We have no debate about the 14-18 curriculum – only a debate about exams

In 2012, Michael Gove spoke to the Schools Network. He told them that:

“the highest-performing education systems are those where government knows when to take a step back. Rigorous research from the OECD and others has shown that more autonomy for individual schools helps raise standards. In its most recent international survey of education, the OECD found that ‘in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better.’”

There was always a considerable gap between Gove’s rhetoric and the reality of his policies and actions. His successor though is taking government control to a whole new level. The decision to require all 15 and 16 year olds to follow GCSE courses in the full EBacc drives a coach and horses through any notion of giving schools autonomy over “what is taught and how students are assessed.”

So much then for the curriculum freedom promised to academies. It’s interesting though that Morgan is not taking the power to directly require schools to do what she wants. It will be enforced through Ofsted. So we should perhaps ask, what is left of the independence of HMI. They have become simply an enforcement arm for government policy. Many Chief Inspectors in the past would have made it clear that one of their jobs is to tell government what the effect of their policies is rather than acting simply as an echo. Sadly that no longer seems to be in the job description.

This decision is justified as promoting social justice and social mobility. They are, according to Morgan, “the subjects that keep your options open, and allow you to enter the widest ranges of careers and university courses.” The EBacc subjects are supposed to be the hardest and they tend to figure in the entry requirements of the Russell Group. And of course they’re the subjects that ministers themselves took – never under-estimate their determination to recreate the education system of their childhood.

What Morgan and others mean of course is this kind of GCSE programme is needed for some very particular institutions and careers. And this then drives the curriculum for everyone else no matter what their ambitions and their abilities. So if you want to be an app writer, a mechanic, a farmer or a policeman, you still have to do the curriculum laid down by the Russell Group.

We get warm words from ministers telling us that you can still do some other subjects. But the bottom line is clear – they’re not valued. Selecting some subjects and not others is sending that very clear message.

What is totally missing from this debate is any attempt to consider what young people need to know and be able to do by 16. It would be wrong to claim that they don’t need academic knowledge. But all kinds of knowledge, not just some. Everyone needs a grounding in science and scientific method, an understanding of how human society is organised, has evolved and interacts with the physical environment and the creative and artistic achievements of people now and in the past. And they obviously need the key tools of language and maths.

But that’s far from all. Young people need to develop practical and technical capability. They need to do things and make things as well as reading about them. They need to know about the society they’re growing in to and the values that should be fundamental to it. And they need a wide range of skills and personal qualities – something employers are constantly telling us.

The problem has been how do you fit it all in? We’ve swung backwards and forwards between trying to deliver a truly broad and balanced curriculum up to 16 and allowing substantial specialisation at 14. The 1988 Act saw an attempt to establish a broad and balanced curriculum to 16 – including the arts and design technology – but this soon collapsed with more and more subjects made optional. The growth of supposed vocational pathways led to even more fragmentation.

The basic problem is the single subject GCSE. It’s hugely encouraging to begin to hear voices demanding the end of this millstone round the necks of all our 16 year olds. We need to start again from the beginning – from a proper analysis of what young people need and what different interest groups in society are seeking from post 14 education.

If we planned a four year curriculum from 14 to 18, it would be possible to combine real breadth with appropriate – and increasing – specialisation. Qualifications should follow from curriculum decisions rather than the other way round. Not all programmes need to be stuck in the straightjacket of two and a half hours a week for two years – some may be smaller and shorter, others may take 3 years not two – all kinds of flexibilities open up, including a genuinely challenging curriculum for apprentices.

In his recent speech (http://news.cbi.org.uk/news/john-cridland-festival-of-education-speech/) John Cridland of the CBI demanded that a process for getting rid of GCSE should be in place by 2020. His language reminds us just how detached the political debate is from the real issues we should be addressing:

“On high-stakes exams at 16, we have to face the uncomfortable truth that – internationally – we’re the oddballs.”

“in the UK we have no debate at all about the 14-18 curriculum – only a debate about exams.”

“GCSE exams only serve to deliver school accountability measurement – which can be achieved in other ways.”

It’s encouraging that Tristram Hunt has made some of the same points. Cridland set the government a challenge: “it must make a start on a full review of 14 to 18 education by the end of the summer”.

We know full well that it won’t. But why should we wait? What is to stop Labour from encouraging the CBI, the unions and the rest of civil society from doing for themselves what the government won’t do.

To get a hearing at the next election, Labour needs to be seen to be in tune with thinking in society as a whole. And the government needs to be seen as it is – out of date and increasingly irrelevant. Opposition isn’t just about parliamentary criticism and speech making. It needs to be about building alliances and changing the terms of the national debate. There’s an opportunity here in 14 to 18 education to start that process.

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2 Comments on “We have no debate about the 14-18 curriculum – only a debate about exams”

  1. pauljmartin2014 says:

    It is essential that Further Education colleges feature in this debate. Since the abolition of the Learning & Skills Council’s abolition, there has been no one to argue within government for this vital sector which would have to be central to broadening the 14-18 curriculum.
    It is a tragedy that FE is so little understood or supported by media and politicians.

  2. We go back here to the British Baccalaureate and the Tomlinson Report, although the debate goes back further. One wonders how far Hunt, as Labour’s prospective education secretary, would care to distance himself from Labour’s woeful rejection of Tomlinson ten years ago – his comments before the election were welcome but nothing more.Will Labour now commit itself to getting rid of A-levels? Or will it be more important that they appear a sensible government-in-waiting? And will those promoting so-called facilitating/preferred subjects explain why A-level English, for example, which still prioritises the ‘personal response’, is more rigorous than sociology, which is based on an understanding and appreciation of contested knowledge? (This final question suggests one reason why teachers might opt for tradition and a quiet life.)