Trevor Fisher writes:

The debate on the National Curriculum is stuck in a polarised battle over the proposals. Either they are regarded as essential to the nation’s health as David Cameron argued when they were unveiled in July, or a return to the Dark Ages. But where they are headed escapes attention. It was unusual for any critic to assess the underlying assumptions, and thus very welcome when Danny Dorling analysed these in the Education Guardian on July 23rd. With the battle due to resume with the new term, his analysis deserves close attention.

Dorling agrees with Cameron about the importance of the National Curriculum, but sees it as a disaster. However he is basing his argument on the assumption that the Coalition believes only a few children can succeed. Arguing a similar line to Diana Ravitch in the USA, he sees Academy/Free Schools (which are derived from Charter Schools in the USA) and independents as designed to provide an elite education, freed from the National Curriculum, with the maintained sector forced to do the National Curriculum as a second rate education for the workers. Dorling argued “pupils in free schools, academies and independent schools will not have to follow these prescriptions… It is medicine for other people’s children, designed to produce the common workers England is thought to need”.

This is a welcome recognition that the Academy-Free Schools are not doing the National Curriculum, and that they are modeled on the independent sector which has never done so. But it is not coalition policy that there should be a split on Ravitch lines. The coalition is committed to a complete academy/ free school system. So where does the National Curriculum fit in?

David Cameron is committed to sending his children to academy schools. It seems illogical for Cameron to argue, in a press release still on the DFE web site at time of writing (the press release is dated 8th July) that “As a parent this is exactly the kind of thing I want my children to be learning. And as Prime Minister I know that this revolution in education is critical for Britain’s prosperity in the decades to come”. Which begs the question why he wants the Academy system to be the template and his children to go to one? Does David Cameron understand his own government’s policy and that his children would not study the National Curriculum?

In Danny Dorling’s view, the key issue is whether this is a second rate curriculum devised to create a permanent underclass. He suggests the Coalition believes most children cannot achieve and must be limited to a rigid and substandard type of learning. He applies this to the new primary tests, arguing that the policy is “to aid children to achieve within limits”. However he quotes Clegg saying “I make no apology for having high ambitions for our pupils. But for children to achieve their potential we need to raise the bar”. Perhaps Clegg is economical with the truth here – I do not think so – but what he is clearly saying is that children can be ambitious in their aspirations, which can be stimulated by tougher tests. It is certainly ominous that the tests the Lib Dems favour appear to be writing off the bottom 15% of achievers – the Tail as it is known.

But that is different from returning to Grammar Schools and Secondary Moderns. Dorling quotes the Tory Backwoods as wanting this. They have always existed – as the survival of the eleven plus indicates. But the Coalition does not sympathise with them, as the case of the Sevenoaks grammar school expansion indicates. Gove seems to have pulled the plug on this in favour of a free school. While the details are obscure and one example is not conclusive, what is very clear is the almost anarcho-syndicalist belief that decisions must be taken at School level. We are back to Academies and Free Schools, which do not have to do the National Curriculum. So the National Curriculum is not vital to government plans.

The National Curriculum is best thought of as a fault line within the government with the split running roughly along the primary-secondary division. The primary sector is close to the old system of a central prescription, formerly run by Nick Gibb and now run by Liz Truss. Both favour a rote learned fact based curriculum based on the writing of the US theorist E D Hirsch, supported by the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. However Gove, in charge of secondary, has made it clear that he does not want to set the rules, and this is one reason why the secondary sector have embraced academies – half the sector now signed up for an overtly anarcho-syndicalist view of freedom.

Gove is at least consistent. The Times Educational Supplement (TES June 29th 2012) quoted sources within the DFE saying they had abandoned planning for a secondary curriculum in July 2011 despite the expert panel working through until December 2011. They had not been told. Gove was said to want to keep an outline National Curriculum so “ministers will be able to avoid the time and trouble of legislation, which would be needed to completely abolish it”. The implication is that Gove genuinely does not want a National Curriculum. Indeed the steer in speeches is continually for schools to devise their own.

Dorling is certainly right to argue Gove’s politics are reactionary. It is ominous that he has written into the National Curriculum the phrase “the best that has been thought and said”, an old favourite of his. It is from Matthew Arnold’s book Culture and Anarchy (1875). And he is certainly right to quote the Doctors of the BMA stating that the cuts in Council budgets hit the areas of poverty and high mortality worse. It is plausible that the aim is to reduce the number of poor elderly people. But in education, the reactionary elements mix with a strange view that anarchistic competition between providers will drive up standards and make England an economic world power. It is a recipe for disaster. But it is not a vision of a future with poorly educated drones working in schools with poorly qualified teachers (the poorly qualified teachers are in the academy-free school sector, ‘liberated’ from Qualified Teacher Status).

It is a world in which Every Day, In Every Way, Things Will Get Better and Better. Excluding the National Curriculum, which will disappear if Michael Gove has his way. He does not want it, and he might well agree with Danny Dorling that it is a straightjacket – perhaps best done away with. Whether Cameron and Clegg would agree is another matter, but the left should at least accept that we are not moving back to “keeping the masses in order”, as Danny Dorling thinks. This is a new technocratic prescription with many contradictions. The challenge is to spot and exploit the contradictions.


  1. David Pavett says:

    The Coalition’s stance on the curriculum is certainly confusing and probably confused. I read Danny Dorling’s article and found it a bit thin. I am sure that the elitist attitudes that are his target really do exist but he did not seem to me to provide good evidence for it. There was too much interpretation of a thin set of facts and not enough substantial evidence.

    It is an interesting suggestion that there is a fault line in the Coalition over the national curriculum and that it links to the different situation of primary and secondary schools.

    I have the feeling that a great deal of this is shadow boxing without real effect since what schools do is not primarily determined by the national curriculum but by national tests and examinations.

    So what is the argument about and where should the left be on this question? Some people on the left favour a national curriculum and some oppose the idea. We need more discussion. I think that such a discussion should be based on what we would want a genuinely democratic school system to be doing. If all schools work within a common framework of local democracy which itself comes under a broader framework of national requirements then should there be an outline national curriculum so that every one is clear about the broad lines of what schools are doing? There is no reason why a national curriculum should be associated in principle with the narrow educational precepts of people like Gove and Truss, nor why it should be conceived of as the heavily prescriptive document that it is currently.

    I can’t say that I have thought deeply about this but I think that we should favour a national curriculum albeit one rather different to the one that we have at present. I would like to hear the arguments of those who don’t agree.

  2. trevor fisher says:

    dear john

    this is under your name. Please correct to explain it is the piece I wrote and sent you on Tuesday.

    Many thanks, trevor