Curriculum complications

There have been some interesting developments in the curriculum debate recently. There is general agreement that it is time for the accountability framework to end its heavy focus on attainment, given that a significant body of evidence now shows that it is much more challenging to enable pupils from deprived backgrounds to attain in line with their more affluent peers. This has meant a growing divide between schools teaching in challenging circumstances and those in more advantaged areas, and led quite rightly to the idea of the ‘coasting’ school which relies on its privileged intake to guarantee attainment above the national average.

It has been reassuring to read in Ofsted’s excellent curriculum research report that a judgement of curriculum quality is not correlated with deprivation, and that, although linked with attainment, a quality curriculum is not a guarantee of strong attainment, and vice versa. Finally, a judgement that seems to be able to be fairly applied regardless of a school’s intake!

So all seems rosy – so far. And yet, many challenges remain if we are to move towards a robust understanding of curriculum excellence as part of the accountability framework for schools. Arthur Chapman rightly raises the artificial separation of curriculum and pedagogy in recent debates as problematic. He says that subject disciplines ‘have form as well as body’: each discipline has a form of enquiry or process of reasoning through which it can be handled and understood. He warns of the dangers of separating the debate about pedagogy from the debate about curriculum: ‘form without body is spectral; equally, however, body without form will, inevitably, fall apart’

And it would seem that in primary schools at least, the DfE are in agreement. For some years now, primary headteachers have experienced quite stringent guidance not only on what to teach but also how to teach it, through synthetic phonics, to mastery mathematics, to the teaching of grammar.

Chapman reminds us that teaching and learning is a much more messy process than the artificial separation of curriculum in this public debate might suggest. In fact, the messiness Chapman describes is unpicked in Ofsted’s research project, which begins with 25 indicators of curriculum quality, uses a number of different statistical analyses to identify those which are the most important and ends up with a shorter list but no definitive answer.

Similarly, John White questions whether schools really do have the power to create their own powerful curricula when the English education system allows ministers to dictate a detailed National Curriculum with a definite political slant. The National Curriculum he refers to is Gove’s 2013 ‘essential knowledge’ which must underpin the curriculum design of the majority of English state schools. Like Chapman, White sees such strict control of curriculum content as affecting pedagogy: a curriculum of ‘essential knowledge’ requires a pedagogy of ‘knowledge acquisition’. This explains the current popularity of strategies like direct instruction and scripted lessons, to the detriment of constructivist approaches to learning which have considerable research evidence behind them.

Ofsted’s curriculum research reveals that the narrowing of the curriculum is a particular problem in primary schools. It is here that accountability measures and an accompanying prescriptive approach to the teaching of reading, writing and maths have led schools who may well have preferred to take a ‘broad and balanced’ approach to curriculum design, to focus much of their time and attention on English and maths.

Headteachers must be wary of following the pull of the debate to the detriment of what they see and know to be powerful learning: it is important to consider pedagogy when planning the curriculum. And it is equally important for headteachers to hold on to what they truly believe an ambitious and powerful curriculum should look like, regardless of the dictats of the National Curriculum and the straitjacket of accountability. Not an easy task but an important one!

If you are interested in hearing more about the curriculum debate, join us for our speaker event in March and/or come along to our practical curriculum workshops.