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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 February 2007, 00:00 GMT
Whose classroom curriculum is it?
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Bkaer graphic

Who should decide what is taught in schools?

Should it be teachers or academics? Or should governments, parents, or even pupils decide?

This week brought the latest proposals to change the national curriculum in England for 11 to 14-year-olds.

It was immediately clear that there are tensions between traditionalists and modernisers.

First, though, my apologies to readers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for focusing once again on England, but the wider issues of who rules the curriculum are relevant to the rest of the UK.


The proposals came from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

Yet in the days before they were published the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, got his retaliation in first in briefings to journalists.

Some subjects, he told the Sunday newspapers, were sacrosanct. These "untouchables" included studying the slave trade in history and certain "classic authors" in English.

In addition, he insisted on some additions: all pupils should study climate change and sustainable development in geography and everyone must learn practical cookery skills. In themselves these suggestions are perhaps uncontroversial, although not all agree that the slave trade is the most central aspect of the past 2,000 years of English history.

But this ministerial intervention was not welcome at the QCA because the government's stress on compulsion runs completely counter to the message it was trying to give: that there is no "one size fits all" curriculum and schools should have greater flexibility to adapt and design their own curriculum.

Teacher preserve

This is part of the wider drive towards what is called "personalised learning". Yet, insisting that every pupil studies certain topics contradicts the notion of an individually tailored curriculum.

The reality, of course, is that ever since the creation of the national curriculum in the late 1980s governments have found it impossible to resist tinkering.

As our elected representatives, perhaps they are entitled to do so. Do they know better than teachers?

Yet, for much of the recent history of state education in England, the curriculum was the preserve of the teaching profession.

If you will allow a small historical excursion, it is worth recalling that when the churches initiated mass education in the early 19th century there was no centrally required curriculum.

The basic requirements were: Godliness, Christian morality, tidy personal habits, the ability to read the scriptures, and some basic arithmetic. In effect, the curriculum was the bailiwick of the church leaders.

'Payment by results'

The first big state intervention came mid-century when concern about Britain's economic performance brought a review of the output of schools. A Royal Commission, under the Duke of Newcastle, proposed the development of "sound and cheap elementary instruction".

The Newcastle Report of 1861 led to a "Revised Code" that laid down six "standards" of education.

Pupils were to be tested against these standards at the end of the year and - this was where the control came in - the level of government grant was based on these test results. It became known as "payment by results".

This system was eventually dropped at the very start of the 20th Century. However government control continued under the Elementary Code and the Regulations for Secondary Schools.

The latter not only stipulated which subjects had to be taught but also how much time should be spent on them.


So secondary schools were to spend at least 7.5 hours a week on science and maths and a minimum of 4.5 hours on English language and literature, history and geography.

With a further 3.5 hours for a language other than English this still left "ample time" for: physical exercise, drawing, singing, manual training and (for girls only) "housewifery". By the late 1930s, there was growing concern that the school curriculum had become a narrow straitjacket, mirroring the old grammar school timetable, with little relevance to the needs of the modern economy.

New theories about child development also led to changes in the primary curriculum that moved away from a rigid subject-based structure.

So, by the time of the 1944 Education Act, the government made virtually no reference to the curriculum; ministers were happy to leave that to teachers.

And so it remained, until the late 1970s when government grew frustrated at what became known, disparagingly, as "the secret garden of the curriculum" and began to demand a say.


So, since 1989, England has had a national curriculum. From the start, there were battles over what should be in it.

Senior members of the QCA ... are impatient that political considerations - and fear of the media's reaction - hamper the modernisations they would like to make
To fend off accusations of state propaganda, the then Conservative government established a set of working parties, composed of teachers and lay members, to design the curriculum.

Yet the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, could not resist saying what she wanted, whether it was a greater focus on the landmarks of British history or more maths and science.

This week's events show that little has changed. The QCA, effectively the permanent expert working party, found itself bumped into certain changes by the education secretary.

Privately, senior members of the QCA believe our current curriculum is neither "modern and world class" nor a "route into successful adult life".

They are impatient that political considerations - and fear of the media's reaction - hamper the modernisations they would like to make.

They believe the current debate should be less about content and more about "design". For example, they think the discrete subject headings should be more blurred and that learning should be delivered more flexibly.

One QCA adviser points to the curriculum in South Africa where they have something called "essential life organisation" (ELO) skills.

He believes that it is the routines and design of school that currently alienate many teenagers.

He argues that students should have a greater say over how they learn in school. He would like to see an entitlement to "student initiated learning" or "learning as you want to learn".

If the QCA wants schools to design their own curriculum, we may be at a tipping point
But who are the QCA? Are they civil servants or leaders of the teaching profession?

The QCA is a government agency, so it remains under ministerial control, albeit at arm's length. Nevertheless most of the staff who devise the curriculum are former teachers and head teachers.

This does not change the fact that we still have a curriculum that is set centrally rather than designed at school level as you might expect if "personalised learning" is really to work.

The problem is that, as one experienced head teacher told me, "it's so long since teachers actually developed their own curriculum that they don't know how to do it any more".

Yet if the QCA wants schools to design their own curriculum, we may be at a tipping point: some curriculum control may return to schools. Personalised learning is the catalyst for this change.

But as this week reminded us, ministers do not yet entirely trust schools to do the right thing.

This suspicion is certainly shared by much of the media, and quite probably by many parents.

The curriculum continues to be the rope in a tug-of-war between the forces of tradition and conservatism, on one side, and modernisation and experimentalism on the other.

It will be fascinating to see which prove the stronger.

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