“I don’t know why everyone’s making such a fuss about curriculum overload,” a department official told me wearily. “If schools and pupils did a proper nine-to-five working week, 48 weeks a year, there wouldn’t be a problem.”
It must be a quarter of a century since I had that conversation with a young chap from whatever the DfE was called back then. We were meeting at the SCAA (Schools’ Curriculum and Assessment Authority), which must help to date the encounter. My interlocuter is probably now a top mandarin in a unrelated department: the worst I can wish him currently, I guess, is a role in Brexit negotiations, a particular kind of hell.
By the standards of that time, he wasn’t out of step: indeed, he was implementing government’s self-appointed mission to “sort out” education via an imposed National Curriculum, with Ofsted invented as policy-enforcement. Such suggestions were commonplace back then: a tougher, more job-like school experience would, it was argued, better equip children for the rigours of adult life – or, more precisely, of work. To ask, “What price a childhood?” was to invite accusations of displaying the “namby-pamby, child-centred feebleness that had got us into this [perceived] mess”.
Since then the dangers of overloading the curriculum have been recognised in one sense, at least: the school week has been stretched to some extent in many schools, but holidays have not been outlawed.
However, the curriculum has not been permitted to sprawl, in terms of the number of subjects followed in secondary schools, and demands nonetheless continue unabated for schools to provide the solution for every new social ill (and many ancient ones, too). Even schools minister Nick Gibb, while resolutely denying that schools are starved of funds (like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, he’s trained himself to believe impossible things), conceded on television that “schools are being asked to do more”.
In a blog about designing a 21st century curriculum last week, I listed three things it mustn’t seek to do: overloading it comes top. Anyone designing a new curriculum must accept the reality that children simply cannot do everything that curriculum-planners, let alone crusading ministers, might wish them to.
Still, surely there must be some subjects that every child must study in order to be “educated”? We might all agree that literacy and numeracy lie at the centre. Then we add science – that’s vital. And, given current concerns, a modern foreign language. Young people should know where they stand in the world, and how they got there. So geography and/or history need to go in. And exercise/sport, naturally…
Stop! We’ve nearly filled up the week, and we haven’t squeezed creative/arts subjects in yet, let alone any computing/coding or technical/vocational learning. Actually, we’ve recreated the EBacc, a subject hierarchy that arbitrarily limits choice, promotes the status of some and devalues others. A logical notion in theory, any core curriculum gives rise to as many problems as it solves.
As I wrote last week, basic measures of competence in core skills (literacy and numeracy) should not be confused with English and maths GCSE, which are academic exams. Besides, the CBI and many others reckon it’s time we ditched an outmoded exam taken at 16: that might both stop 11-16-year-olds’ curriculum being dictated by it and allow space and equal value for vocational education.
And then we might indeed envisage a curriculum that allows young people maximum choice in the subjects they choose, with minimal restraints or requirements imposed.
Not just at age 16, either: the dangers are identical at 18. In last week’s piece, I admitted my suspicion of baccalaureate-style exams: their insistence on breadth and/or balance, however defined, inevitably creates similar problems to those I’ve described above.
By the way, I haven’t forgotten the imperative to leave space for development of all the (non-examined) soft skills, competences and qualities that are so vital. But that’s for next week’s piece – on the “must-haves” of a 21st century curriculum.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets at @bernardtrafford