The National Curriculum took 4 years to develop, says minister. Really?

Janet Downs's picture
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According to schools minister Nick Gibb , writing in the Independent, the national curriculum (NC) took ‘nearly four years of development and consultation’.

But it’s a bit of a stretch to claim the NC took four whole years to produce. The NC review was announced on 20 January 2011. The finalised NC Programmes of Study for implementation in September 2014 were published on 11 September 2013. That’s less than three years from initial announcement to final publication. And Gibb seems to have forgotten that members of the NC expert panel resigned over excessive prescription in June 2012. Not so much a consultation as an imposition.

Gibb rightly says education should be based on evidence. Unfortunately, DfE use of evidence is dodgy. The UK Statistics Watchdog has twice criticised Education Secretary Nicky Morgan for her misleading use of statistics, for example.

What evidence does Gibb provide in his article?

His first claim, that many young people wouldn’t know anything about Magna Carta, Agincourt or Waterloo was based on a 2009 survey of Cardiff University undergraduates by Professor Derek Matthews. It found 88% couldn’t name a single 19th century prime minister.

Gibb’s used this survey before – he cited it during the ‘bitter row over Gove curriculum’ debate*. Professor Matthews had asked 284 first-year students five questions** over three years. Nearly half (47.3%) hadn’t taken GCSE history. Unsurprisingly, they fared the worse – only 19.4% answered all questions correctly. But the second worst-performing group were students from independent or selective state schools – just 24.2% answered all questions correctly. One from an independent school scored nil.

It would be misleading, however, to claim independent and grammar schools teach history badly on the strength of these findings. If the results mean anything at all, it’s that pupils should continue studying history until age 16. They don’t necessarily mean pupils had been poorly taught – the Ofsted report into history teaching 2011 found most secondary pupils received successful, well taught lessons particularly at exam level.

Gibb compares English pupils unfavourably with 15 year-olds in Shanghai. But the OECD has admitted that 25% of the cohort was missing from Shanghai’s sample. This casts doubts on claims of Shanghai’s superiority.

The minister, however, is convinced copying Shanghai’s methods will transform maths teaching. It’s unclear why he’s not lowering class contact time to Shanghai level: class contact time for Shanghai teachers is no more than 30%. But he seizes upon Shanghai’s textbook use to claim they are rarely used for maths teaching in English schools and maths teaching would be better if there were a 'renaissance in textbook publishing'. This assertion is based on a partial interpretation of analysis following the Trends in Maths and Science Survey 2011.

The Phonics Screening Test and increased emphasis on phonics has been ‘hugely successful’ in ensuring six year olds could read, Gibb claims. But DfE research found teachers were combining phonics with other methods.

Gibb praises ResearchED conferences because they acted as a ‘forum for education research’. However, he seems to pre-empt the research’s finding – they will replace ‘failed education orthodoxies’. Those ‘orthodoxies’ appear to comprise methods of which Gibb disapproves.

As usual, Gibb trots out the tired mantra that academies have greater freedom and some had ‘grasped the opportunities brought by greater autonomy’. But non-academies can do most things academies can do. And academy status is no guarantee that a school is offering an adequate education.

Gibb’s article is little more than PR puff for this Government’s education policies which are, as we’ve shown again and again, based on the slippery use of evidence. But at least he avoided the mistake made by his former boss – he didn’t cite surveys by Premier Inn or UKTV Gold.

How good is your knowledge of history? Try the LSN History Test to find out. Would it be safe to make a judgement about how well you were taught history based on your performance in answering just six questions?

* See here for Channel 4 debate at 5.42 minutes

** The five questions were: Who was the British General at Waterloo? Who was the monarch during the Armada? What was Brunel’s profession? Name one 19th century Prime Minister? What was the location of the Boer War?

ADDENDUM The Education Select Committee asked for comments about the DfE's use of evidence. The consultation is now closed but attracted 154 responses many of which asked for evidence about whether taking holidays in term time affected a child's education. You can read my response, dated November 21 2014 at 03.04pm here.
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