Questions of balance

Posted in: Comment

Late last year, the DfE published Teaching a broad and balanced curriculum for education recovery.  Its purpose was to offer suggestions to help schools decide how to prioritise elements within their curriculum for education recovery from the pandemic's depredations.  It had very little to say about "balance"; indeed, the word was only used twice and was not defined or explored.  DfE has a habit of doing this.  Here, it is taken as read as if the concept needs no context.  Another take on this is to say that a balanced curriculum is the school curriculum; that is, the national curriculum plus some whimsical extras.

And yet, Section 78 of England's 2002 Education Act begins like this:

78 – General requirements in relation to curriculum

(1) 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.

In this, "balanced" is also undefined other than in the inchoate list set out in [78 b], above.

Back in 2017, I wrote this:

I wrote the other day about the new Head of Ofsted's first unsuccessful foray into curriculum, and in particular about the lack of mention of 'balance' in what she said.  She preferred to focus on 'broad' rather than 'balanced' despite what section 78 of the 2002 Education Act says.

The perils of breadth without balance are obvious.  Here's a broadly-based exemplification of a curriculum:

  1. Society's debt to Surrealist art and fashion
  2. The writings of Shakespeare, Jonson, Rattigan and Pinter
  3. The genesis and genius of Bebop
  4. Moral dilemmas within genetic engineering
  5. Synchronised swimming (depths 1 to 4)
  6. Mandarin Chinese conversation
  7. Fortran programming, probability and the Taylor series
  8. The history and philosophy of science in the Enlightenment
  9. Cooking traditional English pastries, puddings, pasties and pies
  10. Flint knapping theory and practice
  11. The sexual preferences of the kings and queens of England (1066 to 1603)
  12. Contrasting Shia and Sunni approaches to the good life in the 20th Century CE

The above might be a broadly-based set of experiences for young people — from flint knapping to Ben Jonson and Cornish pasties to Fortran — but is it balanced?  

A much more significant question, of course, is how could we tell?  Balance is usually enshrined in educational aims and Robin Alexander has argued that it is deeply undemocratic only to think of aims once content (like the above) has been decided (usually by expert others).  It is like thinking about nutrition only after a year's meals have been decided upon.

In 1980, in A View of the Curriculum; HMI Series: Matters for Discussion No. 11, HMI said this:

"The curriculum, whether for a school as a whole or for individual pupils, has to be presented as more than a series of subjects and lessons in the timetable.  When schools come to plan their detailed programme of work, they need to be able to measure the adequacy of those programmes by reference to more specific objectives, some checklist of important knowledge or skills to be acquired, or of essential areas of understanding and experience to which all pupils need access, within their capacities."

Both the HMI primary survey [1] and the curriculum 11 to 16 working papers [2] used this last approach to curriculum analysis, though with somewhat different formulations. That used in the primary survey was as follows:

  • language and literacy
  • mathematics
  • science
  • aesthetics, including physical education
  • social abilities, including religious education.

Such categories are useful also as indicators of the range of work to be done, over a week or within a term, though obviously they need careful interpretation to suit the ages and abilities of the children. Curriculum 11 - 16, the appendices of which contain detailed checklists relating to a wide range of subjects, categorised the experience and understanding to be sought through the curriculum as:

  • aesthetic and creative
  • ethical
  • linguistic
  • mathematical
  • scientific
  • physical
  • social and political
  • spiritual

That was when HMI thought and wrote about the curriculum.  It was when HMI was independent of the DfE, still reported to the Privy Council, and were unfettered from Ofsted (which had yet to be dreamt up and the source of nightmares).

This is what used to inform our notions of balance in the curriculum.  It's difficult to say what does these days, but without it, it is hard to have a serious curriculum thought.

In the wider world we are familiar with a "balanced diet" which is only possible because there are theories of nutrition to inform the idea.  Similarly, the notion of a balance as in a set of weighing scales is only possible because we have (implicitly or explicitly) an understanding of the Newtonian theory of gravity.

So where is the modern theory of the curriculum that meet's society's needs at this tricky point in the 21st century?



[1] Primary education in England: A survey by HM Inspectors of Schools. HMSO, 1978

[2] Curriculum 11 - 16 Working papers by HM Inspectorate. DES, 1977.

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  • Developing 'required' Curricula that make sense for a 21st century education with a 19th century perspective is always going to be problematic and overrun with politics of 'experts' opinions. Academia talks a lot about this need but rarely gets past the rhetorical opening questions. What do we need to know to be informed and discerning enough to live well in any place?