Why do all governments find curriculum reform so difficult? Perhaps they are powerless in the face of endless lobbying. During the attempts to ‘slim down’ the national curriculum in 2000, one government official showed me letters from the Campaign for Real Ale and the Anarchist Federation, demanding that, yes, real ale and anarchy should have a place in the national curriculum. Maybe they fall prey to a ‘tyranny of experts’, who find it impossible to make real choices that could meaningfully reduce content. Overall, the demands of civil society and its myriad of interest groups who believe that what happens to children between 9 and 3.30 weekdays might solve each of society’s problems may be as much to blame as any power-fuelled or change-obsessed politician.
After making useful initial noises about curriculum change and school freedom, guided by Tim Oates’ robust and readable paper about international approaches to curriculum reform, the coalition’s approach to rewriting the national curriculum may eventually be seen as a case study in bad policymaking: Poor use of evidence and expertise, meaningless consultation processes, slippery timetables and unnecessary creation of uncertainties that destabilise schools' strategic planning. Above all, reform has been shaped by what the ASCL’s Brian Lightman has called ‘cart before horse’ thinking in two ways. First, announcements are being made about changes to accountability and assessment regimes in advance of curriculum decisions. The assessment tail is wagging the curriculum dog. And second, as the Institute of Education’s John White has explained, curriculum reform needs to start by agreeing about overall aims, then consider content, before finally making decisions about how to structure this content, through subjects or other models. Subjects, and subject knowledge, will undoubtedly figure in any final curriculum framework (and contrary to the views of some – see my recent twitter spat – the RSA does not wish to ‘abolish subjects’), but this should not be our starting point.
At a key moment in the current debate, with more announcements due in January, RSA is stepping into the fray in the best way it knows how: blending practice, theory, policy ideas and a hint of idealism.
The suite of reports we released last week, written by Louise Thomas, summarises findings from the RSA’s three year Area Based Curriculum project in Peterborough. It includes guides for practitioners, case studies and evaluation reports. It aims to provide an honest, practical and reflective analysis of the project’s findings, and its potential implications for policy and practice.
The curriculum has always been a political animal. As a nation, and as institutions and individuals, it defines our values and reflects our hopes for future generations. Any attempt to try and ‘depoliticise’ the curriculum is neither desirable nor realistic. Indeed, most debates about the curriculum start from the wrong place. Instead of asking ‘what should the curriculum include’, our starting question should always be ‘who should determine what the curriculum includes’? As Andreas Schleicher from the OECD has argued, curriculum design should be seen as a ‘grand social project’. This links to RSA’s own values and expertise around social productivity as the best means to improve public services, and expanding human capability as the ultimate goal of society.
If the promise of a genuinely slimmed down national curriculum is ultimately upheld, this could be a key moment for schools to reclaim a significant part of the ‘whole curriculum’ – that element (maybe 50%?) of children’s schooling which is not nationally prescribed. Curriculum innovation, as I argued at a recent Guardian conference, should not just mean creative tinkering with the national curriculum. It requires a school community to determine a set of additional aims, knowledge and skills, and innovating to make sure young people learn these in addition to the national curriculum.
Designing your own curriculum is never an easy option, especially when so many off the shelf packages exist, and ‘national curriculum overload’ can always provide a ready excuse for inaction. Our learning from Peterborough and elsewhere is that the effort is worth it. The process through which a school decides and designs its own curriculum, whilst time-consuming, forces and enables schools to think about their aims, ethos, and partnerships with the wider community – all key factors in building great schools.
However, schools that take this path need to ensure that any innovation is rigorous; the more you are breaking with conventions, the more you need to understand the conventions. They also need to ensure that the quality of the pedagogical thinking matches the quality of the curriculum thinking. Finally, design should be done through a genuine partnership with individuals and institutions in a school’s community – to create a curriculum designed by, with and for a locality. (For an example of bad practice-making in curriculum reform, read about my attempts as a naïve primary school teacher).
Will schools take the curriculum 'road less taken'? The key factor probably won’t be the actual content of the national curriculum. It won’t be structural changes; whether you are an academy, free school or otherwise is largely irrelevant to this issue. The key factors in unleashing curriculum innovation will be other levers, especially assessment and accountability mechanisms, that all schools are subjected to. Will Ofsted ensure that both national and locally generated curricula carry equal weight? Will narrow assessment systems nudge schools to narrow their offer? Will the revised teacher and headteacher standards encourage curriculum innovation? What will government do when the media find schools that are teaching things that they don’t like?
Throughout its history the RSA has built and sustained interest in school curriculum issues. Building on this reputation, as well as our learning from the Area Based Curriculum and our Opening Minds framework, we will continue to contribute in four ways:
First, we will continue to work in Peterborough through the Peterborough Learning Partnership, and find ways to transfer our learning to other areas interested in developing local curricula.
Second, in partnership with the Institute of Education and the Curriculum Foundation, and supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, NAHT and OCR we have launched a pioneering professional development programme for teachers and other educators. Grand Curriculum Designs will foster a new generation of skilled and sensitive curriculum designers.
Third, we will continue to foster curriculum innovation in our growing family of academies.
Finally, we will continue to offer the RSA’s House and online platforms as spaces for purposeful, evidence-based debates about the curriculum to take place. This includes an event in January on the English curriculum.
Local knowledge needs local power. If this government is serious about freeing all schools from some central control, they will need to make sure that every school has the freedom, training and incentives to design their own curricula. This will need changes to accountability so that Ofsted inspect a school’s whole curriculum rather than the just the national curriculum; and so that schools have outward accountability to their communities rather than just upward accountability to Ofsted and government.