Was Mrs Thatcher right about the curriculum?

14 Apr 2009 BBC News Online

Tide turns towards trusting teachers

By Mike Baker

MPs want the national curriculum to be slimmed down again

So was Margaret Thatcher right all along?

She wanted a national curriculum restricted to English, mathematics and science.

Most unusually, the "Iron Lady" did not get her way.

In 1987, she backed down when her Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, threatened to resign if she narrowed down the proposed new national curriculum.

So England got a nine subject national curriculum for primary schools, with a foreign language added as the tenth subject at secondary level.

In those pre-devolution days, Westminster's national curriculum also applied to Wales, where Welsh made an eleventh compulsory subject.

It was the first time for almost 50 years that schools in England and Wales had been told by government what to teach.

Now the wheel seems to be going full circle.

Teacher independence

Despite several reforms that have reduced the scope of the national curriculum in England, and its equivalents in Wales and Northern Ireland, the Commons schools committee has just concluded that further slimming down is needed.

The MPs say the national curriculum should be cut back to just four subjects - English, maths, science and IT - and should take up less than half the timetable.

They go even further than Mrs Thatcher who wanted the compulsory curriculum to be no more than 70% of the timetable.

By contrast, Kenneth Baker thought it should be 80 to 85%.

In practice, it turned out to be close to 100%, with many teachers complaining it felt more like 110%.

By 1944, perhaps influenced by the national curriculum in Nazi Germany, the idea of a national curriculum had fallen out of fashion

So who was right? How much of the school day should be dictated by the national curriculum? And do we need one at all?

One argument against a nationally set curriculum is that the independent schools have managed perfectly well without one.

City Academies, too, are not required to follow the full national curriculum.

It has also been argued that schools managed perfectly well without a nationalised curriculum from 1944 until 1989.

Indeed some saw this as the "golden age" of teacher independence.

But, in broader historical terms, this period was actually the exception.

Functional skills

The first involvement of government in the curriculum came in 1861, following a Royal Commission prompted by concerns that the school system was failing the needs of employers.

The Newcastle Report of that year established a system known as the "Revised Code".

This made government funding of schools contingent upon pupils passing tests to prove schools were successfully teaching centrally-set "standards".

Some might say this system of "payment by results" sounds remarkably like today's national tests, which effectively tie schools to the core curriculum at risk of exposure in league tables or Ofsted reports.

The 1861 standards were set at six levels. For example, "Standard VI" required pupils at the end of elementary education to read a short passage from a newspaper; write down a passage "slowly dictated once"; and add "the bills of parcels".

That sounds a bit like today's "functional skills"!

The next step towards a national curriculum came with the Education Act, 1902, which led to "the Elementary Code" and "Regulations for Secondary Schools" in 1904.

Mike Baker
Curricula seem to be introduced when trust in teachers is low

These were surprisingly similar to the 1988 national curriculum.

Secondary schools were told to devote prescribed amounts of time each week to English, mathematics, science, geography, history, and a foreign language.

This was supposed to leave "ample time" for PE, drawing, singing and "manual training" and - for girls only - "housewifery".

This system lasted for 50 years, although from the 1930s concerns grew that the curriculum was too traditional, narrow and academic.

By 1944, perhaps influenced by the national curriculum in Nazi Germany, the idea of a national curriculum had fallen out of fashion.

Politicians were ready to trust the teachers.

So the landmark 1944 Education Act, which created today's system of primary and secondary schools, made virtually no mention of the curriculum.

When the 11+ exam was phased out across most of England and Wales in the 1960s and 1970s, primary schools found themselves free of all external curriculum requirements.

But, just as happened in the late 1850s, teachers again lost the confidence of politicians who started to complain about the "secret garden" of the curriculum.

After Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan pressed the case for a "core curriculum", the momentum towards a national curriculum became irresistible.

So, history suggests that pressure for a national curriculum coincides with periods of political mistrust of teachers.

So is this latest push for less central government interference a sign that politicians of all parties are now more prepared to trust teachers' judgement?

'Burdensome detail'

Indeed, a minority group of Conservatives on the schools committee even wants schools to be able to opt out of the national curriculum altogether.

But before dismissing the virtues of a national curriculum, it is worth recalling the original reasons for its introduction.

In 1987, these were: To guarantee a broad and balanced curriculum for all; to improve continuity and coherence; to set national standards; and to help the public to understand what goes on in schools.

These look equally valid today. It is easy to forget that before the national curriculum some pupils, including those with special needs, were denied a broad and balanced curriculum.

Many pupils lost out because there was no coherence or continuity between what they learnt at primary school and secondary school.

Or, worse still, they missed vital areas of learning because they moved house and changed schools.

And parents often had no access to information about what their children were supposed to be learning.

So, perhaps the problem is not the national curriculum per se, but the temptation it presents to governments to add just one more compulsory element to it?

And, in fairness, experience suggests that the really burdensome detail of the national curriculum has come, not from politicians, but from the various government bureaucracies, which regularly send out volumes of deathless prose to schools in the shape of handbooks, directives and programmes of study.

The history of education often appears to be on a circular trajectory.

The pendulum is now swinging away from central prescription.

But could it now swing too far in the opposite direction?


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