Who controls the curriculum?

31 Jul 2009 The Guardian

Quangos: ministers must not meddle with the curriculum

Do we really want the body that develops the national curriculum right inside government, asks Mike Baker

It was a popular call: shut the quangos, save taxpayers' money, and return power to the people. But David Cameron's plans to abolish organisations such as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are not as simple as they seem.

Attacking non-elected quangos always goes down well, especially when money is tight. To be fair, Cameron did not suggest they should all go, but proposed three tests for all quangos: to survive, they should "perform a technical, fairness or transparency function".

In his view, the QCA fails these tests. He also has doubts about the new exams regulator, Ofqual, which he says should only survive if it can improve.

Initially, there may seem a case for abolishing the QCA. For a start, it is about to become the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, as part of changes that transfer its regulatory responsibilities to the new Ofqual.

Ofqual will be independent of government, as it must hold ministers to account over exam standards. So, it has been argued, the bit that is left behind – the QCDA – will become little more than an extension of the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

So taking the extra step of ending its quasi-autonomous role, and bringing it inside the department, may simply be acknowledging reality. After all, even as a quango, the QCA has long been under the thumb of ministers.

When Ken Boston left the QCA after the Sats fisaco, he made it clear he felt the government had abandoned the supposed "arm's length" arrangements for running school tests. He revealed that government "observers" sat on the QCA board and constantly reminded it what ministers did or did not like.

Cameron says the QCA should be brought within the education department "so accountable politicians can directly enact the promises they make". There is a certain honesty about this, although one wonders how prospective Tory education ministers feel about losing such a useful scapegoat if things should go wrong again with the Sats marking.

But do we really want the body that develops the national curriculum, and sets the groundwork for school assessment, to be located right inside the government?

Some of us are old enough to remember those pre-national curriculum days when such direct political control over the curriculum was thought un-English. In the postwar years, the memory of Hitler's control of the German school curriculum was reminder enough to fear such government control.

It was revealing that Cameron specifically criticised the QCA for deciding "that children did not need to learn about the most important events in British history". That suggests it is really educational differences that lie behind his abolition call.

It is dangerous territory for politicians. It was a former Tory education secretary, Ken Clarke, who in the early days of the national curriculum stipulated that school history should end 20 years before the present to prevent politicians turning the syllabus into either current affairs or propaganda.

While I am sure Cameron would not insist on pupils studying the rise of capitalism while forbidding them to learn about the spread of trade unionism, his proposal would give his government untrammeled power to do just that.

It was perhaps surprising that the Tory leader was not more radical. After all, his education spokesman, Michael Gove, has said he would like to give universities back their original role of setting school exams and, thus, determining the curriculum.

That might have worked in the days when examinations were primarily intended to be a selection filter for the minority of students aiming for university entrance, but today many other groups deserve a role in determining what children should learn.

So perhaps the QCA should be replaced by a body that represents not only universities, but also teachers, headteachers, governors and employers? Of course, we once had something like that: the Schools Council, which was established in 1964 to provide expert curriculum advice to ministers.

The Schools Council was relatively short-lived. It fell from favour as governments lost their trust in teachers, and as politicians sought access to the "secret garden" of the curriculum. It was abolished in 1984.

Shortly afterwards, the first curriculum and assessment quangos – the National Curriculum Council and the Schools Examinations and Assessment Council – were created by a Conservative government. They later merged to become the QCA.

So the question is this: will David Cameron be bold enough to go full circle and bring back the Schools Council as an independent, professional voice to ensure that ministers cannot exert sole influence over the curriculum?


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