The National Curriculum

It seems impossible to believe but before 1989 there was no legal requirement to teach anything except Religious Knowledge in UK schools. Of course, all schools did teach a broad curriculum which included Maths and English, the Arts and the Humanities; it’s just that the only actual legal requirement was RE.

The situation had existed since the 1870 Education Act which specified that children should be taught the “3Rs” (Reading, ’Riting and ’Rithmetic). They also had to learn the Catechism and, curiously, this was the only part to be enshrined in law.

It wasn’t until 1989 that a National Curriculum for England and Wales was created. For the first time in history a body of knowledge was written down and enshrined in law as an entitlement for every child.

The result was a lengthy and complicated document which contained, in enormous detail, everything children should learn. There was a Programme of Study for every subject - which described what should be taught -  and a set of Attainment Targets which described what a child should be capable of at each of ten levels. Level 2 was the target for seven-year-olds; level 4 for eleven-year-olds; and level 10 for sixteen-year-olds.

As you can imagine, the new National Curriculum contained far too much content. Science, for example, had seventeen attainment targets and each one contained dozens of topics to be taught and assessed. “Death by a million tick-boxes” became a common phrase as teachers struggled to implement an unwieldy curriculum. Lord Dearing was brought in to slim it down as teachers drew near to striking and the resultaing, more manageable version, was far more realistic.

League tables
From the outset the government decided to test children on the new curriculum and also to publish the results in the form of league tables. These deliberately set schools in competition with each other and placed them under immense - some would say unfair - pressure to compete. Schools in leafy suburbs unsurprisingly got better results than schools in deprived inner city areas and this would have been fine if the results guided future funding and support. The reality was that people simply abandoned schools that were lower in the tables. Social mobility favours the rich and so the gap between rich and poor grows. This is not a fault of the curriculum but of the decision to publish league tables. It is government policy and those in power believe that it leads to better education. Personally I disagree.

Next: Computers in the Curriculum

© Brian Smith 2015