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National curriculum in England: The first 30 years, part 2

Mary James

This is the second in a two-part series on the development of the national curriculum; read part 1 here.

The work of the expert panel, for the most recent review of the national curriculum (NC), occupied much of 2011. Although all four members (Tim Oates, Andrew Pollard, Dylan Wiliam and myself) were involved in attending stakeholder meetings, analysing consultation responses and commenting on draft programmes of study (PoS), we also developed a division of labour. Tim oversaw the development of the PoS, while Andrew and I took the lead in writing the EP report, which attempted to provide a principled framework for a ‘whole curriculum’. However, by the autumn of 2011 Andrew and I felt that we could not continue our work on the review because of concerns about:

  • the way that PoS development was beginning to bypass the EP as a whole
  • the downgrading of arts and music
  • the constraints imposed on schools by year-on-year specification in primary schools
  • the undervaluing of oral language development
  • concerns for transition between the early years foundation stage and primary
  • underdevelopment of curricular aims that should guide all decisions about content selection
  • the undue pace of the review
  • the undervaluing of stakeholder responses to the consultation.

However, Michael Gove called us in to a meeting and persuaded us to stay on, promising to publish our EP report in full. This he did on 19 December 2011 (DfE 2011).

In 2013 the government published the NC that is now in force. Some of the EP’s recommendations have been implemented: a sub-division within key stage 2, more attention to oral development, and the abandonment of ‘levels’ of attainment. However, other concerns remain: breadth and balance are not maintained to 16, in contrast with other advanced countries; arts, music and design and technology are not compulsory, nor are they included in the English Baccalaureate. Furthermore, the aims of the curriculum, which should be central, remain very sketchy, although Matthew Arnold’s exhortation that the curriculum should introduce young people to the ‘best that has been thought and said’ is invoked, and the statement in the 2002 Education Act is reiterated – but with ‘state-funded’ replacing ‘maintained’, and ‘nursery’ omitted.


‘The curriculum for a maintained school or maintained nursery school satisfies the requirements of this section if it is a balanced and broadly based curriculum which: (a) promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and (b) prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.’
(HM Government 2002)

Presumably a school’s own curriculum is expected to fulfil these more nuanced aims, in any time left after the requirements of the NC are met. Gove’s original promise to reduce the amount of curricular prescription and give ‘schools and teachers more freedom to decide how to teach this most effectively’ is somewhat undermined by a primary curriculum that gives 85 pages of statutory requirements and non-statutory guidance for English, 44 pages for mathematics, 31 pages for science, and two pages each for eight foundation subjects. There is less prescription in the secondary curriculum, but the Times Educational Supplement recently reported that secondary schools felt impelled to increase hours devoted to core subjects and reduce teaching on the arts (Ward 2018).

Throughout the history of the national curriculum in England, the same themes recur. Debate about the following issues continue.

  • Aims: what is the curriculum is intended to achieve, and for what societal purposes?
  • How are separate subjects supposed to cohere in the whole curriculum experienced by students?
  • The balance between the national curriculum and a school curriculum designed for local needs.
  • The balance in curriculum content between knowledge of facts and concepts (‘knowing that’) and the development of skills and processes (‘knowing how’).
  • Whose responsibility it is to specifying curriculum content, in subjects or otherwise, and who should be responsible for organising content (for example, through different curriculum structures and timetables) and deciding how it should be taught (pedagogy)? The temptation for governments to stray beyond specifying curriculum content is evidenced in the obsessive promotion of the pedagogy of synthetic phonics by ministers.
  • The appropriate level of specification and prescription to avoid overload for teachers and students, given that students have only about 10,450 hours in lessons between the ages of five and 16.
  • Mixed messages about teacher autonomy.
  • All the perverse consequences of NC assessment and an unintelligent accountability regime.

At present we are in a relatively quiet period, although a new ‘multiplication tables check’ is being trialled for year 4 and will be rolled out next year. This initiative has the fingerprints of the school standards minister, Nick Gibb – an accountant by training – all over it.

The key question now is: How can we continue to improve the NC for all our children, but avoid the political churn that has characterised the last 30 years?

It seems to me that we might learn some lessons from high-performing jurisdictions like Hong Kong and Finland (for a case study from Hong Kong see James 2017). Of course, their contexts are very different from ours, but they have realised the following benefits.

  • Creating a standing, cross-party, stakeholder body to take overall responsibility.
  • Recognising the need to allow a longer time-scale for design, development, implementation, evaluation and fine -tuning, with attention to teachers’ professional learning, properly resourced.
  • Paying careful attention to recruitment, retention and reward of teachers.
  • Developing an intelligent accountability system based on evidenced judgement rather than data manipulation.

When I taught O-level sociology in schools, at the beginning of my career, I remember the textbooks describing education as a ‘political football’. It still is. This has to stop.


Department for Education [DfE] (2011) The Framework for the National Curriculum: A report of the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum review, London.

HM Government (2002) ‘Education Act 2002, chapter 32, part 6: General duties in respect of the curriculum, section 78’.

James M (2017) ‘Upper secondary education in Hong Kong: a case study’, London: Royal Society.

Ward H (2018) ‘Exclusive: Arts slashed as core subjects take over’, Times Educational Supplement, 31 August 2018.