The Current National Curriculum Deskills Teachers and Narrows Pupils’ Experience: time to abolish it

These pages were first posted in February 2009. All that has happened since then is that the situation has worsened. Four years later, in February 2013, Michael Gove published his plans for another revision of the National Curriculum. To call it Victorian would be kind. He has gone, but his curriculum remains. Oh dear!


A powerful critique has been blogged by John Bolt and I reproduce it here. MB 

Politicians shouldn’t tell us what to teach Posted: February 15, 2013 | Author: johnebolt |

Quite a debate is currently raging over whether Michael Gove’s announcements on exams and accountability measures represent a humiliating climb down or a cunning ploy to get 90% of what he wanted while seeming to give ground.

Against this background, the new National Curriculum proposals have perhaps received less attention than they otherwise might. It is of course true that many schools are not required to pay any attention to what the National Curriculum says. However, we should not under-estimate how much Gove is committed to his curriculum. He will assuredly use all the levers provided by testing and inspection to make sure that all schools do indeed follow it.

This curriculum represents the most blatant attempt yet by a politician to impose a particular ideology on children in defiance of the vast bulk of professional opinion. Moreover that ideology is profoundly reactionary and shows almost no understanding of the world that our children will be living in.

The curriculum is dominated throughout by traditional knowledge and traditional ways of accessing and transmitting that knowledge. So, two new aims are identified for the curriculum, in addition to those set out in 1988. They are to: ◦ provide pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. ◦ introduce pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and help engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

The latter is virtually a quote from Mathew Arnold in 1869. However Arnold went on to say that students should: “through this knowledge, turn a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically”

The professional criticism of this new curriculum has been savage:

“At primary level this looks like leading to an unhelpful, exclusive overemphasis on systematic synthetic phonics in the teaching of early reading and an obsession with grammatical forms and terminology in the teaching of writing. At secondary level it suggests a narrow curriculum with a heavy emphasis on literature from the canon. Most important is the woeful undervaluing of oracy in the curriculum – good speaking and listening work should be at the heart of English given the links between language development and the development of thought and all forms of literacy. It seems the English curriculum will essentially be devoid of important areas like drama, media, multimodal texts and creativity.” (NATE)

“We do not support a ‘curriculum of compliance’. A curriculum that narrowly focuses on a set of given facts and expects children to passively absorb them is not what we want.“ (Geographical Association).

The content is heavily prescriptive and shows little evidence that any meaningful thought has gone into selection; indeed some decisions seem quite arbitrary and even bizarre. Attempting to teach such a content heavy curriculum will lead to little more than a superficial recollection of names and dates. The content of the draft Programmes of Study are far too narrow in their focus on British political history. References to women and diverse ethnic groups are clearly tokenistic. Nods to social, economic and cultural history are rare. The authors of this curriculum have completely failed to understand what progression in history might mean or how a good grasp of chronology can be developed. More than twenty years of thoughtful and sophisticated approaches to curriculum development have been thrown away in this document. (Historical Association).

This curriculum will do nothing to develop in pupils the kinds of skills and qualities that even organisations like the CBI are crying out for. Gove has accused his critics of a “Downton Abbey” approach – deliberately denying to young people the knowledge that they need.

The reality is that his concept of knowledge is stuck firmly in the past. A curriculum that thinks British history is all we need to know, that recognises no communications media except the printed word and that can reduce oracy to formal speeches and debates is profoundly unfit for purpose. He, surely, is the one who is denying to young people an education fit for their future.

The case is now surely made for removing from politicians the power to determine the school curriculum. But we also need to understand that what we are now seeing is something of a different order to what has gone before. Previous curricula have been based on wide consultation and have sought to develop a professional consensus. This one flies quite deliberately in the face of professional opinion and seeks to impose the half-baked ideas of passing politicians on all our children. They should not have the power to do that.

Politicians shouldn’t tell us what to teach


What follows is my original posting of February 2009. MB

The national curriculum deskills teachers, restricting their creativity and narrowing the experience of children. Teachers in collegial schools, not government, should make curricular decisions.

If there is one over-arching message that keeps coming through, it is this: the concentration of educational decision-making at the centre has led to a situation where “command and control” dominates, and this has now reached a point where it is seriously counter- productive. Sir John Cassells, director, National Commission on Education (an independent body) (2003)

Allow teachers to create an imaginative and engaging curriculum tailor-made for the pupils they teach. Item in the Teachers’ Manifesto compiled by the TES from its readers’ contributions (2005)

Slowly but surely the teaching community begins to act as if worthwhile knowledge were only to be found in ring-binders, swiftly supplemented by training packs with videos. Mary Jane Drummond, Faculty of education, University of Cambridge (2005)

For too many young people, the last thing the curriculum does is inspire and challenge. That’s why so many young people walk away from sc Mick Waters, director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Assessment Authority (2006)

We share a profound concern about England’s early years foundation stage (EYFS) legislation, which becomes law next autumn. We believe it is fundamentally flawed in conception, with net harm to be done to children due to the framework’s contestable assumptions and unintended consequences. Letter in the TES from 7 prominent educationists (2007)

The biggest inquiry into primary education for 40 years concluded yesterday that Labour’s tight, centralized control of England’s primary schools has had a devastating impact on children’s education. Micromanagement, meddling and a succession of ministerial edicts have killed the spontaneity in the nation’s classrooms. Teachers have been stripped of their powers of discretion. And the net result of new Labour “reform” has almost certainly been a decline in the quality of education that the young receive. Report in The Independent on the massive research-based Cambridge Primary Review (2008)


Disastrous Impact of the Changing National Curriculum

Anyone who has watched the changes in the national curriculum since its inception in the Education Reform Act of 1988 must despair to have seen one generation of children drilled one way and the next another. Ring-binder after ring-binder has been sent to schools, telling them what to teach as determined by small groups of so-called experts.

One of the worst features of the national curriculum is that it is subject-based and designed by people blinkered by their concerns for their subject. Each of the Government-appointed national curriculum subject committees has doggedly focussed on the perceived vital importance of its own subject – to the exclusion of the rest. Mathematicians, historians, geographers, scientists, artists, musicians all have a multitude of ideas as to what should go into the national curriculum. But they forget the old challenge to teachers: do you teach your subject or do you teach children?

Perhaps the clearest example of the danger of subject specialists making national decisions as to what every child should do at school lies in the field of literature. Committees and then ministers have decided what books should be studied. David Blunkett (1997-2001) insisted on George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World being in the lists for 11-14 year-olds to read; Alan Johnson (2006-7) took them out. To anyone outside the hothouse of the Westminster village it is obvious that it should be teachers who decide, in the light of their knowledge of their pupils and their own reading, what literature should be taught in their classes.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, while subjects traditionally dominated secondary schools, they were not considered necessarily the best way to structure a primary school curriculum. But when Kenneth Baker introduced the structure for the national curriculum in 1988 it was designed on the assumption that each subject would develop from year one, that is 5 year-olds. It was argued that this would facilitate the progression of learning as pupils moved from one school to another, particularly the transfer at 11 from primary to secondary school. It represents a complete failure to understand the differences between primary and secondary schools

In primary schools this damaged the common practice of concentrating on themes or topics which embraced a variety of disciplines. It led to rigid timetabling and a very fragmented experience of education for young children. Fewer secondary schools worked around themes, but there were some running successful experiments in getting away from a 35-period subject-based week – which withered when the national curriculum arrived. Surprise, surprise – the latest government recommendation is to return to themes!

It is probably true that for weaker teachers and their classes the national curriculum was a Godsend because it put a coherent structure into their work and told them what to do. For able teachers, used to making their own decisions, it was devastating. As Mary Jane Drummond has suggested, the national curriculum began to deskill able teachers.


Curriculum Should Be Decided By Collegial Schools, Not Government

Of course children need to learn to read, write and do simple calculations. Throughout the 20th century these were taught as essentials and obviously should continue as such.

But beyond these essential elements in a curriculum is an enormous range of worthwhile activities that are all educational but do not have the need for compulsion and uniform application throughout the country. Their inclusion in the curriculum should depend on what the talents of the school can offer.

Yes, it is great that children learn to swim, make music, sing, dance, paint, and draw. Certainly some sense of historical events and geographical concepts is valuable – but it is absurd for central government to try to determine what events and places should be studied. Enquiry into the physical, natural and mathematical world is important. Environmental exploration and community work are worthwhile. Youth hostel visits and camping events not only stimulate interest in the out-of-doors world but are important social experiences for children who may have never left home without their parents. Spiritual growth matters for many parents. But none of these should be laid down by a London-based government and its specialist agencies. It should be a matter for schools to decide, in relation to their knowledge of the children in the school, maybe in discussion with parents, but certainly in the light of the knowledge, skills, values and enthusiasm of the teaching staff. It is what a collegial school should do and what teachers should learn to do in their training.



What Would Happen if the National Curriculum Became Non-Obligatory?

No doubt many schools for a time would continue as before. Slowly staff would gain confidence in themselves to make curriculum decisions based on their own talents and interests, while bearing in mind the needs of children to experience as rounded and balanced an education as possible. The ring-binders and guidance booklets of the national curriculum could sit on the staff-room shelves to act as a resource when needed. They contain a wealth of ideas valuable for choice but not compulsion.

Teachers’ creative energy would flow and their enthusiasms for teaching flourish. Young people of all ages would be much more likely than now to thoroughly enjoy school, learn effectively, develop their individual talents, and gain a love of learning which will illumine their whole lives. Teachers would ‘walk tall’ in our society and establish their proper role as guardians of the future.


These pages were originally posted in February 2009. The addition at the head of the pages was posted on 15 February 2013. The exit from office of Michael Gove has been incorporated 3 February 2015.  The style of these pages was changed on 30 April 2016.