The poverty of contemporary curriculum theory

I think that there is currently a poverty of curriculum theory in the overwhelming majority of secondary schools in England. I say this not to offend, though offend I no doubt shall, but rather to point towards a problem that I think we, as a profession, are more than capable of resolving ourselves. Recent government curriculum reforms – particularly the idea that the English Baccalaureate should be compulsory – have faced numerous criticisms from school leaders (see here for a good example). It is not my intention here to argue for or against the EBacc: suffice it to say that I think it is flawed as a model, but, for some schools, a step in the right direction. What I want to focus on is the way in which discussions surrounding this policy have emerged and, in particular, I wish to highlight three ideas that I think are holding us back in developing strong curriculum leadership in schools.

Criticism 1: treating curriculum as a list of qualifications

For quite understandable reasons, the upper years of secondary school are tied to examination specifications. It has reached the point now where we just about treat the qualifications that a pupil takes as being synonymous with the curriculum they follow. There are some exceptions: schools are required, for example, to teach religious education and physical education to all pupils up to the age of 16, even if those pupils are not going to take an examination in the subject. Does everything that we teach need to be assessed for a public qualification? I would suggest that the moment we treat the curriculum as a list of qualifications (and this is an error of the EBacc) we begin to breed the kinds of monsters that have become pervasive in our education system. Something is valuable not just as a consequence of someone getting a qualification at the end of it.

There is a common response to this argument, which is that pupils will not value a subject that does not lead to a qualification. I do take the point that pupils might begin to think that, if they are not going to take an exam in a subject, then it is not worth studying, but I think this says more about how we present our curriculum to pupils than anything else. If we have to justify our subject by telling pupils that they are going to be examined on its content, then we are poor advocates for our specialisms. There are alternative approaches. Imagine, for example, that we had schools where Key Stage 3 lasted from Year 7 to the Christmas of Year 11, with over four years of time to focus on a broad range of subjects. Imagine, then, that the school allowed pupils to choose a smaller range of subjects on which to be examined.

The result of an over-emphasis on qualification has encouraged schools to make Key Stage 3 shorter when in fact there is a good case for making Key Stage 3 longer. This would be a step in the direction of breaking the strangle-hold that qualifications currently have over the curriculum.

Criticism 2: the idea of ‘choice’

 Choice is often advocated as a reason for allowing pupils to drop subjects at the age of 12, or 13, or 14. One argument is that pupils should be able to study those subjects they most enjoy, with the corollary argument that pupils will learn to hate things they are forced to do. A second argument is that pupils should be able to study those subjects that are most relevant to their future careers. I have written before about both of these problems, but shall restate the counter-arguments here briefly.

On employment, children simply cannot have much idea at the age of 12, or 13, or 14, how their career is going to work out. Counter-intuitively, giving them more choice at a younger age actually limits their choices later on as one has already chosen a particular ‘pathway’. Children at school today are going to work into their late 60s and early 70s: the least we can do is claim back a few years of their childhood from the inevitable yet undetermined pull of their career trajectory.

The enjoyment argument is arguably weaker. If we were to follow the logic of this argument, then we should be allowing children to drop maths if they dislike maths, or biology if they dislike biology. More concerning still is the message we send out to pupils with this approach to curriculum: if you do not enjoy something, or you are finding it hard, then it is acceptable to give it up and to do something else. As teachers and school leaders, we need to have the conviction in ourselves to be able to say to children ‘this subject matters, and this is why it matters’. Allowing children at quite a young age to opt out of things that we think are worthwhile is an abdication of our responsibilities.

Criticism 3: the lingering pull of the tripartite system

Compulsory secondary education is a relatively recent phenomenon in England, having been introduced by the 1944 Education Act. This created the ‘tripartite system’ in which children at the age of 11 were streamed into three types of school: grammar schools, technical schools and secondary modern schools. These schools in practice (and at times in rhetoric) mirrored the class distinctions of the mid-twentieth century. Middle-class children who could be expected to go on to university and the professions would go to grammar schools; children of the skilled working class would go to technical schools; children destined for unskilled labour would go to the secondary modern schools. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that this system was never realised due to the lack of technical schools, it should be noted nonetheless that, as has often been the case throughout history, the kind of education one received was closely tied to one’s social class.

The tripartite system came to an end in the 1970s as comprehensive schools became the norm across most of England. The idea behind the comprehensive movement was that one’s social background ought not to determine the kind of education one received. This ideal has, however, rarely found realisation in schools. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are still, in the twenty-first century, more likely to be moved into technical ‘pathways’. If a child comes up to secondary school with low prior attainment, there is still a lingering pull to think that an academic curriculum ‘is not for this child’. 44.7% of teachers who responded to the Historical Association survey said that pupils not expected to get a Grade C at GCSE were likely to be discouraged from taking history at GCSE: it is perceived as a ‘hard’ subject. Although we like to talk the comprehensive talk in the present, in reality there are plenty of schools out there which, in practice, maintain the kind of curriculum thinking that underpinned the tripartite system: some subjects are suitable for ‘bright’ children, and others are more suitable for the ‘less able’.

What are secondary schools for?

The root of this problem, of course, is that no one has yet to decide what secondary schools are for. Normally, people will say that secondary schools have multiple aims, and this on one level is true. The problem is that secondary schools cannot do everything: if we try to design a curriculum that meets every possible demand placed on us, then that curriculum will collapse into the kind of incoherency which characterises many school curricula, an incoherence in which the mantra of ‘choice’ can have its most malicious effect (incidentally, in a curriculum with a very narrow set of aims, ‘choice’ becomes more benign, but that is not something about which I have time to write today).

My case here, as ever, would be to let the academic disciplines and the arts thrive in secondary schools, for this is the one time in a child’s life when they can work with subject specialists in these fields. Vocational education can wait for the future, as indeed can specialisation in a particular more academic field such as languages or sciences. It should be our duty to the future to ensure that all children – regardless of their prior academic attainment or socio-economic background – have time to engage in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.




4 Comments on The poverty of contemporary curriculum theory

  1. Tom Burkard // 14 June 2015 at 19:26 // Reply

    Schools can never prepare children for a career or provide them with useful credentials; even at college or university, this is not usually a major consideration. My son, who never attended school past the age of 8, has a whole drawer full of civilian qualifications he was awarded in the Army; other than a class 2 medic’s qualification, not a single one of them has any significance beyond providing employment for the hapless civilians who delivered them. Gordon Brown’s ‘Train to Gain’ programme was a farce; as Alison Wolf discovered, the bureaucracy involved in launching and administering them was so expensive that there was almost nothing left over for actually teaching skills. Hence, they merely certified skills that people already had. Now, certificates are required for many occupations which previously were open to anyone who was prepared to learn the requisite skills, so essentially all Gordon achieved was to create barriers.

    The current obsession with ’21st century skills’ is a case in point. By the time pupils enter the workforce, ICT will have evolved so rapidly that what they’ve learnt in school will be largely obsolete. Relatively few occupations involve cutting-edge digital skills–and for most of us, ICT is becoming more user-friendly all the time.

    Yet my main point is that the whole notion of a ‘career’ is becoming obsolete. For many of us, it already has. Although most of my life has been spent in the building trades or teaching, I’ve had significant interludes as a salesman, social worker, farmer, estate agent, soldier and property developer. Now I’m a publisher and a visiting professor. My first degree is in English History, which has absolutely nothing to do with earning a crust, but everything to do with what I read and how I view civilisation. And this is as important now as it ever was: as Frank Furedi wrote,

    “The statement that education is important for its own sake is not an appeal to some snobbish sentiment about valuing ideas in the abstract. What it refers to is the valuation of cultural accomplishments through which society renews itself and acquires the intellectual and moral resources necessary to understand itself and face the future”.

  2. I agree on points 1 and three. However, choice can be argued further. While your idea that giving choice actually limits choice in the future is a logical one that I support, limiting choice is also detrimental. Why not allow students to make a choice when they are 16? Have the same curriculum for all until then (including the arts, drama and so forth), and at 16 students should be able to select a narrower path. We used to have this system and it worked really well. Everyone got an excellent education (16 years in school with a rounded, balanced curriculum) while also attending to their preferred future careers. More specifically, there were two types of high schools: “humanistic” profile (where students would focus more on languages, history, arts etc.) and “scientific” profile (with focus on math, physics, ICT etc.). Neither would exclude the other subjects but the respective subjects would be taught in fewer/more lessons per week (for instance, 5 hours of math/week vs. 10 hours).

    • Hi Cristina – sorry for being so long in replying. I’ve tried to address this point a little in my most recent post in which I come out in favour of choice at 16! I can see arguments for delaying to 18, but the heart of my argument is that 13/14 is too young. So completely with you on essentially a National Curriculum to 16. Can see the point of school specialisms but, having grown up in rural Cornwall, the very notion of ‘school choice’ becomes less meaningful once one gets out of the cities where there are several schools within easy travelling distance.

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