Labour wants curriculum freedom for all schools – what are the risks and the proper limits?

In the latest issue of the SEA Journal “Education Politics”, Tristram Hunt set out, in greater detail than hitherto, what Labour’s approach to the school curriculum would be. The article can be read at In the article he makes two fundamental points:

First, he argues that there is a need for some stability after what he calls “Michael Gove’s reign of terror”. Wholescale curriculum change is certainly an important factor behind the workload crisis. This doesn’t mean that nothing needs to change but there needs to be a recognition that a new government will need to work “at a pragmatic pace through consensus not confrontation.

Secondly, and much more importantly, Hunt argues that curriculum freedoms should be extended to all schools. In his view this is about empowering schools and teachers to innovate free from the constraint of a National Curriculum which is to be followed “to the letter”.

To those of us brought up in the era of curriculum freedom and innovation that existed in the years before 1988, this approach has to have some attractions. But it is important to recognise too the potential downside. Pre 1988 studies showed very clearly that all too often pupils did not get any kind of proper balanced entitlement.

You can make the case for saying that the way Gove and Gibb have abused their power over the curriculum requires us to look again at how we think the curriculum to be managed. Hunt’s article recognises that we are not talking about absolute freedom. He wants the National Curriculum to “shape standards and expectations.” Ofsted are to be charged with ensuring schools offer a “broad and balanced curriculum”. Statutory powers will be used to guarantee important curriculum entitlements such as sex and relationships education.

But the processes outlined in this article can’t be taken as a finished product. You can accept the basic principle of giving schools more scope to develop their own curriculum but you have to define the boundaries a good deal more carefully. And you have to be sure that the boundaries, whatever they are, are kept to – and occasional Ofsted inspections are entirely inadequate for that as we have seen from the Trojan Horse affair.

So what more needs to be said if we are to successfully square the curriculum circle, allowing more schools greater freedom while ensuring that it is not abused. I would argue that:

– There needs to be an arms-length curriculum authority so that politicians are never again able to enforce their particular beliefs on schools and children.
– There needs to be a clear set of aims for the education system derived from a broad national consultation. All schools should be required to ensure that their curriculum addresses these aims. This is absolutely fundamental if some schools are not going to do things that are seriously inappropriate.
– Based on that, we need to decide what are the “important curriculum guarantees” that will be required – it seems unlikely that sex and relationships education is the only one. When you start to analyse this, the balance between freedom to innovate and national requirements is likely to shift further towards national requirements than Hunt’s article seems to suggest.
– And it is surely necessary to define nationally what the outcomes of education should be and therefore what we should expect of children and young people at different stages. This needs to include skills and personal qualities as well as knowledge. If we don’t do this, we will have no way of really knowing whether schools are doing what they should, so this can’t be optional.
– Monitoring what schools are offering can’t be left to Ofsted. There needs to be a much more intensive and local process that keeps a school’s curriculum under regular review and makes sure that nothing unacceptable is happening.
– Finally there is the question of tests and exams. These are always going to have a significant effect on what is taught and as they stand at the moment they do more to drive out innovation than anything else. You can’t change one without the other.

Freedom to innovate is one thing. Freedoms to be self-indulgent, to have low expectations or to promote inappropriate ideologies are surely something else. It is surely true that there is space between the current oppressively prescriptive curriculum and a statement about what outcomes we expect for all young people for schools. In that space schools should be able to innovate. But defining exactly what that space is not simple and if we think it is, there is a real risk of us selling young people short.

2 Comments on “Labour wants curriculum freedom for all schools – what are the risks and the proper limits?”

  1. bassey355 says:

    John talks good sense. What I see as needed is a national body of leading teachers, academics, artists, writers, business folk etc who form a National Education Council (with a well-funded secretariat) that devises skeleton curricula for schools. Remembering the traumas of Gove’s regime (and looking back at earlier ministers who set about telling teachers what to do) politicians must not have power over this body. Schools working collegially should then draw up their curricula and teach on the basis of the ‘skeletons’. Local inspectors/advisors should monitor and support this work – and be empowered to enforce conformity with the ‘skeletons’. In the same vogue as the expected separation of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary there should be a separation of power between national government, local government and school decision making. Ok I’m assuming that local government will again have oversight of all the schools in its area: it will take a few years for academies to return to the fold of course – when their governance contracts run out.