'The national curriculum is dying. RIP'

After 30 years, it's time to put down the ailing national curriculum, one teacher argues. But what to replace it with?

National Curriculum

Thirty years ago yesterday, the education system went into labour. An idea that had been gestating for a long time came into the world. And not without difficulty.

Raised in a dysfunctional family environment by warring parents, it has at times been gorged with sweets and treats to alleviate its parents’ guilt, and at others been mistreated and neglected as a proxy for their distaste for each other. It is no surprise then that the sickly child has grown into a maladjusted adult. Yes, I speak of the national curriculum, and I am in no doubt when I pronounce the cause of its death as Hyper-Accountability Disorder.

Seminal in sowing the seed of the national curriculum was a speech by then prime Minister Jim Callaghan at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1976. Widely accepted as the speech that started the "Great Debate" in education – a debate we see re-enacted daily as "Trads vs Progs" in the Punch and Judy light-entertainment theatre of social media – the language was already conspiratorial-verging-on-seedy-gossip about who the national curriculum’s real father was, and the libertine reputation of the mother-to-be.

But the Labour government did not even see through the pregnancy. Indeed, it would take another 12 years, nine of them under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, before the stork delivered the bundle. (Older readers will remember Kenneth Baker’s Spitting Image caricature as a slug. I hope they will forgive me the metamorphosis on the grounds of poetic license. I have a metaphor to stretch.)

Social care failures

Since then, major reforms of the curriculum have taken place with alarming regularity. Each separate health-check an indicator of developing issues. The result of this Serious Case Review must be for lessons to be learned about the failures of democratic institutions to identify the threat the parents (and their enablers) posed to their offspring.

The 1994 Dearing review was convened to slim down an already overburdened curriculum, and in 1995 the curriculum was put on to a new care plan based on the review’s recommendations.

From September 1998, once again with a view to control the curriculum’s weight, New Labour disapplied statutory programmes of study for foundation subjects. This was insufficient. A new care plan was drafted in 1999, and by September 2000 was put into practice.

It would be another eight years before the national curriculum’s case would come under review again. This relatively lengthy period of stability was highly likely due to New Labour’s profligacy with funding masking many problems from responsible agencies. At this point, the curriculum’s weight was identified as having once again become too great, and its lack of flexibility was noted. A review by Jim Rose the same year proposed a new care plan, which never went into effect because the curriculum moved back in with its other parent.

Instead, a new review was carried out by Tim Oates in 2011, which the said parent roundly ignored (or at best cherry-picked from), before putting into effect their own new regime, justified by a new bout of conspiratorial theorising, this time about a dangerous Blob.

Where the review by Tim Oates recommended a clear distinction between the national curriculum and “the whole curriculum as experienced by pupils in each school”, so that the national curriculum “should not absorb the overwhelming majority of teaching time in schools”, what was put into place did precisely the opposite, and the consequences were beyond anything anyone might have imagined.

So it is that, on its 30th birthday, the bloated corpse of the national curriculum came to be found at the bottom of a river of teacher sweat, questionable statistics, political counter-accusations, entrepreneurial snake oil and thinktank dark money. The river burst its banks and, weighted down by accountability, the curriculum was unable to swim to safety.

Better questions

While blaming politicians of this or that creed might provide us with solace, it promises nothing but a future of vain attempts to revive what should remain buried – a Frankenstein curriculum of parts pilfered from high-performing systems according to Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, stapled together with teachers’ self-purchased stationery supplies, and electrified by political rhetoric. A zombie curriculum. A monster.

As democratic citizens, it is this Serious Case Review’s conclusion that each of us must see ourselves as a godparent of the curriculum. We have a duty to support it, and to support its parents so that it thrives.

Nobody should deny anymore what Callaghan was criticised for saying in 1976, that taxpayers have a right to expect schools to be accountable for the service they provide with their funding. The better question is to what extent Westminster politicians should act as proxies between parents and their local schools.

Nobody should deny that politicians have a mandate to ensure schools prepare children for life in the democracy and the economic circumstances that are their birthright. The better question is to what extent our democracy and our economy actually operate on a national level.

Nobody denies that some standardisation is necessary. The better question is whether what we are trying to standardise are qualifications themselves, or the experiences of children?

Call the midwives

To see the national curriculum as the only vehicle to achieve education’s aims is folly. Our democracy is first and foremost exercised at community level. Employers, by and large, employ locally. The character of the job market and the social challenges in Cornwall are fundamentally different from those in Lancashire. Where they are similar, they don’t need Westminster to mediate their interactions.

No national curriculum can, nor should try to, standardise preparation for work beyond generic knowledge applicable across all fields of expertise – the same fields of expertise that make accessing democratic life easier: languages and culture, numeracy, scientific literacy, humanities.

And the simple, consumerist idea of choice fails when an overladen curriculum leaves us with a choice between school A and school B which deliver the same content – this is a false choice. Nevermind that the evidence shows more and more that we are not choosing between different schools’ approaches but between different schools’ clientèles. Nevermind that, for many, school choice remains nothing more than an opportunity for rejection or a sad lottery.

Real choice isn’t between school A and school B. Real choice is in shaping the experience your children and your community’s children will have at school.

So, let me sow a seed of my own. Imagine the education system giving birth to fraternal twins. One we will name after their departed sibling: national curriculum. The other, we will name community curriculum.

We will raise them both in a loving, caring environment, and give them both the same opportunity to flourish according to their own distinct personalities. And we will raise them with faith in each other, in the spirit of all "Great Debates" (and all great marriages) – preferring consensus over a sense of victory, legacy over immediacy, and empowerment over accountability.

It’s a beautiful dream, isn’t it?

Even if the stork does look like Ken Baker.

JL Dutaut is a teacher of politics and citizenship and co-editor of Flip the System UK: a teachers’ manifesto, published by Routledge

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