The proposed national curriculum will bring freedom, cries schools minister. The Government will design the “garden” but it’s up to teachers to decide how the garden grows.

Janet Downs's picture

The proposed National Curriculum is like a garden, says schools minister, Elizabeth Truss. The Government will build the “trellises” and mark out the “footpaths” but it’s up to schools to decide “how the garden grows”.

Truss wasn’t appearing on Gardeners' Question Time but making a speech to the Fellowship Commission.“Freedom” was obviously the watchword:

“And in order for teachers to be able to give life to the garden, government has to give them freedom: freedom from excessively prescriptive top-down diktats and the freedom to innovate.”

Ministers love to cry “freedom” even while they peddle the lie that schools can only be truly autonomous if they become academies*. But they’re not giving independence; they’re imposing a strait jacket. They create a prison and call it freedom.

Truss introduces a new element into Government speeches: product placement. She plugs a curriculum written by Pimlico Academy and promoted by right-wing think tank, Civitas. It’s the Core Knowledge Curriculum and is an updating of books by E D Hirsch first published in the US in the early 90s.  It's marketed at parents but the books make it clear that they show what a "good" school curriculum looks like.  Amazon Reviews (not the most reliable of sources) were divided about the first book in the series, What Your Year 1 Child Needs to Know. Nine gave it the full five stars and eight gave it just one. One of the eight negative replies wanted to award no stars but was unable to do so.

Pimlico Academy plans to become an all-through school when Pimlico Primary free school opens this September. The head-designate is Annaliese Briggs, a former deputy director of Civitas, who, according to the Observer, is only now receiving teacher-training. Pimlico Academy and the free school are sponsored by Future, a charity set up by John and Caroline Nash. John, now Lord Nash, a Tory donor, was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools in January. One of his responsibilities is the academies programme although the Independent reported that he’s agreed not to play any role in decisions affecting Future.

Does Truss think it’s acceptable to promote an off-the-shelf curriculum written by an Academy linked to another schools minister?

In her speech Truss advocates “evidence-based education”. She praises Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma, for advocating research into teaching. She even quotes him:

Evidence based practice isn’t about telling teachers what to do: in fact, quite the opposite. This is about empowering teachers, and setting a profession free from governments, ministers and civil servants who are often overly keen on sending out edicts, insisting that their new idea is the best in town.”

This is how Truss interpreted Goldacre’s wise words: “Simply put, it is government’s job to set the “what” but not the “how”.” No, Minister, “simply put” it means, Back Off.

Truss seemed unaware that Goldacre’s Radio 4 programme, Bad Evidence, cited the reliance on phonics in the teaching of reading as an example of when research had been “blindly over- interpreted” in a “naïve and arrogant fashion and implemented in a way that was harmful”. Nor did she appear to understand the significance of Goldacre’s warning about overconfidently following the results of one trial. Instead, synthetic phonics is firmly embedded in the proposed National Curriculum. It’s been redefined as a “what” (ie it must be taught and Ofsted are already checking its implementation) instead of being “how” (a method which teachers are supposedly free to choose).

Truss ends with:

“So diktats are out and evidence based education, innovation and shared best practice are in.”

If only that were true.

*see “Autonomy” in faq above The Academies Commission 2013: what did the Commission say?

 CORRECTION  The above has been amended.  It originally said Truss's speech was to the Freedom Commission.  This has been corrected.

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