Is ‘curriculum’ the emperor’s new clothes?
When I was a teenager, Kylie Minogue was in the charts and I was a massive fan! You’ll be pleased to know that my taste in music is better, but as a 13-year-old influenced by the media, I believed that her song ‘The Locomotion’ was something new. Little did I know, that the original was recorded in 1961.
Anyone and everyone are talking about curriculum in England. After all, what gets measured gets done, but with Ofsted’s new focus on curriculum intent, implementation and impact and a U-turn away from school data, one could be forgiven for talking about it too. It’s an exciting time.
The emperor’s new clothes?
There is evidence that “schools of some sort in Britain during the Roman occupation from AD43 to around 400” were already developing a curriculum. Roman Britain had a literate culture: laws and commands, inscriptions on buildings, letters and inventories … and it seemed reasonable to assume that “the country eventually had a three-tier system of education similar to that of other Roman provinces: ‘elementary learning (reading, writing, and arithmetic), grammar (correct composition and the study of literary texts), and rhetoric (the theory and practice of oratory)” ~Orme, 2006:16 (Education in England).
Fast-forward to a period in time where you or I were alive and curriculum in England, or at least the beginnings of a prescribed curriculum emerged. Richard Austen Butler (1902-1982) was first elected to parliament in 1929 and was Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs when war broke out. Because Winston Churchill was distracted by the war, Butler allocated curriculum duties to Sir Cyril Norwood (who later published the Norwood report 1943 to justify grammar schools), a strong supporter of elitism in schools.
As president of the Board of Education (from 20 July 1941) and the Minister of Education (from 3 August 1944), under his leadership, the board produced the 1943 White Paper Educational Reconstruction which would form the basis of one of the most significant of all education acts, the 1944 Education Act.
The prescribed Education Reform Act of 1988 for England (and initially Wales) was introduced to provide pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. A slim-down was proposed by Gillian Shephard in 1994 and another overhaul by David Blunkett in 1999. Further changes were introduced by Ed Balls in 2008 and then Michael Gove with his reforms in 2014 with the most baffling of them all, autonomy for academies and free schools to veer away from a prescribed national curriculum.
I suspect we will see further reform in 2020.
What drives your locomotion?
For those reading this who have been working in education for 20-40 years, you will understand that curriculum drives assessment and not the other way around, and for some teachers, this concept may be lost or misunderstood when data collection, marking and testing drives all that a teacher does in a school classroom.
In my experience working in challenging schools, the focus on curriculum is easily lost to suit political whims and rears its ugly head with an Ofsted judgement hanging around your neck. Data collection is gathered to demonstrate progress after progress, with a broad and balanced offer lost in a complicated set of option blocks, engineered to meet government fads. Data-analysis conversations, exclusions or simple learning walks along the school corridors to observe lessons filled with tests and assessment happening in every classroom, sometimes during the same week of the year.
What gets measured gets done, and with Ofsted new focus on curriculum, you can guarantee that schools at risk of decline or those with a noose around their neck with a challenging cohort will dance along to EBacc preferences. Anything to avoid the sack or forced academisation.
Although the dialogue from data towards a deep and meaningful quality of education are welcome, don’t be fooled by the emperor’s new clothes. Sadly, curriculum focus has been and gone, and it will come and go again. What matters, is what I’ve always championed in school – Quality first teaching trumps everything else for breakfast. Without it, curriculum intent is meaningless if teachers are unable to have the knowledge and skills to be able to deliver it.
There is not one person on planet Earth who can visit a school over two days and make a reliable judgement of a school’s five-year curriculum plan. It’s that simple. But, the proof will be in the pudding when schools begin to experience Ofsted’s new magic wand. Let’s not have another Kylie Minogue record pushing out a different tune, which is essentially doing the same thing.
Please respond to Ofsted’s consultation before the deadline – 5th of April 2019.