We need a curriculum that is truly national

2nd March 2012 at 00:00

In the early new year I found myself in hospital for tests having picked up a viral infection, which gave me chance to go through the publication of the national curriculum framework.

The most notable contradiction, of course, is that we now have a national curriculum that doesn't apply to very large numbers of secondary schools, with more than 40 per cent of secondary schools already academies or in the process of converting, and which have the right to "disapply" the curriculum. In fact, the vast majority of schools will be academies when a national curriculum is eventually agreed in 2014 - by which time the curriculum will be far from "national".

Having been responsible for the minor review of the national curriculum leading to changes from 2000 onwards, I actually found myself agreeing with Margaret Thatcher in believing that as a nation we needed a national curriculum, and as the curriculum review (as another part of its contradiction) points out, we are endeavouring to prepare the nation for our future - not as a fragmented, atomised society dependent on which particular school you went to.

But leaving aside this blunder, and the idea that we let academies and free schools go it alone as though their staff have some greater capacity for understanding, grasp of knowledge or appreciation of the world that others don't have, the framework published in December showed disturbingly muddled thinking and a truly confused approach to the curriculum.

At greatest risk in the review are design and technology, information and communications technology, and citizenship. "Breadth", the document states, should be strived for; in fact, it says the "most noticeable outcome" in the call for evidence was that the "breadth" of the curriculum was fully supported. This makes it all the more troubling that the review proposes downgrading DT, ICT and citizenship to the "basic curriculum", which means that these subjects will not be tested, and risk falling into the same category of PSHE, where teaching is limited and pupils lose interest because they have nothing to work towards.

The secretary of state's pronouncement in January demonstrates the contradictions within this downgrade. Yes, the current curriculum for ICT is a turn-off for young people and outdated as far as relevance to current business and computer science is concerned. Expertise is needed, both in terms of application for technology and engineering, and in the creative areas of developing software and an understanding of the industry. But this cannot be obtained by individual schools approaching entrepreneurs to "design a wider school curriculum".

Hard-pressed teachers need the best possible practice and content developed at national level with relevant and regularly updated outcome measures. Leaving it to the individual teachers is a recipe for something akin to the postcode lottery, with those having the best connections being ahead of the game. That is why a national curriculum with flexible content and properly organised continuing professional development is right for ICT, as it is for citizenship.

Citizenship is key to democracy

In fact, believing that schools should be left to muddle along with whatever teaching staff they have in relation to citizenship and democracy, without national forms of study and proper teacher training, is just as concerning as the approach to ICT. Teachers within other disciplines and with the lack of citizenship teaching in their own past experience often don't know the subject at all and have very little grasp of political, legal, economic or other major processes in relation to the subject.

Indeed, recent research by the National Foundation for Educational Research confirms the impact that citizenship can have on democracy. Surveying 19- to 20-year-olds who had received citizenship education, 68 per cent said they had voted in an election in 2010.

The idea that the citizenship curriculum does not contain core elements that describe "socially valued" aspects of life, or that "powerful knowledge" is not inherent in preparing young people for adult life, is clearly errant nonsense.

And what about DT? It must also play a central role in teaching the skills required for careers in industry and trade. The reasoning behind the downgrade is confusing: DT "should be developed by schools in response to local needs and interests, which is why we take the view that a reclassification to the basic curriculum is desirable", opines the expert group. Processes, laws, machinery and design are not local, regional or indeed changeable - they are constant and should be set nationally and applied universally.

Alongside all of this is a move already taking place to slim down the number of PGCE places. All these subjects have seen a percentage drop in the number of training places funded. Whereas the allocation of places for Classics has been maintained and for history it has actually increased, DT has suffered a drop of 27 per cent, ICT one of 31 per cent and citizenship 31 per cent. This is not in line with other subjects - geography has been cut by 11 per cent, maths by 10 per cent and English by just 4 per cent. Clearly there is a presumption against the three subjects and their place in the curriculum.

We either want a slimmed-down curriculum where we focus on fewer subject areas and teach them intensively, or we want a broader curriculum (which is what's recommended) and we teach it well with the best possible lesson plans and materials available to us on a national basis, with at least some rationally agreed outcomes. That makes us into a nation as opposed to a collection of individual schools dependent entirely on the headteachers' whims and on the capacity of individual teachers.

David Blunkett is a former secretary of state for schools.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today