Is the freedom for primary academies to opt out of the national curriculum illusory? Or will proposed high stakes tests at age 11 ensure they comply?

Janet Downs's picture
“Schools will be able to focus their teaching, assessment and reporting not on a set of opaque level descriptions, but on the essential knowledge that all pupils should learn.”

Primary assessment and accountability under the new national curriculum. Department for Education July 2013

If pupils are assessed on “essential knowledge” then primary schools will have to teach it. The consultation document on primary assessment says academies and free schools are “not required to teach the national curriculum” but still makes it clear:

“New end of key stage assessments will be introduced in summer 2016, after pupils have been taught the new national curriculum for two years.” (My highlighting)

So, in theory primary academies and free schools aren’t required by law to teach the national curriculum but in practice they will do so because the curriculum will form the basis of Key Stage 2 tests.

Squealer would put it like this:

“My fellow animals! We have given academies freedom to opt out of the national curriculum. They can cast off the chains of central prescription. But we pigs would be neglecting our duty if we did not offer some guidance. Our proposed national curriculum programmes of study set out what pupils should be taught. And young animals will be assessed at the end of key stage 2 on how well they have assimilated this knowledge.”

At the same time the DfE proposes to set a higher target for 11 year-olds in the expectation that raising the bar will cause more children to clear it. Squealer again:

“It is scandalous that too few animals achieve good Level 4 passes at the end of primary school. So the new national curriculum tests will be more demanding, with a higher and more ambitious expected standard. This will ensure that young animals who clear the bar are genuinely ready to succeed in secondary education.”*

The Government also expects children to make uniform progress. It recognises children arrive at school with different levels of development having not progressed uniformly since birth. But once they are in school they must all progress at the same rate as if the circumstances that prevented or encouraged earlier progress no longer apply.

International evidence, says the Government, shows that education systems perform best when schools are given autonomy within strong accountability systems. But the autonomy offered to primary academies to opt out of the national curriculum is illusory and the proposed strong accountability system is not what is practised elsewhere**. Only 4 out of 34 OECD countries set national tests at primary level and the OECD warned there was already too much emphasis on raw exam results in England.

The Government’s response is more testing: Spelling, punctuation and grammar at 11; phonics screening tests in year 1; a possible baseline test at 5 and harder high stakes tests at 11. But accountability isn’t just external tests, league tables and benchmarks policed by Ofsted. The Government pays lip service to formative assessment but the true emphasis is on summative exams.


*The italicised section came from the consultation document. The only word that was changed was “pupils”. This became “young animals”.

**See faqs above How are schools held accountable in OECD member countries? and What are the examination and assessment systems in OECD countries?

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