In an interview with the Guardian, Tim Oates (Chair of the national curriculum review expert panel and director of assessment research and development, Cambridge Assessment) has called for the national curriculum
"to get back to the science in science. ... We have believed that we need to keep the national curriculum up to date with topical issues, but oxidation and gravity don't date," he said. "We are not taking it back 100 years; we are taking it back to the core stuff. The curriculum has become narrowly instrumentalist."
Oates is reported as saying:
it should be up to schools to decide whether – and how – to teach climate change, and other topics about the effect scientific processes have on our lives.
In the piece, in order to provide some context for Oates's comments, the Guardian quotes the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, as saying the national curriculum was:
"too long ... patronising towards teachers and stifled innovation. ... Its pages are littered with irrelevant material – mainly high-sounding aims, such as the requirement to 'challenge injustice', which are wonderful in politicians' speeches, but contribute nothing to helping students deepen their stock of knowledge."
Well! Where to begin? Perhaps by wondering what the purposes of the science curriculum (and the national curriculum) are in Oates' and Gove's views. Curriculum is concerned with how we think about the social purposes of education. If we think one way, we will have a certain kind of curriculum; if we think differently, the curriculum itself will be markedly different. Grammar and secondary modern school curriculums were different because those schools had different social purposes. Schools in the Soviet Union had compulsory courses in Marxist-Leninist theory and the History of the Communist party for a very clear purpose. And our primary and secondary school curriculums are still quite different reflecting their distinct populations and purposes.
Curriculum is always a selection from culture, and by its very nature involves a compromise between competing social goals (eg, cultural transmission (or rejection) / social change (or not) / employment and employability / personal fulfillment and well-being). Wise societies choose carefully and re-think their choices from time to time, especially when faced with social or economic challenges. The need for sustainable development is thought by many to be such a point of choice – though not, I suspect by current ministers. The DfE website has a video of Education Secretary Michael Gove and Schools Minister Nick Gibb at Twyford school, launching the review. Watching this, the purpose of the review seems to be to raise standards and promote knowledge and content, as Mr Gove puts it:
elevating our sights, raising aspiration, daring to imagine the new heights that children might scale.
Here, it seems clear that the need to address employment and employability issues is paramount as we struggle to compete economically with emerging economies (and Finland) whose PISA scores show how badly our schools do by comparison. So, that's the review, which says something (actually "rather narrowly instrumental") about the purposes of the curriculum. But is that the only purpose? I thought that watching the video of the advisory panel explaining what they were up to might shed some light on this. But it didn't, apart from Dylan Wiliam's cameo which did at least show that he understands what curriculum is. The others (Oates included) seemed too willing to push their particular hobbyhorses (clear content, logical progression, or subject teaching in primary schools, for example).
It's the Government's intention that the National Curriculum should be slimmed down so that it"
properly reflects the body of essential knowledge which all children should learn and does not absorb the overwhelming majority of teaching time in schools. Individual schools should have greater freedom to construct their own programmes of study in subjects outside the National Curriculum and develop approaches to learning and study which complement it.
But what's it for? The DfE website devotes 10 pages to the review, and says the National Curriculum should have the following aims at its heart:
- to embody rigour and high standards and create coherence in what is taught in schools;
- to ensure that all children have the opportunity to acquire a core of essential knowledge in the key subject disciplines; and
- beyond that core, to allow teachers the freedom to use their professionalism and expertise in order to help all children realise their potential.
That's it, it seems. So how are schools to judge how to fill up the 50% [?] of school time that remains when the national curriculum part is finished? It's hard to say; perhaps it doesn't matter provided it helps all children realise their potential.