A 21st Century National Curriculum Framework

Eric Bolton

This paper by Eric Bolton is intended to be read alongside John Elliott’s paper Towards a new curriculum framework. Click here for John Elliott’s paper.

In the years that led up to the 1988 Education Act and the creation of a National Curriculum for 5 to 16 year old pupils in England and Wales the increasingly political and polarised debate about what was taught and learned and the standards achieved in our schools gave rise to a deal of research and heart-searching about how well, or badly we did in comparison with other, similar countries. We were not alone in that questioning and comparing, and much detailed research and work in the USA, Australasia and across Europe, often hosted by the OECD, led to significant changes and developments in public education in a number of countries. Those changes differed from country to country in both emphasis and substance, depending upon what issues came to the fore as being in most need of attention if both individual pupil, and national educational performance and achievement, were to be improved.

In England and Wales the main, overall messages that came through most clearly from both national and international studies and comparisons were that those comparable countries that seemed to do better than us:

• had inclusive public education services that set out to educate and qualify all pupils;
• did not decant groups of pupils out of subjects, classes, sets, schools and education altogether at different stages throughout the period of compulsory schooling;
• did not encourage early specialisation;
• kept a much larger proportion of the pupil population in touch with a broad, balanced curriculum for much longer than we did.

Those findings, along with a whole basket of other political, social and educational concerns and interests, led to the Education Reform Act of 1988 and, as a key part of that, to the first ever national curriculum for the compulsory years of schooling in state schools in England and Wales. That national curriculum had its powerful critics from the outset, and it has been much added to and subtracted from since its inception. Few serious observers and practitioners, however, would, today, argue that the NC had brought no benefits. Fewer still would argue against the need for a national curriculum, [the obverse of which is a national, pupil-entitlement], nor that the Government should have a role in determining the overall nature and shape of a NC and in ensuring the inclusion of what it judges to be national priorities and needs.

That being said, there is no doubt that the present NC is generally regarded as being unfit for purpose – whatever purpose different interest groups and practitioners might have in mind. It is in need of major overhaul if it is to provide a high-quality education for all in which practical is valued as highly as academic learning, and the personal development and well-being of the individual as highly as economic and occupational needs.

A national curriculum must, by definition, reflect the aspirations and needs of all interested parties and, above all, ensure a broad, balanced education for all pupils that, as well as preparing them for adult working life, also equips and enthuses them to play an informed, critical and active part in an open, participatory and democratic society. So, what should be the nature and substance of a reformed national curriculum, and what part should the Government play in shaping and determining its concerns and content?
First, at the national level the National Curriculum should be a National Curriculum Framework and not, as it is now, a long, detailed list of attainment targets and programmes of study aimed solely and narrowly at meeting those targets. The Framework should lay down nationally agreed curriculum objectives and set out broad areas of study and key ideas and concepts applicable to each area. There are different ways of constructing such a national framework ranging from the “Areas of Experience” model developed and set out by HMI in the 1970-80s, to more recent work such as, the Aims based approach in which the national framework is derived from aims and sub aims suitable for a liberal democracy ; the Cambridge Primary Review’s primary curriculum framework ; the 21st Century Science curriculum framework, and recent work by the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education .

It is for the Government to set up arrangements by which the nature, shape and content of the National Curriculum Framework are decided. It is crucial, however, for the Government to ensure that all interested parties are able to contribute and argue their case during the deliberations, in ways that will reconcile them to the inevitable bundle of agreements and compromises that will form a workable and challenging National Curriculum Framework.

However that is decided and worked through, the overriding principle should be that the NC Framework is not a detailed curriculum to be instituted and followed in every school, but, rather a template for use by teachers and schools to determine their own particular curricula and methodologies and to plan detailed schemes of work. It should also guide and assist those designing teaching materials and software to support teaching and learning.

A further key role of a National Curriculum Framework is to act as the basis for national assessment systems and structures that act as accountability measures and presently occur at years 2, 6 and 11, with different mechanisms at each stage. Equally importantly, the national framework should form the basis for teachers’ own formative and summative assessments.

For evaluation and assessment to be formative and constructive as well as informative and summative, they must:

• assess and/or evaluate pupil performance and achievement across the whole curriculum;
• develop rigorous qualitative as well as quantitative assessment instruments suited to the aims of the National Curriculum Framework;
• recognise the reliability, standing and importance of moderated teacher-assessment as well as that of external assessments;
• avoid the over-detailed target setting that has so narrowed teaching and learning in the present arrangements.

All that places great emphasis and importance on the National Curriculum Framework getting the balance right, between under and over specificity, in setting out its objectives and aims: under specificity ensures that whoever determines the high-stakes assessment, controls the curriculum and how it is taught; over-specificity leads to a damaging reduction in the flexibility needed to design and create effective, high-quality assessments.

That is a difficult balance to get right but it is crucial if the assessment cart is not to get before the curriculum horse, or the curricular specifications to be so detailed that they seriously narrow and constrain teaching and learning. Consequently, any National Curriculum Framework, however designed and shaped should be tested to determine its fitness for purpose in relation to both teaching and assessment to ensure that it would, as far as possible, encourage good practice and outlaw poor practice.

1. Reiss M & White J; “An Aims Based Curriculum – The Significance of Human Flourishing for Schools” IOE Press Feb 2013.

2. “Towards a new curriculum”, in Alexander R J [ed] 2010 “Children, Their World Their Education: Final Report of The Cambridge Primary Review”, Routledge, pp 237-278. For a summary of the Cambridge Primary Review’s evidence on the problems of the current curriculum and its proposals for reform, see www.primaryreview.org.uk/downloads/revised_2011-02/CURRICULUM_BRIEFING_REVISED_2_11.pdf

3. See the two reports on Mathematical Needs available on www.acme-uk.org/the-work-of-acme/publications-and-policy-documents/policy-reports and by the Nuffield Foundation on 21st Century Science on www.nuffieldfoundation.org/beyond-2000-science-education-future