What is wrong with the new National Curriculum?

The following notes cover centralised control, a lack of civilised aims and values, rigid subject divisions, a lack of breadth and balance, and (last but not least) targets which are inappropriate to the age and development of younger children. They are based on work in relation to the ‘Charter for Primary Education’, and link to a powerpoint for use in presentations and other short documents (historical background, PISA, etc.).

Centralised control

Most countries have some form of national curriculum, but they vary in terms of detailed prescription (how much flexibility they leave to teachers) and formation (whether there has been any democratic involvement in forming it.) Gove’s curriculum is extremely prescriptive for English, maths and science. Having alienated his panel of curriculum experts by disregarding their advice, leading to their resignation, it represents the autocratic decision of the Secretary of State.

The lack of broad aims

It is normal to begin with broad educational aims (social, cultural, ethical etc) giving a sense of direction to what follows, and also to consider the aims of subjects. National Curriculum 2014 (NC2014) has just two paragraphs 2.1 and 3.1, both extremely vague (‘spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development’ ; ‘prepares pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life’; ‘essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens’ ‘appreciation of human creativity and achievement’).

By contrast, Finland’s has a democratic vision (‘human rights, equality, democracy’) which supports diversity (‘tolerance and intercultural understanding’) and sustainability (‘natural diversity, preservation of environmental viability’). Rather than simply teaching young people to fit in, it speaks both of ‘transferring cultural tradition’ and ‘to create new culture, revitalize ways of thinking and acting, and develop the pupil’s ability to evaluate critically.’ This is developed in the subjects.

[Please note: comparisons with Finland are not here to idealise it, but to demonstrate that high standards according to international assessments such as PISA are entirely compatible with enlightened educational values.]

A rigid division into subjects / neglect of cross-curricular themes

NC2014 is divided rigidly into subjects, neglecting interdisciplinary perspectives. Though it recognises that literacy and numeracy are developed in other subjects, ICT has lost its cross-curricular emphasis, and themes such as environment, democratic citizenship, global perspectives or human rights are ignored. Subjects are discrete from the start, rather than e.g. environmental studies gradually separating into sciences and geography.

Lacking breadth and balance

NC2014 is dominated by 3 subjects English, Maths and Science – or rather 2½ since spoken English is almost absent. This can be seen in the pages for each: English 87, Maths 45, Science 32, Computing 2, Geography 3, etc. Within English, spoken language has 2 pages, reading and writing 20 plus 25 for spelling and 18 pages of grammar and terminology. Drama has one paragraph, modern media has disappeared.

It is not age-appropriate

Formal schooling in England begins a year earlier than many high-achieving countries, and two years younger than Finland whose 5-7 year olds learn informally in kindergartens.

The targets have been deliberately set early, in the attempt to outdo potential economic competitors. Often demands are placed on children a year or two younger than in the highest achieving countries globally. (Examples in English, Maths, Science).

In doing so, there is no recognition of children’s readiness. There is no sense of play, even in Y1-2. Little thought has been given to young children’s potential interests (compare Finland where early Environmental and Natural Studies relates to children’s health, the local environment, and a practical introduction to maps and experiments).

There are serious cognitive, and psychological, problems in making demands at too young an age. Teachers are likely to feel pressured towards rote learning, so poor foundations will be laid. Ironically, this high-pressure regime (‘battery farming’ children) is likely to be counterproductive in terms of long-term development, including PISA at age 15.

Pressure on schools

The accountability system is set up to fuel competition between schools, with serious consequences for the losers (especially schools serving disadvantaged neighbourhoods). This makes it even more difficult for teachers to steer their own course and relate learning to the children’s interests and needs.

Ironically, the new National Curriculum does not apply to academies or free schools, suggesting perhaps that the main reason for its stringent targets might be to label many primary schools as ‘failing’ and drive them to closure and academisation.

Linked documents

Subjects in the new National Curriculum –  a detailed analysis of problems in core subjects, and some changes in other subjects.

Historical background –  explains how the National Curriculum came into being, and some of the issues with earlier versions

PISA, Finland and other comparisons  – explains some of the thorny issues behind international comparisons. (Competition with high-achieving education systems was used as the main justification for setting targets for very young children in the new National Curriculum.)

The new National Curriculum Powerpoint designed for the Primary Charter initiative for use by union officials and local activists in presentations – mainly concerns KS1 and 2 [also Powerpoint notes]

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