can we possibly prepare pupils for a future of motion and mutability using a fixed framework of subjects considered suitable for our medieval or even classical forebears?

The basic shape of our academic curriculum was crystallised before the Moon landings, before America was "discovered", and many of its aspects before we realised the Earth was round.

Why is the curriculum set in stone?

Less hyperbolically, it is remarkable how familiar is the framework of school study set out in 1892 by the fabled "Committee of Ten" university academics in the  USA, who sought to define the elements of a standardised secondary school curriculum.

The fixed features of a school, inscribed in its built environment, cannot easily keep up with changes in pedagogy. But why does the curriculum seem equally set in stone? Why has it not kept pace with changes in educational thinking and transformations in the world in which our students are going to have to make their way?

Perhaps the answer is that the curriculum, even in its ancient subject silos, still works. A lot of the criticism assumes for schools a propaedeutic purpose, as if secondary schools existed solely to prepare young people for work or study, rather than to equip them to be self-aware citizens.

A wrong turn was taken in the search for generic, transferable "skills". While there are, to be sure, skills that can be taught in a variety of settings (such as working in a group), many of the most important skills that young people need are rooted firmly in disciplines, and in associated curriculum content.

The English education system assumes that disciplinary dispositions are already in place by the age of 16, when students can choose to drop subjects.

Yet for this argument to hold water, students must have had access to all the relevant disciplines. National curriculum reforms and performance measures assume that the same skills can be delivered through any number of subjects: how else to explain the invidious choices to be made in studying either history or geography beyond 14, and carrying on one creative subject rather than another? This has unintentionally undermined the integrity of disciplinary knowledge and skills.

The common response is to point to GCSE as of a "given" size, and the impossibility of fitting more subjects into an already crowded curriculum. But starting with the size of GCSEs and then building a curriculum is like designing a house on the basis of what kinds of bricks happen to be available. It is the quintessence of the triumph of testing over teaching.

Isn’t the answer just to make GCSEs smaller?

Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets @KevinStannard1

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