An Unstable Framework – Critical perspectives on The Framework for the National Curriculum

Critical perspectives on The Framework for the National Curriculum (report by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review)

Margaret Brown and John White

This paper was formally endorsed by the New Visions for Education Group at its meeting on 28 March 2012.

In January 2011, the Coalition government launched its National Curriculum Review. As part of this, they set up an Expert Panel to ‘support the Department in the conduct of the review by providing detailed advice on the construction and content of the new National Curriculum’. – Click here for its detailed remit.

The Expert Panel of four senior educationalists was chaired by Tim Oates from Cambridge Assessment. In December 2011, the Panel produced its Report The Framework for the National Curriculum.

This critical assessment of the Report is by members of the New Visions for Education Group. It is divided into two parts, corresponding to the structure of the Report itself. In Part 1, John White from the Institute of Education, London discusses central lines of argument in Chapters 1-4; while in Part 2, Margaret Brown from Kings College London examines leading themes in Chapters 5-8.

Part 1 Comments on Curriculum Subjects, ‘Powerful’ Knowledge, and the Aims of the Curriculum

This part is about the framework for the Framework: its basic principles as laid out in Chapters 1 and 2 (pp 11-17) and its restructuring of the curriculum in Chapter 4 (pp 23-9).

Chapter 1 is about ‘some fundamental educational considerations’, especially to do with the nature of knowledge. Here the Expert Panel takes over Michael Young’s currently celebrated notion that school education should be about giving all pupils access to ‘powerful’ knowledge, and that school subjects are where pupils acquire this.

I will come back to ‘powerful’ knowledge in a moment. Here I just want to emphasise that from its very first page the Panel sees knowledge-producing school subjects as the building blocks of the curriculum. This is before it asks in Chapter 2 what its aims should be. But in doing so, it is already assuming what the task of the school should be: the acquisition of knowledge, and more specifically, the acquisition of knowledge within certain school subjects.

This may not be surprising, given that the Panel’s terms of reference begin by asking for its recommendations on the essential knowledge children need to be taught in English, mathematics, science, physical education and other subjects that the Panel recommends as part of the National Curriculum. What is more interesting – and more disquieting – is that the Panel attempts in Chapter 1 to provide an academically respectable rationale for what the government wants it to do anyway.

This rationale crumbles into dust once subjected to critique. It is important so to subject it, since in Chapter 4 the Panel relies on it to shape the National Curriculum in the same direction as the Coalition’s overall curriculum strategy, including its E Bacc requirements. The subjects which the Panel later adds to the four favoured subjects already mentioned are geography, history and MFL. (E Bacc is built around English, maths, science, a foreign language, and either history or geography). We need to expose the inadequacy of the Panel’s rationale to prevent its giving a spurious legitimacy to the government’s curriculum policy.

So let us come back to the Panel’s argument in Chapter 1 that the school’s task is to give students access to ‘powerful’ knowledge. The first question to ask of this is: why is knowledge acquisition what schools should be about? Some people would say they should also be about developing the imagination, wider sympathies with other people, a love of beauty, personal qualities like confidence. If knowledge does indeed trump these other things, some grounds for this should be given. This would take us immediately into a discussion of what the aims of school education should be. But in Chapter 1 the overriding importance of knowledge acquisition is not argued for, but simply assumed.

It is also assumed that the sort of knowledge that children need to acquire at school is ‘powerful’ knowledge, and that this has its home in academic subjects like geography, maths, science and history. But what is ‘powerful’ knowledge’?

Michael Young, whose expression this is, says that

* it provides reliable and in a broad sense provides ‘testable’ explanations or ways of thinking;
* it is the basis for suggesting realistic alternatives;
* it enables those who acquire it to see beyond their everyday experience;
* it is conceptual as well as based on evidence and experience;
* it is always open to challenge;
* it is acquired in specialist educational institutions, staffed by specialists;
* it is organised into domains with boundaries that are not arbitrary and these domains are associated with specialist communities such as subject and professional associations;
* it is often but not always discipline-based.

This is less than clear. What knowledge is not conceptual, or fails to provide reliable ways of thinking, or is not open to challenge? The bullet points in which these terms appear do not pick out a certain kind of knowledge – ie ‘powerful’ rather than ‘weak’ knowledge. The former’s defining features are the last three. ‘Powerful knowledge’ is the kind of knowledge found in knowledge-seeking academic subjects with strong professional identities and well-defined boundaries.

But that makes the term pretty useless when discussing what the school curriculum should be. Favouring ‘powerful’ knowledge as its core is simply favouring the pre-eminence of subjects like science, maths, history, geography, MFL. But we still need an argument why these should be picked out, and this we don’t get in Young. ‘Powerful knowledge’ is a sexy-sounding phrase. Who, it seems, would not want children to have it? – But we have to look beyond the rhetoric to see the traditional stance to school learning it embodies.

By the end of Chapter 1, then, the Panel does little more than nail its colours to the traditionalist mast. It is not at all surprising that the proposed National Curriculum it comes up with in Chapter 4 for KS4 (see p.29) consists of English, maths, science, geography, history, MFL and PE. That the wind would blow this way was already evident in the second paragraph of Chapter 1.

It is interesting that in Chapter 4 Citizenship is relegated at KS 3 and 4 from the National Curriculum to the so-called ‘basic curriculum’. Why? Because the Review doubts that, along with Design and Technology and ICT, it has ‘sufficient disciplinary coherence’ to be a discrete and separate National Curriculum ‘subject’ (4.8). As a footnote (57) adds, ‘Implicit in this judgement is a view of disciplinary knowledge as a distinct way of investigating, knowing and making sense with particular foci, procedures and theories’.

It is also Section 4.8 that provides the justification for including history, geography and MFL in the National Curriculum rather than the basic curriculum. By implication, this is that they do possess the ‘sufficient disciplinary coherence’ required. But this is not argued for.

But why put the main focus of schooling on the kind of knowledge favoured in this section? And if we do, why is MFL retained as a National Curriculum subject? What is its ‘distinct way of investigating’? Is it in the business of investigating at all? Where are its ‘theories’? (Similar points could be made about PE). Science seems to be the paradigm, on this definition, for a pukka National Curriculum subject. Even geography is in choppy water. Forty years ago, when disputes raged around Paul Hirst’s ‘forms of knowledge’ as the basis for a curriculum, geography was in jeopardy as it did not seem to have its own distinct ways of investigating: it was something of an academic mongrel, drawing from both the physical and the human sciences . In one of his recent writings , Michael Young comes very close to Hirst’s position, implying that ‘powerful’ knowledge is found in domains with their own distinct concepts and ways of proceeding. He takes geography as an example, offering the New Zealand city of Auckland as an instance of a geographical concept!

This not only underlines Young’s shaky grasp of epistemology, but also introduces a further tension in his notion of ‘powerful’ knowledge. If this is taken to refer just to bodies of academic knowledge with strong boundaries and professional identities, it can include MFL and geography with no difficulty whatsoever. But once this is tightened up in the direction of distinct concepts, theories, or ways of investigating, these two subjects immediately find themselves facing possible relegation.

Chapter 2 is on the aims of the curriculum. It briefly states that there should be five aims, to do with economic, cultural, social and personal considerations, as well as sustainability. These are not argued for, but are based by and large on aims found in high-performing systems elsewhere in the world.

One could reasonably object to this approach that other systems may have got it wrong, and that it would be better to work out a set of aims that is defensible and for which good reasons are given. But a more basic objection to Chapter 2 is that the aims seem to be included almost as a matter of routine – ‘in reports like this, you’ve got to produce an aims statement before getting down to the nitty-gritty’ – and are not taken seriously.

If general aims were taken seriously, they would generate sub-aims and sub-sub-aims that would provide all the curriculum objectives any national system or individual school could want. Suppose, for instance, we take the ‘responsible citizenship’ aim in Chapter 2. For this, students would need, among other things, to know something about the society they live in. One aspect of this, inter alia, is understanding something about how its economy works. And for this last sub-aim, they need some understanding of the scientific and technological basis of that economy. Thus, by beginning from very general aims, in some cases one can soon reach curricular objectives of a familiar sort, to do in this case with aspects of physics, chemistry, ICT, etc most relevant to understanding today’s economy. This is just one example of how a general aim can generate sub-, and sub-sub, aims. In a work coming out later this year, Michael Reiss and I will be publishing a comprehensive account of an aims-based curriculum with this kind of approach.

But the Panel does not go for this kind of curriculum planning. –Not surprisingly, since in Chapter 1 it has already committed itself, following its terms of reference, to a curriculum built round a few privileged subjects. In the very next paragraph after it has set out its aims (2.17), it talks of the role of the primary school in orientating pupils ‘towards subject knowledge’. If it had been taking its aims seriously, it would have seen that there can be many vehicles for trying to realise aims. Discrete subjects are only one kind of vehicle: there are also whole school processes, projects, interdisciplinary studies and no doubt others.

In conclusion…The Framework document may have its strengths, and others may wish to speak to these. But its overall conceptualisation is not only weak, but risks reinforcing a view of the school curriculum that has been with us since 1858 and might just need updating for the twenty-first century. It does this by relying on academic material that is fashionable but of poor intellectual quality. The document gives Coalition curriculum policy a veneer of intellectual respectability that it does not deserve.

Part 2 Comments on Programmes of Study, Attainment Targets and Assessment

This part focuses on the nature of the specification of subjects and their assessment, and in particular on Chapters 5 to 8 of the Expert Panel Review.

In this part of the report, as in the earlier chapters, there is a tendency to appeal to what happens in ‘high-performing jurisdictions’ as a sufficient rationale for proposals, sometimes underplaying the considerable variation between such jurisdictions, but, more often, failing to note that what is common to these is also often common to jurisdictions which perform in international tests far below the UK. (As an aside, some countries whose arrangements are quoted (e.g. New Zealand) do not consistently perform better than the UK.)

There is a concern among subject communities that there will by extension be no longer any need to justify the inclusion or placing in a specific year of a specific item of content – just so long as some high achieving Pacific Rim country does so, that will be regarded as sufficient justification. As noted in John White’s comments, it seems particularly important in view of this threat that each specific item and component of the new curriculum links back to aims and objectives so that teachers, parents and students understand why it is there and how it coheres with other aspects.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine the nature of Key Stages in relation to the specification of Programmes of Study and conclude that each Key Stage (with its associated Programme of Study, Attainment Targets and Assessment regime for each subject) should stretch over a 2-year period, except for Key Stage 4, which should extend to 3 years. Although there is a reasonable rationale for this in terms of raising standards, it should be emphasised that it tends to provide more rather than less central prescription than at present, since KS2 and KS3 currently cover periods longer than 2 years.

In justifying the longer period for GCSE preparation, it is noted that an advantage is that it ‘would harness positive wash-back of high stakes assessment’ (p.34); however the strong evidence of accompanying negative washback leading to narrow and short-term teaching to the test is nowhere considered. (Maybe such an omission is a downside of selecting a chair from an assessment agency?) . It is also confidently predicted that the 2-year period of enhanced motivation resulting from GCSE preparation would readily extend to a 3-year period.

An unexpected argument for a longer GCSE preparation period is made:

‘GCSEs would effectively become longer and more substantial – they are currently relatively small qualifications in the crucial subjects of mathematics and English.’ (p.34)

This is not a complaint that is often heard from pupils or teachers, who generally feel that there is already more than enough to master in these core subjects. Since they are cumulative rather than topic-based subjects, it is not clear what difference starting GCSE courses a year earlier but not entering before the end of Year 11 (an eminently sensible recommendation) would make to attainment.

A recommendation for two-year Programmes of Study follows from 2-year Key Stages but there is an interesting exception suggested:

‘However, while we make a two-year recommendation, we are aware of the differences between subjects which could justify making a different decision in specific cases. For example, we recognise that the particular case of mathematics in primary education deserves further consideration. We are nevertheless aware of the views from the Mathematical Association and the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education, expressed in their responses to the Call for Evidence. These significant organisations each expressed concern about a year-by-year approach to mathematics because of the constraint on flexibility to match learner needs. (p.41)

No justification is given for such an exception (suggesting some unexplained ministerial preference?) and in fact the Expert Panel seem to argue against it in their general argument against year-by-year Programmes of Study as lacking flexibility for teachers to adapt to student needs.

In trawling the report for any clue as to why primary mathematics might be regarded as different from secondary mathematics or primary English, all I could find was a very strange quasi-Vygotskian epistemological claim in Chapter 1:

Our position is therefore that both elements – knowledge and development – are essential and that policy instruments need to be deployed carefully to ensure that these are provided for within education. The two elements are not, however, equally significant at every age. In particular, developmental aspects and basic skills are more crucial for young children, while appropriate understanding of more differentiated subject knowledge, concepts and skills becomes more important for older pupils. (p.12)

In the previous section it has been explained that knowledge is social and development is individual; the distinction is elaborated in a diagram on page 59 which shows oral communication and language as being individual and developmental whereas literacy and mathematics are knowledge-based and social, but there is no explanation anywhere of what constitutes a ‘basic skill’. While one might guess at basic skills which are perceptually rather than conceptually-based – e.g. recognising the shapes and sounds of letters and numbers, much other early learning like the development of meaning in oral language, and, for example, learning how to work out the number of children present in a class knowing that three are absent out of 27, certainly is conceptual. It is thus difficult to see the justification for treating different age groups differently on epistemological grounds.

This odd phase-based distinction comes to the fore again in Chapter 8 where the desirability of differentiation in attainment is considered. It is claimed that high performing jurisdictions tend to have a smaller range of attainment than the UK at primary level (this is mostly but not universally true e.g. Singapore has a standard deviation in TIMSS 2007 Grade 4 mathematics which is similar to that of England) and a greater range at secondary level. This is therefore adopted as what we should be aiming for, i.e. uniformly high achievement at the end of primary followed by increased differentiation at secondary level:

It should be possible to do better, particularly in primary education where there is significant emphasis on establishing the foundations for later learning. By the end of secondary education pupil attainments are necessarily differentiated and will be certificated accordingly through the examination system. (p.44)

This looks dangerously like a justification for grammar schools or at least differential provision or secondary setting. While the recommendation at primary level may be appropriate, it seems very odd to base this on some misleading epistemological distinction between the types of knowledge and learning at different Key Stages. In mathematics there are little grounds for distinguishing primary content from secondary other than the fact that the concepts become gradually more complex and abstract. Presumably the same is true for English and science.

The desire for uniform progress in primary schools leads to the proposal that we have a uniform Programme of Study specified yearly (mathematics) or two-yearly (everything else) in the form of ‘discursive statements of purposes, anticipated progression and interconnections within the knowledge’ (p.9) on one side of the page relating to precise attainment targets on the other. In subjects other than mathematics, schools would be expected to formulate their own annual programmes and attainment targets mid-key stage. Assessment would then relate directly to the Attainment Targets, informally at the end of mid-key stage years and formally at the end of each Key Stage (although only externally for English and Mathematics at the end of upper Key Stage 2 as at present).

This would mean that levels and the current form of attainment targets defined by level descriptions would disappear. Achievement at some still-to-be-defined level of mastery of the end-of-Key Stage Attainment Targets would result in a judgement of ‘ready to progress’ to the next Key Stage Programme of Study:

‘Performance tables could be constructed on the basis of the proportions of pupils in any cohort having reached the ‘ready to progress’ level at the end of the key stage.’(p.51)

There is the question, of course, of what happens to the students who do not meet the ‘ready to progress’ criterion. There is a suggestion that additional support would be provided for students at risk of failure. However it is clearly not expected that all students would meet the standard at the end of Year 6, for otherwise the league tables would not differentiate between schools. There is no mention of repeating years, although this seems to be the obvious consequence and is frequently though not always legally used in countries which measure progress in terms of ‘ready to progress’ criteria.
This structure of Key Stage Programme of Study and associated Attainment Targets would continue to Key Stage 3, and then would be replaced by GCSE in Key Stage 4.

This new structure is not in itself objectionable, nor is the removal of levels which have indeed become misused. However, it needs to be appreciated that the new assessment system will no longer recognise progress made by higher or lower attaining children; low attaining pupils in particular will mainly be judged negatively by what they have not mastered at the end of each year , rather than positively on what they have learned and what new level they have achieved. Schools in deprived areas will thus not be able to quote alternative measures of student progress but can only be judged on the absolute grounds of what percentage reach the national standards at Year 6. There is some recognition of the consequences for those at the extremes (although as normal in policy statements the population is seen as neatly divisible into three groups: high attainers, those with special needs and the rest, rather than as containing a continuous range and variety of attainment), but we are only told that SEND students may be excluded from assessment and that more work is needed on the two extreme groups..

The situation will certainly be simpler in terms of teaching and assessment. Teachers will be required to teach a given minimal Programme of Study in the core subjects and will assess each year the mastery of the national learning objectives for that year. The rest of the programme for core subjects will be up to teachers and it looks as though that will be mainly the case for foundation and other subjects, with perhaps just minimal guidelines on content. Only at the GCSE stage may the content of foundation subjects become defined, and then by Awarding Bodies.

At first glance, the core subject structure appears similar to the structure introduced by the Strategies with uniform curriculum and learning objectives defined for each year. However, the Expert Panel are actually suggesting something rather different (possibly, although they do not acknowledge this, in the light of research showing that the Numeracy Strategy had the effect of increasing the range of attainment although it was designed to reduce it ). What they actually propose is a slimmer nationally required core and ‘fewer things in greater depth’ (p.51). This is indeed something to be welcomed – like the United States and unlike the Pacific Rim the national Strategies tended towards a curriculum that was ‘a mile wide, an inch deep’ , which was intended to be in the form of a helix with upward progression but sometimes ended up simply being repeated circles of meeting briefly and forgetting, with little obvious progress.

But while more depth (and less repetition) sounds good, there are some dangers in a reduced National Curriculum stripped to ‘essential knowledge’, with teachers left to fill in the rest of the curriculum according to local factors. The 2010 White Paper notes:

‘As part of the review of the National Curriculum, we will also make sure that children are expected to master the core arithmetical functions by the time they leave primary school. ‘ (p.44)

This suggests that the national curriculum for mathematics could be reduced to written algorithms for the four number operations, and for English to a mastery of the mechanics of reading and writing.

There is certainly an assumption that knowledge is ‘to be acquired’ (p.9) rather than understood, used and applied, and that ‘the age at which things should be learnt’ (p.40) can be arbitrarily decreed, presumably on the basis of reference to Pacific Rim curricula or by ministerial diktat. This knowledge is to be expressed in precisely stated Attainment Targets as ‘the search for precision is vital and is consistent with well-grounded practice in assessment’(p.42). Again this sounds like an awarding body employee rather than an educationist talking. My experience of formulating attainment targets suggests that only routine procedures can be precisely specified (e.g. ‘using long division for dividing numbers up to 5 digits by numbers up to 3 digits where the answer is expressed as a remainder’); more worthwhile targets (e.g. ‘recognising in a real problem that you have to divide to obtain the result, choosing a sensible method and reporting the result to an appropriate degree of accuracy’) are rarely capable of precision.

There are some reassuring signs that the problem has been understood, and that not just procedures are intended:

‘The key challenge will be to write Attainment Targets that are as few and concise as possible in the choice and expression of ‘essential’ learning outcomes. ‘ (p.43)

‘We believe that it is vital for all assessment, up to the point of public examinations, to be focused on which specific elements of the curriculum an individual has deeply understood and which they have not.’(p.50)

Nevertheless the tension between this and the more mechanistic knowledge statements has not been resolved.

Nor has the difficulty been adequately addressed of having only part of the intended curriculum externally imposed. As noted earlier this seems likely to imply that only number calculations in the abstract will be included in the primary National Curriculum for mathematics; teachers will be left to decide whether they have time left to include their use in problems, or ideas of space and shape, measurement, data handling, pattern and logical reasoning. For those students who are likely to have the greatest difficulty remembering the number bonds, multiplication tables and the rules for calculation, it seems least likely that they will be provided with the richer curriculum in which they are more likely to be able to demonstrate success and which will be more meaningful and enjoyable.

Presumably there will be equivalent situations in English, with drama and poetry becoming sacrificed for marginal students in order to haul them up to meeting the annual criteria for reading and writing accurately.

Thus although we have here some interesting proposals with potential for teachers to have greater control of some features of the system, there are several worrying aspects and as yet little indication that the possible negative consequences have been fully worked through.

Click here to read a response to John White from Professor Michael Young.