Why it's wrong to attack our national curriculum

Critics of the national curriculum falsely claim it reduces learning to a list of facts to be memorised, says Mark Enser

Mark Enser

It's wrong to attack our national curriculum, says Mark Enser

The national curriculum in England seems to be coming under attack from all sides at the moment.

In just the past week, we have seen Colin Harris lambast it in Tes, claiming that it is growing “more and more dated with every passing day”. 

Meanwhile, in an article for the Conservative Home website, new back-bench MP Ben Bradley took aim at his own government’s curriculum, arguing that schools that are “failing” should be given the flexibility to move away from the curriculum, so that we avoid “forcing all students down the same, traditional, 19th-century path”.

What both Harris and Bradley seem to be suggesting is that the national curriculum fails to meet the needs of our modern world: that is simply provides teachers with lists of facts to be learned, as Bradley says, through “repetitive tasks and memory tests”. 

The national curriculum under fire

To an extent, you can see where this fear may have come from. 

Before the 2014 national curriculum arrived, it was heralded with endless pronouncements from Michael Gove, then the education secretary, about the need to return to a traditional teaching of knowledge. 

The Guardian ran an article looking at the controversial ideas of ED Hirsch, and his lists of “what every child needs to know”, suggesting that these ideas would be coming to schools in the UK following the curriculum reforms. 

It certainly felt as though the national curriculum would arrive, much like the first national curriculum of 1991, with endless lists of content that all schools must deliver and all pupils must learn.

But is this the reality? Do Harris’ or Bradley’s accusations hold up to scrutiny? 

Very little prescription

I’d suggest not. A glance at the secondary national curriculum for England shows that for most subjects there is very little prescription in terms of what must be covered, why it must be covered or how it must be covered. 

Nor is there any suggestion inherent in the document itself that the curriculum is only designed to deliver dry and irrelevant facts, as described by Bradley. 

Indeed, it includes the goal that all schools must develop spiritual, moral and cultural development of pupils and that they must “prepare pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life” – exactly as both Harris and Bradley argue.

Harris argues that the national curriculum has had “almost all its creativity ground out of it”. But the curriculum insists on the teaching of creative subjects to all pupils at least to the age of 14, and with a requirement of schools to offer them past that age.

It is the weakening of the national curriculum that allows creative subjects to be squeezed out by exam pressures, not its implementation. 

The demands of the 21st century

There is also surprisingly little prescription on what schools should teach within subjects (nor, while we are at it, any prescription that lessons have to be taught in discrete subjects). 

The entire prescription on the teaching of physical geography in key stage 3 is: “Geological timescales and plate tectonics; rocks, weathering and soils; weather and climate, including the change in climate from the Ice Age to the present; and glaciation, hydrology and coasts”.

This is a long way removed from a Hirschean list of “everything a pupil needs to know” or lists of facts to be learned by rote, as described by Bradley. 

There is nothing on the national curriculum that prevents schools from teaching pupils about the world they are about to enter and preparing them for the demands of the 21st century.

Both Harris and Bradley argue for the need for teachers to be freed from the constraints of the national curriculum so that they can meet the needs of their communities. But where are these constraints? 

We can see the amount of agency a teacher has simply by looking at the prescription to teach glaciation in geography.

A teacher has the agency to create a curriculum in which glaciation is studied primarily to highlight the threats posed by climate change or in which the issues around demographic change following increased flooding in the Himalayas are studied. Their curriculum could examine how technological change allows the better monitoring of glacier retreat.

An easy target

The national curriculum is an easy target for those who want to criticise our education system. But I am concerned that it becomes a smokescreen for their real aims. 

Ben Bradley seems to be suggesting a return to some sort of two-tier education system of grammars, focusing on an academic education, and vocational schools for those communities he deems requiring this approach. 

Colin Harris’s real target seems to be not the national curriculum but the assessment of the curriculum through our external exam system, which distorts what is taught in schools. 

All the national curriculum does is ensure that there is an absolute minimum of core knowledge and core skills that all our children are entitled to in a wide range of subjects.

This knowledge and skills is part of humanity’s collective culture – our discoveries and creations – developed over the centuries, which becomes the inheritance of the next generation.

It is this collective wisdom that will do what the critics of the curriculum say they want: prepare pupils to meet the challenges of the future.

This will happen just as long as it is turned into a rich and meaningful curriculum by schools and teachers on the ground. This is where a curriculum lives or dies, not on the pages of a government document. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. He is the author of Making Every Geography Lesson Count and Teach Like Nobody’s Watching. He tweets as @EnserMark 

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