'At long-last, the narrow knowledge-based curriculum is being rejected across the education sector'

The consensus that our current curriculum is too narrow has re-emerged in the past few weeks, with everyone from Tim Peake, to Geoff Barton agreeing that we need to do more to prepare pupils for life post-school, writes one leader

John Dunford

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A consensus on the aim and content of the curriculum that has been hidden for too long re-emerged at the Whole Education annual conference in snow-covered London on 28 February and again at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) annual conference in Birmingham a week later.

The narrow knowledge-based curriculum, promoted by the government since 2010, was firmly rejected by a range of speakers who, from their different perspectives, argued for the breadth and balance in the curriculum that remains in English law the statutory obligation of schools.

CBI chairman, Paul Drechsler, speaking at the ASCL conference, was robust in his articulation of the need for the school curriculum to reflect the breadth of knowledge and skills need by people in their lives and at work.

Speaking to the theme of the Whole Education conference, "Attainment is not enough", CBI education chief Neil Carberry said: "There’s a lot of support for the aims of Whole Education in the business community", arguing for skills development in parallel with knowledge. Business leaders do not accept that schools should have to choose between knowledge and skills in their curriculum planning. Both have to be taught, he said, if young people are to be prepared well for both work and life.

Curriculum debate

Astronaut Tim Peake and Professor John Hattie, the widely acclaimed author of Visible Learning, both told the ASCL audience about the need for a fully-rounded education for all, whether young people grow up to be astronauts or artisans.

Professor Robin Banerjee of Sussex University, an expert on children’s mental health, asked the Whole Education audience why more schools do not plan a fully rounded curriculum for their students, given that so many people believe that that is what prepares young people best. "The only reason," he said, "must be priorities. It is hard for schools to handle all that is expected of them."

Japan, Singapore and Finland were all quoted as countries that have reduced the size of their knowledge curriculum in order to make space for schools to develop skills and personal attributes. Portugal, according to Valerie Hannon of the Innovation Unit, who has studied the country’s education policy, has had a national debate on what kind of students people want schools to produce – a debate that has never taken place in England, where political dogma so often trumps the views of educationists and the wider public. Singapore, most Canadian states and Australia have also had constructive debates about the purpose and desired endpoint of schooling.

The Royal Society is a science-based organisation, yet it too believes that a broad and balanced curriculum is needed if the best scientists are to be produced, according to Dr Rosalind Mist, the Royal Society’s head of policy. The skills needed in a good scientist are the same as those needed in other walks of life, she said – communication skills, how to articulate an argument, how to work effectively in groups and so on.

Public commitments

In an interview with ASCL general secretary, Geoff Barton, on stage at the ASCL conference, it was significant that both the secretary of state, Damian Hinds, and the chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, made a public commitment to the importance of the arts and physical education in a well-rounded education, a theme that the chief inspector tackled vigorously in her speech to the Festival of Education in June 2017.

Schools in the Whole Education network described ways in which they make skills development explicit and visible in their curriculum. Their approaches were supported by Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the OECD, who spoke about the importance of digitalisation on future employment prospects, emphasising the need for inter-disciplinary learning and the development in all young people of a range of competencies, such as dealing with novelty and reflective practice. He spoke about the breadth of the curriculum in many countries, which recognise that the pace of change in employment will accelerate through the working lives of our current pupils.

For those keen on developing a fully rounded education in their schools, there was much to be cheerful about at these two conferences. Other countries and many schools in England are recognising this as a priority and designing a curriculum to fit young people for the future.

People with skills

That future may be very different from the present and from what is generally predicted by current orthodoxy. As Neil Carberry said: "More jobs will be created in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) than will be lost by these forms of automation." Employers need people with the skills to make the most of these opportunities and a curriculum solely based on the knowledge that government ministers acquired at school 30 years ago certainly won’t do that.

School leaders who are taking up Amanda Spielman’s challenge to become curriculum developers again and put into practice her statement that "education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it".

School curriculum planners must be reassured by the breadth of the consensus that a fully rounded education is what parents and employers want and students need. Now is the time to be brave and develop a curriculum that reflects the fact that attainment is not enough. Young people need much more than this to do well in life and work.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary headteacher, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. His book, The School Leadership Journey, was published in 2016. He tweets as @johndunford

For more Tes columns by John, visit his back-catalogue

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John Dunford

John Dunford is a former headteacher, general secretary of the Associaiton of School and College Leaders and was pupil premium champion from September 2013 to 2015. 

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