Each year, when new PGCE students arrive at the University of Bristol to start their journey towards becoming English teachers, I ask them to study the national curriculum. This is the statutory document prescribing what children aged from five to 16 are taught at school.
I do this despite that curriculum appearing increasingly irrelevant. It is rarely – if ever – seen in the schools in which our student teachers train, despite it being the only document mandating what council-maintained schools “must teach”.
Academies – self-governing schools receiving direct government funding, rather than being council-maintained – are exempt from the curriculum. As of January 2023, 80.4% of secondary schools are academies or free schools, accounting for 80.2% of secondary school pupils.
The importance of the curriculum will change if a Labour government comes to power at the next general election. The party has promised a review of curriculum and assessment – and that all state schools, including academies, will be required to follow the “core national curriculum”.
It may be, though, that the national curriculum has outlived its usefulness. A more radical approach could be to dispense with it altogether.
Limits of the curriculum
The original curriculum only ever covered England and Wales, and iterations published after Welsh devolution in 1998 were solely for England. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own systems. Furthermore, the curriculum has only ever applied to state-funded schools, not independents.
The notion of a “national” curriculum was further undermined when Tony Blair’s government introduced the academies programme. Ironically, it was the lure of independence from the curriculum that encouraged some of the earliest schools to convert. Gordon Brown later promoted academies as “engines in disadvantaged areas for social mobility and social justice”, perhaps implying that the curriculum was incapable of achieving this.
Since 2010, the Conservative government has enthusiastically embraced academisation, and schools that do not perform well in Ofsted inspections can be compelled to become academies. This is despite claims that academies do not necessarily perform better than the maintained schools they replace.
Yet despite their apparent freedom from the national curriculum, the programmes of study offered in most academies are remarkably similar. This is the result of an accountability-heavy, performance-centric system, which judges and ranks schools on exam results. The GCSE exam specifications have become the new national curriculum.
Teaching to the test
The pressure of GCSE success in English is such that many schools begin preparing their students for the exams during key stage three (studied by children aged 11 to 14), well before when GCSE study is intended to start.
Research has found that key stage three teaching is often influenced by GCSE requirements, such as the study of the Victorian novel – a component of GCSE English Literature. This insular literary diet means that pupils lack the opportunity to study a wide range of diverse and contemporary texts, such as the “seminal world literature” that the national curriculum requires.
If schools do make changes to what they teach, they may be prompted more by external influences than a will to adhere to the curriculum. They could be, for instance, responding to issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement by using resources and reading lists such as Lit in Colour to address the lack of diversity in English Literature.
Calling all Secondary teachers and Librarians! The new (incomplete) Lit in Colour book list is ready for download. 🎉
— Penguin Books UK (@PenguinUKBooks) October 7, 2023
It’s possible that the current curriculum is well past its sell-by date anyway. All five previous iterations (1989, 1995, 1999, 2004, 2007) enjoyed a much shorter shelf life. Today’s curriculum is a decade old.
This milestone is unlikely to be celebrated – at least among English teachers. In contrast to the 1989 original, which was largely welcomed by the profession, today’s curriculum has faced accusations of being devised with only token consultation of the people who would end up teaching it.
Given the extent of the curriculum’s decline, both in reach and in determining what is taught, it is interesting that it remains frequently cited in government documents, such as the new Department for Education reading framework.
It is used as a standard by Ofsted in inspections: schools must teach a broad range of subjects, as “exemplified by the national curriculum”. But for the majority of schools, it is simply an example of what to teach, not a requirement.
If the national curriculum is to survive, it requires revision. To have a positive impact on learning, that revision should involve a spectrum of educational experts and be open to national debate. And academies should be required to teach it. It is hardly worth revising for a small and dwindling number of schools.
More radically, it could be dropped altogether. Finland and New Zealand have successfully introduced a part-local curriculum, allowing teachers opportunities to cover topics that respond to the issues and needs of their communities.
One problem, though, is that this would require a complete overhaul of the examination system in England – and so is unlikely to garner political support.