Last reviewed 26 June 2013

Despite its drive to convert as many schools as possible to academy status, freeing them from the requirement to follow the National Curriculum, the Government is pushing ahead with its programme of changes to the latter. Tony Powell looks at the proposals for change and assesses what impact they will have on schools.

The rationale for change

The Department for Education’s view is that the curriculum has become too restrictive and stifles innovation by taking up too much time. Importantly, the current curriculum is seen as one of the reasons why Britain’s performance has stagnated in comparison with high-performing countries.

The intention is to restore the original purpose of setting out what all children should learn, focused on essential knowledge in key subjects in a way that embodies rigour and high standards. At the same time, schools will be given greater control over their wider school curriculum, and teachers the freedom to use their professionalism and expertise to support the progress of all children.

Curriculum reform is seen as the central improvement strategy because it sets out the essential knowledge, skills and understanding for all pupils. However, it is one of a set of priorities including structural change, reform of the examination system and additional funding through the pupil premium. The Government has also consulted on secondary school accountability, the role of the local authority and vocational qualifications, among other things.

The proposals

The National Curriculum remains a statutory requirement for all maintained schools. It also guides much of what is taught in many schools that have converted to academy status, as it provides a rationale for the core curriculum.

The Key Stages and subjects of the current National Curriculum will remain. The study of a foreign language in Key Stage 2 will become a requirement from September 2014.

ICT will be replaced by a new computing subject. The new programme of study will place much greater emphasis on teaching the principles of computational thinking and practical programming skills.

English, mathematics and science remain as the core of the curriculum and in the primary phase there will be detailed programmes of study for these subjects. In other subjects and Key Stages the curriculum will focus only on the essential subject knowledge.

In geography and history, there will be a much greater emphasis on the United Kingdom. History will focus on major events and political developments, such as constitutional monarchy, to give pupils an understanding of the development of our democratic ideals and institutions.

The approach on implementation is to introduce the new curriculum for all subjects and year groups from September 2014, with exceptions to ensure coherence with the timing of the reformed GCSEs. In secondary schools, therefore, the new programmes of study for English, mathematics and science will be implemented from September 2015 to match with the reformed GCSEs for first examinations in 2017.

To give schools time to implement the new content, many of the aspects of the current curriculum will be disapplied from September 2013. Schools will still be required to teach all the subjects of the National Curriculum but not the detailed content. The main exceptions to this are Years 1, 2, 5 and 6 because of assessment arrangements.

Evaluating the curriculum

Greater freedom and flexibility are accompanied by accountability; schools will be expected to justify their curriculum choices to Ofsted within the context of results. Where achievement is high the curriculum will no doubt be judged a positive feature, but if attainment is below average, especially in English and mathematics, schools will be open to criticism.

The evaluation schedule asks inspectors to look for a “rich and relevant curriculum” and “highly positive experiences and rich opportunities”.

However, the inspection judgment will be based on how well leaders and managers ensure that the curriculum:

  • focuses on the necessary priorities for ensuring that all pupils make excellent progress in reading, writing and mathematics

  • is broad and balanced (in the context of the school) and meets the needs, aptitudes and interest of pupils including, if applicable, pupils in the sixth form

  • promotes high levels of achievement and good behaviour and successful progression to the pupils’ next stage of education, training or employment

  • promotes the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of all pupils.

Implications for schools

Curriculum reform, plus changes to assessment and qualifications, will make huge demands on leadership, curriculum design, subject expertise and pedagogical skills. In the past, such changes would have been supported by a national training programme. Not this time! Instead, the Government is consulting on a “market-based approach in which schools can work collaboratively to provide professional development tailored to individual needs”.

Nor can schools look for support to local authorities that have been stripped of their infrastructure of advisors and consultants. Networks and partnerships will help but Heads will have to decide what knowledge, skills and understanding all staff will need and then arrange for the necessary training. This will be a particular challenge in primary schools.

Although the new curriculum will have less specified content in the foundation subjects, the core looks more detailed; time remains finite and it is important not to forget the foreign language requirement in primary schools. It will still be difficult to achieve breadth and balance and retain rich opportunities while narrowing the attainment gaps between groups. There is flexibility to deliver the curriculum in units across the Key Stage but it is important for all subjects to be allocated sufficient time so pupils have a meaningful experience.

After constructing the curriculum plan, schools will need to consider the staffing structure. This may mean competing to appoint specialist staff in areas such as computing, and reducing staffing in areas allocated less curriculum time. Schemes of work will need to be rewritten, although this will affect some subjects more than others. Different content means new resources and equipment, which in turn means additional funding drawn from a static or shrinking budget. Transition between stages and phases may not seem a high priority in the face of all this, but there are obvious implications for continuity and progression. As the simplest example, what factors affect the choice of a foreign language in a primary school?

Overall, top-down change is demotivating since it criticises what went before. This is particularly the case when education is berated for failure to improve basic standards and falling behind “high-performing jurisdictions”. Heads must maintain staff morale and take the opportunity to introduce improvements. This may be challenging when Heads themselves might not be convinced of the value of the changes, but it is still essential.