The school curriculum in the UK: divergence on the Celtic fringe
This is the original version of the article published today in The Conversation (https://theconversation.com/in-britains-battle-over-school-curriculum-celtic-nations-have-got-it-right-90277) – before all the editorial to-ing and fro-ing, and with its original title.
The National Curriculum introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s governments in the 1980s was a seminal development in UK education history. Applying to England, Northern Ireland and Wales (but not to Scotland, which has a tradition of educational independence from Westminster), the new curriculum was highly controversial. Content-rigid and overcrowded, this teacher-proof curriculum was widely decried by education experts as badly theorised and damaging to young people. These criticisms seemed to be borne out in practice, as the new curriculum was subject to review and revision throughout the 1990s. By the early years of the new millennium, new curricular forms were starting to emerge, first in Scotland and Northern Ireland in 2004.
These curricula were primarily characterised by a move away from the detailed specification of content to be taught, and involved a significant shift to school and teacher autonomy in terms of what should be taught. England, under New Labour, initially appeared to be heading in the same direction, following a major review of the National Curriculum (2007-2008). Following the election of the coalition government in 2010, however, New Labour’s reforms were ditched in favour of a more traditional approach to defining the curriculum, widely described as knowledge-rich and influenced by ideas about cultural literacy. Wales, on the other hand, has followed the other Celtic nations, announcing its own new curriculum in 2015.
The new curricula have been widely attacked. According to critics, they downgrade knowledge, effectively dumbing down learning, and over-emphasise skills, particularly those required for the workplace. They are derided as being progressive, an apparently pejorative term in today’s educational climate. They are criticised for blurring the boundaries between subjects, and thus undermining the foundations of all that is great and noble in British education.
While such criticisms invariably contain some truth, they have been unhelpful in defining and operationalising good education in British schools. They have created unhelpful dichotomies of traditional versus progressive, knowledge versus skills, and the teacher as a ‘sage on the stage’ versus the teacher as a ‘guide on the side’. A good – and balanced – education should attend to all of these dimensions.
The new Celtic curricula are in fact helpful for a number of reasons. They are all grounded in clearly specified purposes of education. In Scotland these are articulated as attributes and capabilities, set out under four headings known as the Four Capacities: Successful Learners, Responsible Citizens, Effective Contributors and Confident Individuals. In Northern Ireland, detailed learning objectives are set out under three headings, developing young people as: Individuals; Contributors to Society; and Contributors to the Economy and Environment. These statements of purpose seek to set out clearly what an educated young person should look like at the end of a stage of education, and are greatly preferable in my view to a curriculum apparently devoid of purposes, and framed solely as specification of content. Clear specification of purposes should enable schools to define content and methods that are fit-for-purpose, to develop the knowledge and skills necessary for successful lives as an adult – including active and critically engaged citizenship and successful career trajectories.
If this is progressive education, then I do not take issue with the term progressive. Indeed, the father of progressive education, the American philosopher John Dewey emphasised the importance of engaging with the accumulated wisdom of mankind. I would further argue that it is the non-progressive elements of the new curricula that have been responsible for their patchy implementation and for some of the issues raised by critics. Foremost amongst these is the framing of the curricula as detailed learning outcomes – hundreds of statements arrayed into hierarchical levels. These are a throwback to the original National Curriculum in England, with its simplistic assumptions that learning is a neat linear progress, to be measured at every stage, rather than a messy and emergent developmental process that varies between individuals. In Scotland, the learning outcomes are, in my opinion, largely responsible for the rather patchy implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. As the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher stated on BBC news in 2016, Scotland needs to move from an intended curriculum to an implemented curriculum. Detailed learning outcomes have been linked to heavy duty accountability processes; they can encourage risk aversion and tick-box approaches to curriculum development in schools.
It is, therefore, really interesting to see the new iteration of this sort of curriculum emerging in Wales. The developers of a Curriculum for Wales seem to be cognisant of the problems afflicting these curricula elsewhere. Development materials have emphasised the importance of clearly identifying and making sense of educational purposes. They have highlighted the need for knowledge – as well as skills – to be prominent in the thinking of teachers, as they enact the curriculum in schools, while recognising that traditional subjects are only one way of articulating this knowledge; not handed down to Moses on tablets of stone, but nevertheless still a useful means of dividing the curricular cake along with more integrated approaches. And, crucially, the Welsh process acknowledges the importance of both teacher involvement in all stages of developing the new curriculum from policy to practice, and the need to reframe accountability processes that distort teacher decision-making. This highlights the vital role played by teacher sense-making, as well as the mechanisms and processes that support this.