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Nod sagely and ignore: how the DfE treated the experts

Five years on from the formulating of the new curriculum, it’s worth reflecting on what might have been

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Five years on from the formulating of the new curriculum, it’s worth reflecting on what might have been

I haven’t spotted the banners and balloons, but I’m sure you all took the celebrated the birthday of the new national curriculum this week, didn’t you? We all remember the giddy atmosphere when the first draft was published and everyone cheered the arrival of Mr Gove’s chosen syllabus in the 221-page “slimmed down” curriculum.

Perhaps celebrate isn’t quite the right word. I remember a sense of bafflement at what had been offered. For a start, the slimming down seemed to be limited to the secondary curriculum and one or two – presumably less important – subjects, such as art. We’d been promised a new, simpler curriculum, allowing us to focus on fewer things in greater depth. But, sadly, it wasn’t to be – certainly not for primary teachers anyway.

In fact, we were promised quite a lot of things, but politics seemed to get in the way. The experts who had advised on what the new curriculum should look like were soon quick to express their disappointment, too. It’s a shame, really, because the expert-panel report made a lot of sense.

The panel – made up of Tim Oates, Dylan Wiliam, Andrew Pollard and Mary James – offered some sensible suggestions. And one by one, the Department for Education chose to ignore them. But every now and then, I like to recall what might have been.

The experts suggested that the curriculum should be underpinned by clear aims, setting out both system-wide and subject-specific aims. But no such luck. We ended up instead with vague statements that covered everything. They also advised the government to remove some subjects from the national curriculum, suggesting that they should be moved instead to the broader “basic curriculum”, and left for teachers to decide what and how to teach. So what did the DfE do? Removed nothing and added foreign languages for primary schools.

Poor provision

Other suggestions were about the curriculum’s structure. The experts decided against setting year-by-year curriculum specifications, but said instead that the lengthy key stage 2 should be formally divided into two parts. But guess what, once again the DfE seemed to do the opposite, doing nothing to formalise the split at Year 4, but deciding to set out year-by-year specifications anyway.

The DfE’s decision to ignore the recommendations of experts didn’t stop there. They also ignored their advice about how to set out the programmes of study with clear attainment targets to measure outcomes. Just imagine how much simpler the statutory assessment debacle might have been had they followed the advice of those in the know.

One of the areas that most upset primary practitioners was the poor provision for speaking and listening. Here, too, the experts were clear – and ignored. Their recommendations had suggested that “the development of oral language should be a strong feature of any new national curriculum”. Yet what we ended up with was a few vague bullet points on a single page of the final document. Hardly putting it at the centre of their thinking.

In short, the national curriculum we ended up with is a shadow of what it might have been. The new government in 2010 had the good sense to invite experts to advise on how it could get this major change right. Sadly, it didn’t have the sense to listen to them. So here we are, five years – and three secretaries of state – later, with teachers still picking up the pieces.

Maybe if the DfE had listened to its own experts, we might have had a little more to celebrate.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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