Only a school system which specifically defines the knowledge and skill required to participate effectively in each successive grade can be excellent and fair for all students (E D Hirsch, The Schools We Need, 1996).
We have a strong tradition of independence in British education, which contrasts strongly to the more centrally directed approach of other nations such as Spain, where even private schools are required to follow the national curriculum, and to give evidence to state officials that they are doing so (although a Spanish friend tells me this is only strictly enforced when the Socialists are in power). The Gove revolution in education has tended to see independence as a source of strength, and has thus extended elements of it to tax-funded schools.
At the same time, though, there is a tendency in the current administration to seek greater control, through punitive use of Ofsted, and efforts to strengthen the national curriculum with more rigorous requirements.
This is an inherent tension in the ongoing reforms. On the one hand, there is an admiration of much about the independent sector and a desire to replicate it in state schools. On the other hand, there is a wish to use the national curriculum as a means to raise standards, when independent schools have never been required to follow it.
This ambivalence towards a centrally directed curriculum is partly a consequence of the damage done to its credibility, damage which has been inflicted by the repeated progressivist hijacking of the curriculum in order to dumb down content in favour of complex formalist requirements. Such requirements are heavy on paperwork, but essentially empty in terms of measuring the learning of core knowledge. Ramping up bureaucratic surveillance of the fulfillment of complicated but empty requirements has been an excellent method for discrediting the whole process of defining a curriculum, which has been hated by the progressive professoriat from the beginning.
It’s heartbreaking to read E D Hirsch writing in 1996 (in The Schools We Need) about how Britain has finally turned the corner and embraced the need for a properly organised system of education with a national curriculum. He’s referring to the 1987 curriculum, put together mostly by the very experts who were intent on removing academic rigour from our education system. It wasn’t until Gove arrived that we had an education minister who knew that he could not trust the experts. Gove had, of course, read Hirsch’s analysis of the progressivist destruction of educational standards. He knew his enemy.
But a good national curriculum is not a burden. It is a great aid, because it removes from schools and teachers a lot of the planning. A good national curriculum clearly sets out the cumulative sequence of knowledge through the years, so that pupils can start each year ready to build on the knowledge they learned previously. To achieve this, we need something much more specific and concrete. The 2014 curriculum moved in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. We need a curriculum which actually specifies which works of literature pupils should read in year seven, for example. Think of it as a large scale knowledge organiser.
It’s also worth remembering that specifying content does not mean specifying methods. As long as their pupils are learning, teachers should be left alone to do their jobs. There should be no ideological specification of methods, just a pragmatic insistence that the core knowledge should be mastered, because if it isn’t, the pupils won’t be ready to start the next year. This could be measured by annual objective tests of core knowledge. If the pupils of a teacher were persistently performing poorly in these, it would up to the head to take action. Ofsted inspections would consist chiefly of looking at results and checking that heads had proper processes in place for dealing with poor performance.
And if such a helpful national curriculum existed, should independent schools be required to follow it? Definitely not. Their independence is a precious part of British culture that should be protected. But if the curriculum was actually a useful aid instead of being an ineffective burden, then many independent schools would want to follow it in any case. They may decide to make it, say, seventy percent of their curriculum. Pupils often transfer between schools, including between state and private schools, and it would make sense to schools to be part of a coherent national programme which minimises the disruption caused by such transfers.