National Curriculum Consultation: Questions 3: Do you have any comments on the content set out in the draft programmes of study?

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Post 3.1: Why consultation responses must dig deeper than the content in the proposed programmes of study
There has been a torrent of comment in the press and digital media since the draft programmes of study were published, certainly enough to present a challenge to anyone trying to keep abreast of it all. The comment has covered the whole spectrum from individual subjects by Year Group or Key Stage through to the curriculum as a whole.

Curriculum Aims

One of the difficulties for those wishing to respond to the consultation is the absence of curriculum aims (see previous posts relating to Questions 1 and 2). Logically the evaluation of curriculum content should take place against a framework of curriculum aims so that judgements can focus on the potential of the content to deliver those aims.

The proposed overall aims (Q1) offer very little against which to make these judgements, referring to:

introducing pupils to ‘the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens’
introducing pupils to ‘the best that has been thought and said’
helping to ‘engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement’
The perverse thinking behind the NC proposals is highlighted by the ‘cart before the horse’ / ‘what’ before the ‘why’ approach in Question 2. Remarkably, this asks whether teachers should frame their own aims based on the content!

Other criteria for evaluating content

So, without carefully considered aims for the curriculum, what criteria should be used to evaluate the proposed content?

One obvious course of action is to cross-check the proposals against the existing National Curriculum. However, if the new curriculum is to be an improvement on the old, there should be differences and, if teachers are to be given greater freedom, there should be a significant reduction in the quantity of prescribed content.

Another possible approach is to compare the proposals with the curricula of successful jurisdictions around the world although, with so many nations engaged in curriculum review, the international picture is constantly evolving.

Both of these approaches are, to some extent, deficit models. The dissection of the curriculum is carried out to discover what is missing rather than what is needed. Content is then included for its own sake, according to its own perceived merits, rather than for its contribution to the curriculum as a whole. The consequence is a process of ‘curriculum inflation’ which has long been recognised, with the addition of more content very rarely being counter-balanced by any redundant topics being removed.

This process undeniably results in a comprehensive (in some respects), content-heavy curriculum, but it is certainly not what our young people need if they are to develop twenty-first century knowledge, understanding, skills and abilities.

Indeed, a striking feature of the criticism of the current proposals relates to their match not just with the current National Curriculum, but with curricula of decades long gone.

Looking Forward

It is interesting to compare the outcomes of this backward-looking approach to those emerging from analyses which take account of the impact of modern technologies on life now and in the future. For example, in their book ‘21st Century Skills’ Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel [1]conclude that:

‘Our historic shift to a 21st century Knowledge Age ….. has forever tilted the balance of what is needed and valued in our work, our learning, and our life. In the 21st century, lifelong learning is here to stay.’

The National Curriculum proposals certainly do not reflect this historic shift and there is clearly a danger that, with so much traditional content to consider and without future-focused aims, consultation responses will not provide an appropriately forward-looking steer.

Comments on Content

Hence the National Curriculum consultation questions relating to content are flawed. If the consultation is to lead to the curriculum our young people need and deserve, responses will have to go beyond comment upon the minutiae of the proposed programmes of study.

When answering the questions, respondents will have to bear in mind not just the core knowledge referred to in the aims but, more importantly, the big picture of the over-arching purpose of the National Curriculum in an era of globalisation.

If the premise that the curriculum should focus purely on knowledge is accepted and comments are restricted to the content in the proposed programmes of study, there is a risk that the National Curriculum will seriously disadvantage our young people.

(Further posts will follow relating to specific elements of the content of the draft programmes of study)

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