Although there is widespread agreement about the need for a national curriculum, the way that decisions about it are made continues to be a subject of concern. Some would argue that the absence of a well-established, continuous process of national curriculum development and review is a major flaw in the system, leading to a stop-go form of planning - in which bouts of curriculum revision, accompanied by fierce lobbying from various interest groups, are interspersed by longer periods of exhausted curriculum inactivity.
Of particular concern is the apparent absence of a mechanism for engaging in thinking about the underlying purposes of the curriculum in order to prepare the way for more detailed revisions.
The major achievement of the Dearing review of the national curriculum was, of course, to produce a slimmer, more manageable curriculum. But, through its commitment to a five-year period of curriculum stability, it has also provided an opportunity to address some of the broader concerns about shape and balance. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has already signalled its intention to use it to prepare for developments to the national curriculum in a more thorough and systematic way than had been possible before.
The first stage, which began in September 1995, put in place a system for gathering information from as wide a range of sources as possible. In 1995-96 evidence was collected from teachers and other interested groups, enabling us to build up a detailed account of the issues arising from the first year of implementing the revised curriculum. A summary of this work and the main findings of the monitoring programme were published last summer as Monitoring the School Curriculum: Reporting to Schools.
With this monitoring exercise well under way, SCAA this week embarked on the second stage by publishing a new document, Developing the School Curriculum: A Framework. The framework referred to should be the basis of a strategic consideration of the school curriculum, and should prepare the way for any advice about the need for, and nature of, future developments. The framework describes: * The areas of SCAA's work on developing the school curriculum; * Five key areas for debate (the purposes of education; lifelong learning and the world of work; flexibility and the balance between centrally and locally determined elements; curriculum structure; and national standards;) * How the development process will be managed; * The timescale and specific action points for work over the next five years.
Changes in the context of educational debate since the national curriculum was first introduced will doubtless be a major consideration. In 1989 the key issues were to do with pupil entitlement, curriculum breadth and balance, and continuity from age 5 to 16. While these are still important other, newer concerns have emerged: the drive for greater school effectiveness, for example; the need to ensure that all pupils are equipped with the basics of literacy and numeracy; our national performance relative to other countries as measured through international pupil performance data; and the spiritual and moral dimension of the curriculum and education for citizenship and adult life.
If we are to make the most of the opportunity provided by the five-year moratorium on curriculum change, it is vital that we resist the tendency to reach premature judgments about what changes to the national curriculum might be desirable or necessary, and concentrate on collecting hard evidence about the current model.
Such initiatives as the National Literacy and Numeracy project should provide important evidence against which to evaluate arguments for an increased focus on numeracy and literacy in the primary curriculum. By spring 1998, initial advice on whether there should be changes in the future and what they should be will need to have been developed. The advice must include a careful analysis of the benefits, drawbacks and costs of any future changes. So it is vital that during the coming year we continue to monitor carefully the implementation of the current curriculum in schools, evaluate alternative approaches and engage all interested groups in a serious discussion on the future shape of the curriculum in schools.
The publication of SCAA's framework for developing the curriculum in schools marks an important new phase of our work, in which we want to involve the widest possible range of participants.
If you would like to receive a copy of Developing the School Curriculum: A Framework please contact SCAA Publications, PO Box 235, Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1HF (0181 561 4499). If you would like to respond to any of the issues raised in the document please contact the Curriculum 5-14 team at SCAA.
Chris Jones is assistant chief executive of SCAA