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Opinion2nd July 2019

Should teachers alone decide the curriculum?

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.

My last curriculum blog explained why the National Curriculum does not, despite its name, fully answer the question of what the curriculum should be. The blog looks at the question from the other end: if the National Curriculum doesn’t tell us exactly what to teach, shouldn’t that just be a decision for teachers?

This is an extremely popular view, in England especially. Claims of “professional autonomy” are often rested on the significance of the teacher as the arbiter of curriculum content. But this is a mistake: professionalism, for any profession, does not live in unfettered autonomy—one of the defining features of a profession is that it sets rules and procedures that often inhibit free action. Doctors and lawyers have strict ethical codes, and an expectation they will use the most effective methods of practice, about which they should continue to be informed through continuous professional development, to achieve the desired ends. They have freedom within those structures to be innovative and creative, but the nature of professionalism is that it is delimited by professional boundaries.

In the case of teaching, decisions about curriculum content should be made collectively, in accordance with the disciplinary thinking I discussed in a previous blog. As professionals and experts in both their subject and its pedagogy, teachers contribute to those discussions, and everyone involved ought to agree to be bound by the results. Teacher professional autonomy occurs at the point where they are charged with deploying their skills and the most effective methods to ensure their specific students acquire the agreed curriculum content.

From the point of view of an individual teacher, this may seem constricting, but looked at from the point of view of the student who experiences curriculum, it is the only feasible way to ensure a coherent induction into knowledge (which as I argued in an earlier blog is the aspect of education only schools can provide). No teacher will ever teach a child for all eleven years of their compulsory education; few will even teach a given child for more than a single year consecutively. Therefore, some mechanism must be in place for ensuring that the child’s experience of the curriculum is logically sequenced and coherently experienced by that child.

This is also for the good of teachers: when a teacher begins working with a new class, they should have clarity about how much children are expected to have learnt (and should have access to tools for measuring this). They should be able to be confident that they can build on strong foundations established by others. This is a notion of professional duty to one another, that allows our common endeavour to be greater than the sum of its individual parts.

To drive the point home further, it is worth noting that the opposite of an agreed, coherent induction which all teachers agree to be bound by is not a world in which students do not learn things, but one in which the schema they build from what they are taught is wrong. Young people moving through our schools will over their years of education cohere together what they have learnt into an architecture of their minds whether we plan properly for that or not. If teachers do not work together to tame the power of curriculum, to ensure that—as far as possible—that mental architecture is valid, then children will end up with ramshackle ideas cobbled together. It is this that can generate conspiracy theories, or extreme relativism, or just a total lack of interest in learning more.

Worse still, children may be able to overcome this incoherence through their own reading and discussions at home—but this is not an equally shared advantage. It automatically privileges those children from homes with a time and space and education already to correct deficiencies in the school curriculum.

For the sake of social justice, the curriculum must be an entitlement for all children, and that entitlement must be coherently experienced by the child. In turn, this means there must be a common and binding agreement between teachers, as the agents of curriculum instruction, as to what needs to be learnt when.

If, therefore, teachers alone cannot decide the curriculum and the National Curriculum does not fully tell us what it should be either, then what arrangements are needed to enact the curriculum entitlement thoroughly? I’ll start exploring Ark’s own answers to this question in my next blog.