National Curricula Lecture

Introduction

This chapter discusses national curricula, using the UK as an example. The role and function of national curriculum arrangements are discussed, as well as definitional and descriptive aspects related to those same arrangements. After explaining the role and purpose of a national curriculum, with certain UK provision used as an extended exemplar, the chapter considers rationales given for the development of such country-wide arrangements.

Following this input, the diversity of UK schools is considered, and the different relationships that schools may have to their interpretation or and flexibility towards the centralised curricular documentation. The final substantive section considers the reasons why a national curriculum may be of continuing relevance to education.

Each section is partnered with a set of reflective questions and thought experiments for you to engage with, so that your consideration of this chapter's ideas may be provoked. Further reading may be found in the references list which follows the chapter conclusion.

Learning objectives for this chapter:

By the end of this chapter, you should able to:

  • Define the term 'national curriculum', and describe the key elements of such arrangements
  • Appreciate the conditions which might lead to a national curriculum being devised
  • Identity the key elements of the National Curriculum in England
  • Appreciate the diversity of curricular positions adopted in countries such as the UK
  • Reflect upon the reasons why a national curriculum may remain a necessary element of state-provided compulsory education

What is a national curriculum?

As per a 2009 UK parliamentary committee report, a national curriculum "sets out the body of knowledge, skills and understanding that a society wishes to pass on to its children and young people" (House of Commons, 2009). Many, though not all, countries have a national curriculum; one notable exception is the United States, where education is largely the responsibility of its constituent individual states and not of the Washington-based federal government. Even in countries such as the USA where no national curriculum exists, though, there may well be initiatives which seek to standardise at least some aspects of educational provision across that country (Smith, O'Day, and Cohen, 1991).

National curricula offer a broad set of subjects and cover all of the years of compulsory education in the country concerned. The national curriculum will also indicate the minimum level of attainment to be targeted and the standards children are expected to reach in the subjects studied. National curricula will also state the staging points at which children are tested, and when formal examinations will occur for qualification purposes.

Taking arrangements in England as an example, schools provision is specified by the relevant National Curriculum documentation. In a following section the precise extent to which an individual school needs to follow the Curriculum guidance is specified; this section deals with the National Curriculum in England in general terms, to give an example of how a nation's curriculum might operate.

The National Curriculum in England

The school curriculum has elements which are considered part of the National Curriculum, as well as other elements which lay outside of that mandated provision, but which are nevertheless compulsory. Schools in England, for example, are expected to provide religious education throughout compulsory schooling years, and sex and relationships education from year 7 (age 11, or the beginning of secondary school) onwards. Though schools must provide religious education, parents/carers can elect to have their child opt out of such lessons on faith grounds; children may also be excused from some aspects of sex and relationship education in the same grounds (UK Government, 2015).   

In England, the National Curriculum is arranged in terms of clusters of academic years, into elements which are called key stages:

Ages 3-5: Preschool and reception: early years curriculum

Ages 5-7: Years 1 and 2 primary school: Key Stage 1 (with national testing and teacher assessments in English, maths and science in Year 2)  

Ages 7-10: Years 3-6 primary school: Key Stage 2 (with national testing and teacher assessments in English, maths and science in Year 6)

Ages 11-14: Years 7-9 secondary school: Key Stage 3

Ages 15-16: Years 10-11 secondary school: Key Stage 4 (some children will take some GCSEs in Year 10, though all will take the bulk/all GCSEs or other national qualifications - including vocational qualifications where relevant - in Year 11).

16, or Year 11, is the national school-leaving age in the UK. However, the overwhelming majority of young people continue into some form of further education, following either a vocational route leading to level 3 vocational qualifications, or an academic route taking AS and then A levels as a potential precursor to entry into higher education (UK Government, 2016).

The subjects vary depending on the Key Stage which the learner is taking. At Key Stages 1 and 2, the compulsory subjects in the English National Curriculum are:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Design and technology
  • History
  • Geography
  • Art and design
  • Music
  • Physical education
  • Computing
  • (at Key Stage 2) ancient and modern foreign languages

At Key Stage 3, the compulsory National Curriculum subjects are:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • History
  • Geography
  • Modern foreign languages
  • Design and technology
  • Art and design
  • Physical education
  • Citizenship
  • Computing

At Key Stage 4, learners must work towards national qualifications (usually GCSEs) which are separated into 'core' and 'foundation' subjects (though both are compulsory).

Core subjects are:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Science

Foundation subjects are:

  • Computing
  • Physical education
  • Citizenship

Schools must also offer at least one subject from these areas:

  • Arts
  • Design and technology
  • Humanities
  • Modern foreign languages

Schools may well offer more than one subject from this list. In addition, the requirement to offer religious education and sex and relationships education continues.

With respect to curricular arrangements in the UK, there are attempts to provide for two broad sets of aims which were developed from the 1996 Education Act, which required that all schools that were operating in the state sector were to provide an education which was both balanced and broad, and also satisfy two other sets of aims. In the first instance, the curriculum would need to promote development of children and young people with respect to their spiritual, cultural, moral, mental, and physical development, and to that of wider society, and in the second instance, to make adequate preparation for their emergence into adult life (Department for Education, 2007).

A national curriculum, as evidenced by the example outlined above, then has multiple sets of aims. The arrangement need to provide for an appropriate, balanced and equitable education which not only tends to the educational requirements of children and young people, but also to their cultural and social development, and to prepare them for adult responsibilities and for employment. At the same time, national curriculum documentation needs to provide for diversity, for a commonality of educational experience, and for auditability through internal and external inspection processes, as well as for achievement in qualifications and other terms (UK Government, 2016a).   

Reflection

To what extent do you think that national curricula are a good idea? What do you consider to be the weaknesses of having a single framework for all compulsory education?

Examining the English National Curriculum as outlined above, what would you add or take from the specified subjects? Why have you decided on these topics? Or is the National Curriculum fit for purpose as it is?

Look online at the detail given for your subject at each Key Stage it is taught at. How much translation is required to turn the curriculum documentation into a workable scheme of work, do you think? And where might you find support in doing this?


How are national curricula developed?

National curricula tend to evolve over time. An element of prescription in the subjects to be covered in compulsory education dates to the 1870 Elementary Education Act, which established the principle of mandatory elementary education for all children; prior to 1870, education was only available to those who could afford it (Gillard, 2011). Though a fully-available basic education took almost two decades to be universally-available, this was nevertheless the starting point for the National Curriculum, in that state oversight of education for all was initiated.

Moves towards the development of a national curriculum were not established until well into the 20th century; considerations included a concern at a fall in educational standards with the rise of comprehensive education, and concern at the latitude which teachers had, as well as a reliance on commercial textbooks to guide content rather than following educationalists' directions. A series of reports throughout the 1970s and 1980s crystallised the issue (Chan and East, 2009). 

By the mid-1980s, a consensus in government was emerging for the establishment of a national curriculum. This was driven by a series of concerns: low standards being evident in secondary education wide ranges in quality between different schools, perceptions of weaknesses in curriculum design and in the implementation of such planning documents, and overly-subjective assessment of pupil ability (Faulkner, 2009). There were calls for a broader curriculum, which was differentiated to better match learner abilities and competencies, an increased relevance to life experiences, a greater balance between subjects, and with appropriate distribution of resources across topic areas. The 1988 Education Reform Act was the vehicle by which the first iteration of the National Curriculum was established. The Act had three main aims, and the National Curriculum was the principal means by which these aims would be addressed. The aims were:

  • To improve the quality of education at all levels
  • To raise standards attained by learners
  • To extend principles related to freedom of choice in education, and to reduce reliance on local authority control for schools in certain circumstances

The 1988 Act not only introduced the National Curriculum, but at the same time required that responsibility for ensuring that the National Curriculum was delivered faithfully was placed with local authorities, with school governors, and with school heads (as opposed to with central government). In addition, it would now be possible for schools to opt out of direct local authority control, to make them more competitive by having the ability to operate their own admission limits, and to be open to enrol directly, rather than rely on having pupils centrally assigned by the local authority.

From the beginnings of the National Curriculum in the UK, then, there have been competing contexts and at-times contrary impetuses. One the one hand, the inauguration of centralised curricular arrangement might be seen to be a unifying force, driven by the perception that standards needed at the same time raising, equalizing, and standardising. On the other hand, contemporary drivers towards schools becoming independent from local authority control, first in administrative contexts, and then in their curricular arrangements, have told a perhaps different story. To some extent, it might be argued, the National Curriculum acts as a restrictive force on those schools electing to remain under local authority control, with those institutions operating in more of a free market context being allowed to have greater flexibility over their curricular arrangements. Some of these ideas are exemplified in the following section, which examines the diversity of schooling arrangements currently operating within the UK, and their relationship back to the National Curriculum. 

Reflection

The development of the National Curriculum was driven by a perception that standards were uneven and in places unsatisfactory. To what extent do you feel that a mandated curriculum could be a corrective to such concerns?

What other measures might guarantee quality and agreed minimum standards of education?

How might the National Curriculum be creative force? Or as a set of restrictions? What is your opinion of the notion of a national curriculum? 


How closely do individual institutions need to adhere to the national curriculum?

As you may have deduced from the sections above, the National Curriculum does not apply to all schools equally. Education has become a devolved matter for national assemblies and similar forms of regional government in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland since the inception of national curriculum arrangements in the late 1980s in the UK. As such, though there is commonality on a general level in the four constituent countries within the UK, there is no single set of arrangements which pertains to the entire nation.

Private fee-paying schools (sometimes known as public schools, or as independent schools) do not need to adhere to national curriculum arrangements. Instead, the obligation is on them to be registered with the government, and be open to regular external inspection. Depending on the school, it may be either inspected by Ofsted, as with state-sector schools, or with the Independent Schools Inspectorate, or else the Schools Inspection Service. Pupils at fee-paying schools, though, sit the same GCSE and A level examinations as their state sector peers.

Community schools (or grant-maintained schools), which are under direct control of the local authority, generally the metropolitan borough or county council, and which are funded by central government through the local authority, are obliged to deliver the National Curriculum as written. With the advent of academisation in the UK, the proportion of schools - particularly those in the secondary sector - which have to work to these arrangements is decreasing. 

Faith schools, which are otherwise state-sector schools in respect of their funding arrangements, have additional latitude with respect to the kind of religious instruction which is delivered, and in their staffing policies as well as in admissions criteria. Typically, faith schools are open to children of specific faith groups only.

Academies are funded differently to community schools, in that they are directly administered via a board of governors without the intermediation of the local authority. Often, academies are operated through charitable or other non-profit organisations; this academy trust is the employer, not the local authority as would be the case in a state school. The trust is responsible in turn to a sponsor (usually a business, a university, another academy school, or perhaps a faith group). In terms of their curriculum arrangements, academies do not have to follow the National Curriculum, though many will co-opt aspects of it for ease and straightforwardness of administration and inspection, offering an augmented or differentiated educational provision to distinguish themselves in the educational marketplace, and to suit the ethos of the academy (UKI Government, 2016b).     

As they are publicly funded, there are the same requirements on academies for admissions, special educational needs provision and on exclusions as on state schools though academies may differentiate themselves through setting different term and holiday dates to their state equivalents. Faith academies do not have to abide by the National Curriculum, like other academies, and like other faith schools in the state sector, they may have their own arrangements for admissions, again, usually on grounds of religious background.

Free schools may be set up by any interested party - typically a parents' group, a charity, a community group, or a business - and do not have to follow the National Curriculum. Free schools have latitude over many aspects of school administration including their employment terms and conditions, the length of the school day and of term arrangements. There are different types of free schools. Some, such as university training colleges (UTCs) are sponsored by educational institutions such as further education colleges or universities, and will have a focus on science and engineering-related courses in their internal curricula. Studio schools operate on a project basic, and tend to involve their pupils in case studies and in work simulations as part of a vocational or arts-based education alongside the provision of mainstream academic subjects. Studio schools tend to be small (perhaps with a roll of 200-300 learners) and tend to have a sectorial bias, and be minded towards employment or vocational further education as a destination (UK Government, 2016b). City technology colleges are funded through a mix of local business and direct central government sponsorship, and again are exempt from having to follow the National Curriculum in its entirety. As with UTCs, there is a focus on science and technology-based subject teaching, and on practical vocational skills for their learners.

The applicability of the National Curriculum to education, therefore, has become complicated by the advent of a spectrum of academy-like arrangements.

As of March 2016, in the primary sector, some 82% of UK schools were grant-maintained, with 17% of schools holding academy status, and 1% or schools being otherwise designated. In the secondary sector, 35% of schools were under direct local authority control, with 59% being designated as academies, and 6% of schools being free schools, UTCs, or studios (Fee, Worth, and Sims, 2016).

The picture as regards the National Curriculum is very different between primary and secondary education; two-thirds of secondary schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum in its entirety, whereas over 80% of primary schools fall within its remit. 

Reflection

How do you feel about the National Curriculum in a secondary context where the majority of schools do not have to abide by its direction? What functions are provided by the National Curriculum in such situations?

Why do you think there is such a marked difference between primary and secondary schools in their take-up of administrative and funding arrangements which do not obligate them to the National Curriculum?

What advantages are there to following the National Curriculum? And what drawbacks?


Why do we have national curricula?

Four main reasons for having a National Curriculum have been identified (House of Commons, 2009). This section defines and describes these functions.

1. To establish an entitlement

In having a National Curriculum, there is an establishment of an equal entitlement for all pupils, regardless of their background, ethnicity, dis/ability, race or gender or other protected characteristic, to an education in the areas delineated in the curriculum documentation. There is also an entitlement established in the presence of a National Curriculum that all young people should be able to receive a grounding in the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and knowledge which is deemed appropriate for them taking their place as engaged and responsible members of civil society. It should be noted, notwithstanding the plurality of schooling arrangements available which were outlined earlier in the chapter, that all school-age pupils have a right to a free education.

2. To establish standards

Part of the purpose of National Curriculum documentation is to demonstrate clear expectations in respect of learning and of achievement to all stakeholders: learners, their parents, school governors, prospective employers, and the public, and to establish relevant levels of standards for the measurement of pupil achievement. In this way, the National Curriculum sets benchmarks across the compulsory education sector for all educational institutions, irrespective of their administrative arrangements, for the measuring of their effectiveness in providing a quality education. By such standards, and through external inspection by Ofsted, quality can be upheld, and comparisons made across the sector between institutions, with monitoring and intervention as necessary to protect minimum acceptable thresholds.        

3. To promote continuity and coherence

Part of the intention of the National Curriculum is to explicate in a coherent way a national framework within education that makes sense to educational professionals, and which provides for continuity from level to level, as well as flexibility in learner development. In addition, the operation of a National Curriculum supports situations where pupils transfer from one institution to another, between primary and secondary phases of their education, as well as offering a well-understood and suitable framework for lifelong learning (House of Commons, 2009). 

4. To promote public understanding

National Curriculum arrangements are intended to be publicly available and to increase public understanding of the workings of compulsory education, as well as of confidence in schools' provision more generally. The presence of a National Curriculum also is intended to contribute to wider debates in education and its suitability and relevance to contemporary needs by offering a common ground, and so a starting point from which conversations about the suitability of compulsory education provision for children and young people.  

A further set of aims was considered in 2011 because of a review of then-existing National Curriculum arrangements. The review board tabled a series of five considerations underscoring the relevance of a continued nationally-relevant curriculum moderated via central government (Jones, Oates, and Pollard, 2011). The five aims identified were that curriculum provision should be extended to:

  • Address future economic trends both for individuals and for the wider UK workforce, with a focus on literacy, numeracy, and in communications skills, and in confidence in acquiring necessary skills as appropriate to changing contexts
  • More fully appreciate the distinctive cultures of the constituent parts of the UK, while at the same time respecting cultural diversity and responsible attitudes towards national and global citizenship
  • Provide for additional engagement in formal and informal modes of education in the post-compulsory educational environment, and to increase the demand for continuing education in both academic and vocational contexts
  • Buttress individuals' sense of empowerment and agency so that each learner is better positioned to develop themselves in respect of fulfilling their educational and other potentials, and to live balanced, confident and healthy lives
  • Advance environmental and sustainability understanding, so that resources can be better marshalled for the planet's future  

Though the National Curriculum is no longer prescriptive for most secondary provision, it is nevertheless a key aspect of the compulsory educational landscape for all UK provision, and informs much curriculum provision. If nothing else, it offers a benchmark and a starting point for comparison purposes for institutions to consider their own approaches for delivery, and a set of expectations about content and direction of education to improve upon. 

Reflection

How else might you, if you were in a position of authority, seek to achieve the stated aims of the National Curriculum?

What are the arguments against having national standards and prescriptive guidelines on what to teach? Do those arguments have political dimensions, economic ones, pedagogic aspects? Are they informed by other considerations? If so, what are they?

Conclusion

This chapter, together with its predecessor - chapter 8.1 - has examined curricular arrangements in first general, and then in specific national terms, with an extended example of the UK as its focus. Curriculum theory is a complex area of educational enquiry, and there are political and economic questions, as well as cultural and educational ones, to be considered.

The role of the government of the day in modelling national curricular content and oversight mean that there is perhaps inevitably value-driven element to questions of curriculum design and operation. Such questions may not always be prominent in day-to-day teaching, but they are worthy of consideration.

What values and priorities drive the creation and the redesign of curricular documentation, and to what extent does the educator have over the content, focus, and underpinning values of the courses which they are to deliver?  

Reflection

Now that you have completed this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Define the term 'national curriculum', and describe the key elements of such arrangements
  • Appreciate the conditions which might lead to a national curriculum being devised
  • Identity the key elements of the National Curriculum in England
  • Appreciate the diversity of curricular positions adopted in countries such as the UK
  • Reflect upon the reasons why a national curriculum may remain a necessary element of state-provided compulsory education

Reading list

Chan, S.-M. and East, P. (2009) A recent history of primary and secondary education in England. Available at: https://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/collegeofsocialsciencesandinternationalstudies/education/pgce/pre-coursedocuments/pre-coursedocuments2016-17/Secondary_MFL_-_History_of_Education_in_England_part_1.pdf (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

Department for Education (2007) The national curriculum key stages 1 and 2. Available at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130401151715/http://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/QCA-99-457.pdf (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

Faulkner, K. (2009) A recent history of primary and secondary education in England, part 2. Available at: https://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/collegeofsocialsciencesandinternationalstudies/education/pgce/pre-coursedocuments/pre-coursedocuments2016-17/Secondary_MFL_-_History_of_Education_in_England_part_2.pdf (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

Gee, G., Worth, J. and Sims, D. (2016) Academies and maintained schools: What do we know? Available at: https://fullfact.org/education/academies-and-maintained-schools-what-do-we-know/ (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

Gillard, D. (2011) Education in England - chapter 3. Available at: http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter03.html (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

House of Commons (2009) The national curriculum. Available at: http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/pdfs/2009-CSFC-national-curriculum.pdf (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

James, M., Oates, T. and Pollard, A. (2011) The framework for the national curriculum: a report by the expert panel for the national curriculum review. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/175439/NCR-Expert_Panel_Report.pdf (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

Smith, M., O'Day, J. and Cohen, D. (1991) A national curriculum for the United States? Available at: http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_199109_smith.pdf (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

UK Government (2015) The national curriculum: Other compulsory subjects. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/national-curriculum/other-compulsory-subjects (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

UK Government (2016a) The national curriculum. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/national-curriculum/overview (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

UK Government (2016b) Types of school. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/types-of-school/overview (Accessed: 13 November 2016).


To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.