Rethinking the curriculum – Peter Dougill

‘Without a curriculum, a building full of teachers, leaders and pupils is not a school’ – Amanda Spielman, HMCI October 2017.

Two prominent and closely interrelated experimental movements have influenced the nature of schooling in the UK over the past 40 or so years. The first is the dominance of a neoliberal economic ideology over the ways in which society at large is viewed and structured; the second is the emergence of academy or charter schools which embrace the precepts of a market driven approach to the delivery of public services.

Not only are schools now seen as serving the economic needs of the state but these needs are permeated by a neo-liberal ideology where free market principles dominate. However, there are now number powerful indicators to suggest that the neoliberal experiment may have run its course. In turn, this has profound implications for the ways in which education and schooling should be framed.

In 1976, as a reaction to recurring and long held claims from UK industrialists and the business world, James Callaghan, the then Labour Prime Minister, made what has become to be seen as a pivotal speech regarding education in the UK. In his Ruskin College speech Callaghan asserted that government would enter what he described ‘the secret garden of the curriculum’. The implication of this was that education should be removed from the control of those most closely involved in its delivery: teachers.

Callaghan’s speech was informed by a growing concern ( voiced earlier by his Conservative predecessor) that the UK’s economic decline could be linked to a decline in educational standards caused by so called ‘progressive’ teaching methods employed in the nation’s comprehensive schools. If, indeed, there is a single date where the influence of the education professional begins to ebb away this is it.

Callaghan called for a ‘Great Debate’ on the UK’s approach to education policy, a debate which resulted in the publication of a Green Paper in 1977, Education in Schools: a Consultative Document. In short, this document identified a number of points of concern: the curriculum was congested with the result that key areas of study were at risk; variations in the curriculum from school to school meant that children who moved schools could be disadvantaged; and, probably most significantly, the curriculum in many schools was not sufficiently aligned to the needs of a modern industrial society. From this came the National Curriculum albeit a number of years later.

So what have the succession of governments between the mid nineteen seventies to the present day wanted from the UK’s schools? The answer is based on the now largely uncontested assumption that the primary purpose of education is to serve the needs of the nation’s ‘economy, industry and commerce, the so called wealth creating sector’ (however these features are defined) and that a national school curriculum provides the means to those ends. Indeed, this has moved to the point where areas of study focussing on business related activity as ‘enterprise’ or even in the more extreme cases ‘entrepreneurship’ have become commonplace in the UK’s schools.

However, Alison Wolfe, writing as early as 2004, has made the point that,
‘it does not follow that education policy is an effective tool for ensuring economic prosperity let alone that it can guarantee specific levels of growth or national income’ .She goes on to say, ‘it is clearly the case that, on average, richer countries have more of their populations being educated for many more years than poorer ones but then they also have more motorways, more hospitals and, (at least for the moment) more symphony orchestras. No one is suggesting that a direct way to greater national wealth is to spend more and more on any of these, even though a good case can be made out for the link between any one of them and individual citizen’s welfare’ 1

It may be then that now is the time to look again at the purposes of education, the role of schools and in particular the nature of curriculum (and by implication a consideration of teaching methods and assessment practice) through which a nation’s young people are prepared for life.

So what is meant by the curriculum?

At the very least it is the total programme of study in an educational establishment, rather than merely the content of individual subjects or syllabuses. But merely concentrating on the knowledge-content or list of subjects to be included in this curriculum will only take us only so far. For example there is, in addition to the ‘official’ curriculum which is written down, prescribed and ‘delivered’, a curriculum which is ‘hidden’. This has been described as the curriculum where pupils learn through the ways in which a school is organised, through the teaching materials used, and by the social arrangements and even the rituals which characterise everyday life in the school. These are hidden from pupils and in many cases from those who work in schools who take for granted ‘the ways of doing things’. (An obvious example of this would be the heavy emphasis placed on student conformity signified by a widespread enthusiasm for the adoption school uniform).

However, a curriculum which is prescribed, planned and delivered may not bear all that much resemblance to the learned curriculum which pupils ‘take away’ from their time in classrooms and beyond. The extent to which a curriculum is received may be the result of a mismatch between the ideology of the school, the aspirations of the teacher and the interests and capabilities of the learner. The extent of these gaps may come to light on an everyday basis through formative approaches to assessment and on a longer term basis through the summative test and examination regimes. Even the OECD has made de the point that,

‘In some cases, people see the curriculum entirely in terms of the subjects that are taught, and as set out within the set of textbooks, and forget the wider goals of competencies and personal development. This is why a curriculum framework is important. It sets the subjects within this wider context, and shows how learning experiences within the subjects need to contribute to the attainment of the wider goals.’ 2

Andreas Schleicher, who heads up the OECD’s education directorate, has made the point that
‘We live in a fast-changing world, and producing more of the same knowledge and skills will not suffice to address the challenges of the future. A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last their students a lifetime. Today, because of rapid economic and social change, schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t yet know will arise.’ (ibid)

However, even this is not enough. The purpose of education is not merely to support an economy. Young people are already living in a world where they need to assume responsibilities, respond to personal challenges and make moral choices which were unknown to their parents. Education needs to support young people to become self- motivated, engaged in their communities, anticipatory, analytical, caring, collaborative, and of course, well informed and above all sceptical.

Of course this also implies that the curriculum which might support these aspirations needs to represent a view of knowledge that is not compartmentalised but considers the interrelatedness of subject disciplines and is supported by pedagogies which are collaborative and negotiated between the teacher and the taught.

For this to be achieved we need as a matter of some urgency, to look again at the theories of knowledge which underpin our current curriculum whilst also considering the psychology of learning which informs classroom practice. Only when these are made explicit and transparent will we able to move towards a coherent curriculum which could meet the needs of young people in the 21st century. It is unfortunate that in the more recent discussions around the nature of the curriculum there has been a strain and confusion between the ‘forward looking economy driven model’ and the ‘nostalgia bound independent school’ model. These inevitably make use of false dichotomies where knowledge and skills are seen as compartmentalised. So how have we arrived in this less than desirable position?

Amanda Spielman in her HMCI annual commentary provided one strong answer:

“It is certainly possible that this ambiguity and lack of shared understanding expose competing notions of what curriculum means across the sector. However, the most likely explanation is that this arises from a weak theoretical understanding of curriculum. This was confirmed by school leaders, who said that there was a time (long ago) when teachers were taught the theory that underpins curriculum planning. Over time, this competence across the sector ebbed away.”3

The time is now right to engage the teaching profession in the development of a close and rigorous consideration of the theory of curriculum design.



1 Wolfe, Alison Oxford Review of Economic Policy. Vol 20, No 2, 2004
2 Schleicher, Andreas, OECD Education Directorate, 2017 (OECD website)
3 Spielman, Amanda, HMCI Commentary 2017, Ofsted October 2017

October 2017

Peter Dougill is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and a member of the New Visions for Education Group