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Opinion21st June 2019

Doesn’t the National Curriculum tell us what we should be teaching?

John Blake is Ark’s Curriculum Design Lead. Before joining Ark, he was an education policy researcher for a leading think-tank and before that a history teacher for ten years in both comprehensive and selective schools within both the local authority maintained system and academy trusts. This blog is part of a series on Ark’s approach to curriculum.

One of the responses from people who aren’t deep into the world of educational policy when you talk about curriculum is “why are you doing this, isn’t it all in the National Curriculum?” Given England has a National Curriculum and has fairly regular massive rows about what should be on it, this seems a sensible question, and to answer it fully, we need to unpick a little what the National Curriculum is and where it came from.

The National Curriculum was introduced into England’s education system by the Education Reform Act of 1988. It followed over a decade of intense discussion about schooling in England, that included amongst other highlights, the infamous Black Papers (so-named in opposition to government White Papers, and which were correspondingly deeply critical of government policy), Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin Speech (marking the first Prime Ministerial intervention into debate about education), and the William Tyndale Affair (a long drawn-out battle over the curriculum and disciplinary standards at an Islington primary school, that made national headlines over several months).

Into this context came the Thatcher governments of the 1980s, with a determination to reshape the relationship between central government and local government, trade unions and other civic institutions, such as universities (including teacher training institutions).

This context matters, because it should be understood that the National Curriculum was part of a dramatic rebalancing of powers between central and local government more widely—other examples included rate-capping, which limited local councils’ power to raise their own taxes; compulsory competitive tendering, which forced councils into a market for providers of goods and services, like bin collection or building works; and the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC), the largest local government unit in the country.

So, with the National Curriculum, central government said it would decide what content schools would teach, which up to that point had been a decision which theoretically rested with local councils’ education departments. But the problem was, having won the victory to decide what was taught, there was not nearly enough thought about how to make sure this actually happened.

Because, although local government was supposed to decide what was taught, it turned out that they very rarely did, and did not have effective mechanisms for either making that decision or for ensuring it was complied with in schools. Central government had therefore taken control of a process which had no effective, standardised way of being implemented.

The result was a lot of truly epic battles about the precise content of the National Curriculum, which had far less impact on what children were being taught than the noise level of the argument would suggest.

That is not to say nothing changed: the National Curriculum established important baselines for entitlement which ironed out unequal provisions in the system: for example, schools could no longer offer needlework to only girls and woodwork to only boys. It generated a common language about curriculum entitlement across the system.

But overall, the enforcement mechanisms for the National Curriculum were absent—no matter how specific the government was about what content should be taught, there was no way it could control what teachers were actually doing in their classroom. There was not—as there is in other systems with a centralised curriculum—a set of state-approved textbooks and, even after Ofsted was established in 1992, no clear way of inspecting the depth and breadth of curriculum content.

Since its introduction, the National Curriculum has gone through several re-writes, but whatever it has said, all it has ever really been is a curriculum framework, rather than a curriculum itself—and academies are legally not required to follow it at all.

Overall, the main impact of the National Curriculum throughout its life has been, to take us back to my first blog in this series, to answer some of the macro-curriculum questions. In its 2014 iteration it strongly suggests how some of the curriculum content questions ought to be answered, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to make from it a curriculum which ensures the promise of a curriculum entitlement for all children can be implemented.

Ark’s curriculum work aims to build high-quality, coherent curriculum programmes, as part of a partnership between schools within Ark’s network and others. This blog series explores that work and the ideas, assumptions and choices which lie behind it. Read more >