Curriculum Freedoms – how far should we go?

Curriculum freedom is currently flavour of the month in all parts of the political spectrum. As is well known, academies and free schools don’t have to follow the National Curriculum. What they actually do have to do is however not such a simple question to answer. Mostly they are required to provide a curriculum that is balanced and broadly based, and includes English, mathematics and science. Requirements vary however, especially amongst early academies when funding agreements were not so consistent.

Labour is now committing itself to “extend to all schools the freedoms academies can use to innovate and raise standards such as freedom over the curriculum, trusting teachers to get on with the job” (from the Labour Party draft policy document to be considered at the Policy Forum in July).

We have of course been here before. Before 1988, schools had almost total curriculum freedom. The National Curriculum was introduced, after a long debate, because of the growing evidence that too many children received a curriculum that was unbalanced and inappropriate. Not only was subject coverage patchy but the standards expected varied wildly from school to school.

Some believers in curriculum freedom will say “trust the teacher”. Others will say that Ofsted will make sure schools behave sensibly. Frankly, neither of these carries complete conviction. Ofsted reports these days pay almost no attention to the curriculum. There is no requirement to make a judgement on the curriculum being provided. Foundation subjects get cursory treatment – usually, in primary reports a token mention of some high profile visit or event. In secondary’s, it amounts to little more than a mention of the exam courses available.

Trust the teacher may be more seductive than trust Ofsted. We are gradually seeing however that this isn’t always enough. Most schools provide a curriculum that is appropriate to the needs of their pupils. But you also need a clear framework to say what standards are expected – without that it is genuinely hard to be sure any school is pitching things correctly. And you need rules for the occasional hard case where things aren’t right.

Already we’re seeing the government add some very specific clauses to new funding agreements. The latest bans creationism and requires the teaching of evolution. An earlier one requires the promotion of fundamental British values – basically an “anti-extremism” clause. What we have here are knee-jerk reactions to particular problems as they arise. And of course, they will only apply to new academies. Assessing funding agreements is becoming like an exercise in archaeology – what they say depends on when they were written so layer upon layer of different requirements are piled on top of each other.

Examples of attempts to deliver a curriculum that would be regarded as deeply flawed are beginning to accumulate. They range from the muddle perpetrated in some of the now notorious free schools that had no real idea of what standards pupils should be reaching to some even more worrying distortions of fundamental areas of the curriculum. It isn’t yet clear what will emerge from the “Trojan Horse” enquiries in Birmingham. But it certainly seems that some aspects of the curriculum are part of the issue. We know for sure that orthodox Jewish schools have denied pupils access to exam questions on evolution and are now threatening to leave the state system because their freedom to refuse to teach, , in ways that they consider at variance with their religious beliefs both in science and PSHE, is being challenged.

The exam issue arose initially in relation to Yesodey Hatorah School in Hackney. It is worth noting perhaps that this school was inspected in 2006, found to be outstanding and Ofsted have not been near it since. Ofsted are now thrashing around in Birmingham trying to make up for the fact that they comprehensively failed to notice any of the issues now being raised. Inspection, as we now know it, is clearly hopelessly inadequate as a way of ensuring children receive their curricular entitlement.

So where should we go from here? One clear conclusion is that there is wholly inadequate scrutiny of what is being taught – the system is not picking up issues. A second is that a national entitlement is not something to throw away. And it needs to be a consistent overview not a set of add ons generated by the latest scandal. Almost no one would defend the massive prescription in some parts of Gove’s curriculum, whether we mean annual spelling lists or requiring primary schools to teach almost entirely history before 1066.

But a balance is needed. One sentence in a funding agreement is not an adequate definition of a curriculum entitlement. Schools need to know what is expected of them and pupils need protection against being denied what they should be entitled to. The community as a whole, as it becomes more diverse, also needs to ensure that all its young people share a basic common educational experience if we are not to see our society fragmenting in ways that few of us would want to see.

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5 Comments on “Curriculum Freedoms – how far should we go?”

  1. socedassoc says:

    There is a need to ensure a balanced curriculum. It cannot be simply left to the teachers because most teachers are entirely pre-occupied with their bit of the curriculum and are not involved designing the curriculum as a whole. It cannot be left to school managements either since moving up the management ladder in teaching is not a guarantee of training and good judgement in curriculum matters. On the other hand, many teachers would, if given half a chance, have a lot of useful things to say about what would make a good curriculum but that means that teachers should be included as one voice among others.

    What should be clear is that the last people who should be dictating the curriculum is politicians.

    We need a national curriculum which states the broad aims for each teaching stage in brief terms – unlike the current absurdly over-specified national curriculum. We don’t need a curriculum to specify that children at the age of 7 should be able to count backwards and forwards to and from 100. We just need to say that, for example children can use the four arithmetic functions with number of up to 3/4 (or whatever) digits.

    A succinct national curriculum is a protection against children being deprived for reasons of staff recruitment, or other reasons, against whole curriculum areas e.g. music being dropped.

    We need an informed national debate involving all interest parties (and politicians can contribute as one among many such) to reach a consensus on a basic, broad and briefly stated national curriculum on which teachers can build in their own subject areas using their knowledge and experience.

  2. Gary Brooke says:

    If we are to “raise standards” then presumably there should be a bench-mark standard against which any improvements can be measured. Isn’t that best facilitated through the use of a national curriculum that everyone, even (perhaps!) Ofsted, is familiar with and is in use throughout the country?

    What happens if competing academy chains have different ideas of what constitutes an improvement of standards; or indeed, what actually constitutes a “standard”. This will prove a headache for youngsters who move from one chain to another! Then again, I expect ‘standards’ will be ‘assessed’ by the use of some form of easy-to-measure’ tick-box test that helps to justify those lucrative government contracts.

    Also, is it not possible to be “innovative” when teaching a national curriculum? Or can I not be trusted to “get on with the job” unless I have to make it up as I go along?

  3. the case for a national curriculum is unanswerable, and it is the one aspect of the 1988 ERA which worked. Without it, we have anarchy – and we can see this developing at an alarming rate particularly with religious fundamentalists on the rampage.

    and not only religion. I cannot see the argument for compulsory latin as the free schools movement are embracing.

    However the left has surely no problem with the national curriculum. Does the new Reclaim Education Allliance not make it clear it is in favour of a balanced and consensually agreed national curriculum? What is the problem in going forth and campaigning for it?

    Trevor Fisher