The school curriculum has been a central issue for social justice since the start of state education. From the distinct curricula of class-divided Victorian schools, the move towards a common currriculum has been uncertain and problematic. Even after 1945 divisions were continued, posited on the myth of genetic intellectual differences.
The spread of comprehensive schools, and the school leaving age raised to 16, created new possibilities around the 1970s. Innovations supported by LEAs and the Schools Council emphasised more investigative and engaged approaches to learning and a greater connectedness to daily life. Bridges were built from young people’s experience to high-status knowledge. These developments were beginning to show that wider access need not be at the expense of intellectual challenge. The basic principle of a common entitlement was established and agreed by the mid 1980s, so that HMI expected secondary schools to ensure that most 14-16 year olds studied a creative arts, a humanities, a language, a practical subject.
This has since been undermined. No sooner was the GCSE instituted than D-G grades were treated as fails. Kenneth Baker’s National Curriculum, supposedly fit for all, was fundamentally a grammar school model but with some modernisation (in particular an emphasis on and updating of STEM subjects). This standardised curriculum eliminated study of the modern world and restricted the opportunity for schools to offer vocational courses within a broad and balanced curriculum.
The Labour Government’s model was different but equally divisive, abandoning any claim to a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ to age 16. The 2006 Act formalised a division into two separate tracks from age 14. Those (roughly half) following a vocational course lost any entitlement to study a language, design and technology, creative arts, history or geography.
Under Gove, the pendulum has swung back to socially exclusive neo-classical models, marginalising vocational studies but also any learning which appears remotely modern, popular or experiential. Abstract knowledge predominates, and learners’ identities, experience and culture are excluded. In the name of ‘standards’, determined attempts have been made to prevent large sections of the population from gaining qualifications – from the abolition of EMA to the recent attack on spoken English, world history and American literature. The message is ‘succeed on our terms… if you can!’
There is currently no sign of a change of direction from the Coalition parties, and clear hints from Labour of a return to the divisions of the 2006 Act. None of the established parties shows any sign of rethinking the high-stakes surveillance regime which leads to teaching to the test, superficial learning – and deteriorating PISA outcomes. Indeed, Gove dogmatically insists that battery-farming young children on spelling and arithmetic will somehow ‘raise standards’ for all.
The autocratic control of the school curriculum by politicians has led to wild pendulum swings between (i) a spuriously united curriculum based on an antiquated grammar schools model which in reality excludes the majority, and (ii) the deliberate division into two tracks, with a limited and ill-balanced curriculum on both sides of the fence.
It is time to reassert the need for a broad, challenging and engaging curriculum for all learners in primary and secondary schools, while allowing teachers and schools the flexibility to interpret and adapt it for (and with) their pupils. It is time to rethink the basics for the 21st Century. We need to achieve a balance between different aims of education: not only economic but cultural, ethical, personal and democratic. We need to move beyond segregation by ‘ability’ and towards personalisation based on agreement with learners, individually and collectively, on how best to move forwards – ‘learning without limits’.
We can learn from less restricted European countries, including new forms of learning which involve problem-solving, enquiry and creativity. We need to balance written exams with more authentic (and challenging) forms of assessment based on research, design and projects. This way we can at last create a common curriculum which is both accessible and challenging, experiential and intellectual, which relates to immediate realities but opens new horizons, which aspires to equality and quality together.
A more complete and fully referenced analysis of curriculum change in recent decades can be found in my paper The politics of curriculum in schools (2014, Centre for Labour and Social Studies)