Taking Back Curriculum Control


21st August 2023

Taking Back Curriculum Control

CfEY has been delighted to support our wonderful founder and ex-CEO Loic Menzies with a new IPPR evidence review on tensions in our school system, supported by Big Change and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Balancing Act sought to answer three connected questions:

  1. How can school systems fairly and effectively assess young people’s learning, recognise achievement beyond exams, and drive better school standards?
  2. What are the likely impacts and potential trade-offs involved in broadening the curriculum beyond just academic subjects for young people?
  3. What are the most effective ways school systems can support and improve young people’s wellbeing?

Each of the three chapters offers some suggested ways forward for policy and research, carefully navigating the tensions and trade-offs in an often too-heated debate.

Download the report here

CfEY has had a long-standing interest in these issues, including from our recent report with Impetus on social and emotional learning, our work with NCS on non-formal learning and curricula, and our partnership with Big Education and NCFE to develop the Primary Extended Project Award, a new assessment tool for primary schools. 

Too often conversations about curriculum come from the wrong starting point. Before we can ask the question about content: ‘What should the national curriculum include?’, we need to start with a more fundamental question about power: ‘Who should get to decide what each school’s curriculum should include?’

This is not simply an argument for greater local or school-based autonomy. I believe, for instance, that almost every subject should be compulsory for all pupils until the age of 16 (although not necessarily externally assessed or taught with significant breadth). This is what happens across almost all OECD countries, and also happens for PE and PSHE in England. 

Since its introduction in 1988, every education minister has suggested that the National Curriculum should never be the be-all and end-all of a school curriculum. Schools must have their own agency, not just to deliver the National Curriculum in their own way, but to agree and teach additional knowledge, skills and dispositions that they and their communities value. Rumour has it that Kenneth Baker thought that non-national curriculum content should be about 20% of any school’s time and Michael Gove put the figure at 50%. This rhetoric around curricular freedom has never matched the reality. This is largely a result not of an overloaded National Curriculum, but of an assessment and accountability system that forces schools to focus on delivery of the national curriculum, to the exclusion of all else. Academies’ so-called ‘curricular freedoms’ are somewhere between a red herring and a damp squib. Bar the exclusion of some subjects from some academies (my son’s school, to my embarrassment, has no D+T offer, for example), academies rarely veer from or add much to the national curriculum. These freedoms meet the immoveable object of a reductive accountability and assessment regime.  Ofsted’s focus on curriculum and deep dives if anything reinforces the idea that the national curriculum is the only curriculum in (any) town or any classroom. Suggesting, for instance, that schools are free to decide which river to study in geography is a patronising and inadequate response to the concept of curricular freedom.

The system is under all sorts of pressure from all sorts of people and organisations to add more, do more, and make more things mandatory for all schools. The curriculum is a particular battlefield, as are all the other accountability and professional development levers at the government’s disposal. Rarely a week goes by without somebody proposing that the DfE should add x to the national curriculum, or y to what should be regulated or inspected, or z to what teachers should be trained in. Labour’s own curriculum policy development is especially fertile, febrile ground for this at the moment. 

We need to give our policymakers – all of whom want the best for all our children and especially for our poorest children – license to push back on these demands. Whilst government might wish to tilt our system towards a focus on, say oracy, or creative dispositions, it should resist the urge to return to a bloated, prescriptive curriculum which defines these dispositions from the top. We need to trust schools, Multi Academy Trusts and other local and national collaboratives to create their own curricula – from intent to implementation to impact – that sit alongside a national curriculum, but align to their own vision for the outcomes they want their children to achieve. 

This is more about a generic ‘government as space creator’ attitude than a specific policy, based on a belief that schools which have some freedom to design and deliver theirown mission will achieve far more for their pupils. However, one policy worth considering is this:

Governments should encourage and guarantee a 20 per cent space (about a day a week, or a week a half-term) in all school curricula for ‘non-National Curriculum Learning’ and ensure that accountability systems protect, inspect and monitor this space. 

What might emerge in these thousands of freed-up hours is delightfully unpredictable. And that’s the point. Our schools and our young people are extraordinary. Let’s give them some space to surprise us.The national-local tension is just one amongst many explored in Balancing Act. Loic’s paper and policy thinking is as sharp as ever, so please read the paper, and tell us what you think.