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National Curriculum way beyond just knowledge

Way beyond ‘just knowledge’ – the direction of the National Curriculum review

school discipline
The evidence in favour of a review of the National Curriculum is now compelling. 


The comparisons of different national systems in the last three OECD Programme for International Student Assessment studies (PISA, 2003, 2006 and 2009) show no catastrophic collapse in the scores which England has secured. But neither has there been any improvement. As a result, England has tumbled down the PISA rankings, as other countries lift their scores. One reaction to this might be ‘…so what? … nothing is falling apart….scores are not declining, let’s carry on as we are…’. This seems like a grave error. PISA of course isn’t everything; it has its own limitations. But it’s a valuable indicator. The lack of improvement has occurred over a period which saw massive investment in school and pre-school education delivered through highly targeted interventions and initiatives. Yet PISA scores have plateaued.


And there are signs of other problems.  For example, more universities are increasingly finding that they need to provide remedial maths provision for students doing courses which require good number skills. In addition, as Michael Shayer from Kings College London has found, 11 year olds’ understanding of principles such as the conservation of volume has appeared to decline over the past 20 years. And it’s alarming that teachers increasingly feel that they have to focus on narrow drilling to prepare pupils for national tests and examinations, rather than focus on deep understanding.


The National Curriculum revisions of 1999 and 2008 span the period when PISA scores have plateaued.  This suggests that it is not enough simply to engage in domestic introspection when revising the content and structure of the National Curriculum. When the National Curriculum was introduced in the late 1980’s, very few nations had a comparable set of arrangements. Since then, an increasing number of leading nations have adopted national curriculum arrangements, the big international surveys have been commissioned, and really incisive research comparing different nations has been completed. We therefore need to pay more attention to international comparisons. Other jurisdictions look outwards as well as inwards regarding the changes which they need to make. Although previous National Curriculum reviews did take a look at other systems, it is only the current review which is using this new and compelling body of international evidence to understand how we might improve our own National Curriculum.


This examination of different nations’ systems is not crude cherry picking. The review is using a wide body of research and extensive international contacts to understand the factors in operation in other systems, and is reflecting on how similar factors play out in our own.


At one level, the review team is examining what is taught, and when, in subjects such as mathematics.  If something is taught much earlier in high performing systems, what are the conditions which allow this to happen there - and does teaching it at this age stack up against the domestic and international research evidence? We also are looking at the ‘density’ of material in primary and secondary curricula in high performing systems.
girl working on laptop in library

At another level, we are looking at the ways in which nations ensure that they harness the benefits which a national curriculum can supply.  In England, we have derived considerable benefit from having a national curriculum – increasing the performance of girls in maths, increasing attainment in science in the primary phase, easing school transfer, and elevating expectations. But problems also have been accumulating: acute overload (encouraging undue pace in some key periods of pupils’ learning), a lack of clarity regarding ‘core’ content; and overbearing assessment, with adverse impact on teaching and learning. The 2008 revisions of Key Stage 3 and 4 only weakly engaged with these problems, and left us with vague and technically defective statements of curriculum expectation.


So what do we need to do? If vague, generic statements aren’t right, do we need more detail? If we have more detail – more words, more pages – surely the National Curriculum will become overblown again? The review team is very clear in its remit; we need to be precise about what is to be covered but the National Curriculum needs to occupy a smaller, more manageable amount of total curriculum time. There needs to be tighter definition of what is required, but what is required must not over-dominate the school curriculum.


This distinction between the National Curriculum and the school curriculum is vital – and it’s been lost. The National Curriculum is that which is stated in law.  The school curriculum – what actually happens in a specific school with specific pupils -  falls within the autonomy of the school and is critical in delivering public and personal benefits, providing a safe environment where intensive learning can take place, and giving wide experience. However, there is a sense in England that anything which is important in education should be included in the National Curriculum. Indeed, this has led to statements regarding the need to ‘constantly update’ and ensure we have a ‘motivating’ National Curriculum. But ‘constantly updating’ the National Curriculum is neither necessary nor a good idea. The essential core of subjects just does not change as frequently as we have changed the National Curriculum. As for ‘motivating’, it’s difficult to see how ‘gravity’ or ‘photosynthesis’ can be either motivating or de-motivating in themselves – it’s for teachers to design and deliver learning programmes which are motivating for specific children, which excite and engage them.


So, determining the aims and focus of the National Curriculum is crucial – and international comparisons can now really help with this. A recent TES article got it badly wrong on what’s happening in Hong Kong, when it assumed that because Hong Kong is now emphasising creativity and life skills, it has moved away from a solid foundation in the core knowledge, concepts and principles in specific subjects. This entirely failed to recognise that Hong Kong has an incredibly strong subject focus in maths and science, and consolidates this through very well-structured state-endorsed textbooks. Hong Kong has high levels of home learning and additional tutoring, and these also are focussed on core areas of key subjects. It’s not that they have abandoned a focus on fundamentals (in which our performance has stagnated) – they are doing things in addition to this. We shouldn’t ignore the foundations on which their concern for creativity is building – you can’t be very creative if you are foundering on basic conceptual content in key subjects, or not reading widely, or failing to master key knowledge necessary for the next stage of education.
image of a meeting

The review does NOT assume that communication (making presentations, extended writing), critical thinking (problem solving, coherent analysis), or affective elements such as collaborative working are unimportant. Far from it, their educational significance grows when they are developed effectively through meaningful contexts – particularly demanding areas of specific subjects: logical argument in history (and many other subjects), extended writing in English (and many other subjects). Looking at other nations’ systems, there are choices as to where these more general outcomes of education are emphasised as a national requirement: in subjects; as general requirements (eg in overall National Curriculum aims); in the wider school curriculum (and evaluated through inspection) rather than specified in, and assessed through, the detailed National Curriculum specification.  Schools which are not encouraging effective collaborative working, independence of mind and so on are not succeeding in meeting overall curriculum aims. But schools need room for manoeuvre in precisely when, where and how to develop these - there is thus an argument for emphasising them in the aims of the curriculum but not over-specifying them in the form of ‘levelled’ statements. This is where the careful consideration of the balance between the specific requirement (in the National Curriculum) and overall duties (of every school) need carefully to be weighed. Surely we can decide, as a society, that something is important for schools and schooling, but not appropriate for detailed specification in the National Curriculum.


The review is also able to draw on sophisticated analyses of different nations’ systems. The international commentator Bill Schmidt’s work on ‘curriculum coherence’ is particularly important. His work shows that high performing systems tend to demonstrate very specific forms of ‘coherence’. Firstly, all the key elements in a system line up and push in the same direction – curriculum, assessment, teacher training, funding etc. Secondly, material should be clearly stated in an age-appropriate order. Again, there is evidence that other nations teach key areas – such as algebraic manipulation – at very different ages to our own system. We are examining all instances of where this happens, and whether it makes sense –   in terms of the evidence on children’s learning – to change the specific ordering of material in the National Curriculum.


We have a very wide range of attainment in this country at the age of 11:  more than in other comparable nations. Concentrating on essential core elements, in the right order, may do much to reduce this. ‘Fewer things in greater depth’ in the primary phase may free up the school curriculum to better meet the needs of pupils of seemingly lower ability.


We are looking at the possibility of year-by-year specification as a means of understanding clearly what our own system expects of pupils and what other systems expect of theirs. Many high-performing systems use year-by-year specification for some or all of their national curriculum specifications. Whether we retain year-on-year specification in the final version of the National Curriculum is yet to be decided. But there may be sense in so doing. Many schools find levels both too crude and too obscure to be really useful in monitoring pupils’ attainment and for discussing pupils’ attainments with their parents. Such schools already focus on ‘age-appropriate’ attainment and the detail of what children can and cannot do.


A clearly-stated essential core, arranged in an age appropriate hierarchy, and which does not dominate the curriculum but allows and supports broad, motivating school curricula would seem to be a laudable aim. If we can use the best international evidence to deliver this, we are setting the conditions for a far better education system.


Tim Oates

Chair of the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum review


March 2011







Further information about the National Curriculum review is available on the Department for Education website at www.education.gov.uk/nationalcurriculum.


A public call for evidence is open until 14 April and can be accessed at www.education.gov.uk/NCReviewcallforevidence.


Tim Oates’ full evidence paper ‘Could do better - using international comparisons to refine the National Curriculum in England’ is available at www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/ca/Viewpoints/Viewpoint?id=135502.




Page Published: 01/04/2011