A compulsory curriculum being imposed

Trevor Fisher's picture
Tories impose a secondary curriculum

Enter the Ebacc as compulsory core GCSEs.

The Conservative manifesto for the 2015 General Election contained the following (p34):

“We will require every secondary school pupils (sic) to take GCSEs in English, maths, science, a language, and history or geography, with OFSTED unable to award its highest ratings to schools that refuse to teach these core subjects”. The statement is now government policy and has the implications (a) that pupils will be forced to do these even if inappropriate and without adequate staffing and (b) OFSTED independence is illusory, with UTCs for example not able to gain the highest grades no matter what their quality of provision might be.

The phrase “Ebacc” (English Baccalaureate) previously used for this subject grouping was not in the manifesto, but returned in speeches in June. There is no actual Baccalaureate (the English Baccalaureate Certificate was abandoned at an early stage of GCSE reform) but the illusion that there is has been a useful political device with a gullible media. The policy of using the term for a performance measure has now been abandoned in favour of compulsion, and a strait – jacket on the curriculum. The theory of school autonomy underpinning previous policy is abandoned.

A presumption that narrow is better.

The 2015 manifesto contained no justification for the policy, which is assumed to be in line with the statement “We believe that there is no substitute for a rigorous academic curriculum to secure the best from every pupil” (p33). The policy now officially neglects other subjects and vocational subjects. The Lib Dem attempt to get computing as part of the core has failed despite modernisation under Gove presumably as not academic. The imposition of a specified curriculum goes beyond any earlier stipulations.

The performance 8 measure introduced by the coalition means most schools will offer up to 8 or more subjects, but priority in staffing must now be for the core subjects. The statement that schools will be forced to comply and some “refuse to teach” is a political attack which ignores problems of specialist provision and staff shortages in key areas. Thus to comply, some schools will employ non specialists to meet the criterion which will presumably satisfy OFSTED in the short term even if quality suffers - good specialists may be take off their specialisms to teach core subjects. The long term implications need to be monitored, especially if non core teachers are sacked to employ core teachers, possible to meet shortages in language and humanities.

The narrowing of the curriculum is likely to happen during 2015-16 with steps to move staff out of school subjects not in the core – and possibly make staff redundant. How many staff are required in the core subjects to impose the plan on all secondary schools is not known. There are warnings of an impending shortage of qualified staff, notably from Teach First. The Tory manifesto promises 17,500 extra maths and physics teachers, though no deadline is set. Schools should now be assessing what is required and how over 2015-16 they will implement the policy.

What happened to Broad and Modern?

The previous commitment to broad and balanced provision is not evident in the current proposals and there is little more than rhetoric in the two speeches made by Gibb (11th June) and Nicky Morgan (16th June). However Gibb stated “It has also been suggested that our emphasis on academic subjects*in the national curriculum**, and especially the introduction of the Ebacc, 'crowds out' the study of other important subjects, particularly the arts. We should acknowledge that the curriculum always involves trade offs, more time on one subject means less time on others”. This is a clear and accurate description of the effects of the narrow curriculum being imposed on state schools. It cannot be imposed on the independent sector.

Nicky Morgan on June 16th argued that “there does not need to be a false choice between an academic or an arts based curriculum***. You can do them both and you can do them well”.
This is clearly not the case if schools are cutting down on provision and staffing in the non-Ebacc curricuum. The term Ebacc which was not in the Conservative manifesto is now back in both speeches, though it does not exist. There is no English Baccalaureate, only a bundle of subjects with no overarching structure, unlike the International Bacccalaureate and the Welsh Baccalaureate, but the return of the phrase is useful window dressing.

While there is no detail yet on how the straightjacket of the six subjects will be imposed, it is clear that unlike all previous approaches to the curriculum, and in defiance of the academy lobby rhetoric of freedom, the Tory approach to education is to impose a narrow version of an old academic curriculum. This will define secondary schooling just as phonics is defining primary schooling. The curriculum is now a battleground.

Trevor Fisher13 07 2015

*the six Ebacc subjects are not the only academic subjects, and indeed the role of subjects like music, technology and engineering (of the STEM subjects only Science and maths are regarded as academic by the Conservatives) combine both practical and theoretical elements: theory being more accurate to describe the cognitive elements than academic.

** The national curriculum is being abandoned in academies and free schools. However the Ebacc comprises a new back door national curriculum, which unlike the official national curriculum is not open to discussion. It is wholly a political invention.
***a political division between academic and arts based is a new rhetorical device not heard of before. In practice schools have striven to provide both – plus technology, sport and much else no longer talked about in this Brave New World.
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Jenny's picture
Tue, 14/07/2015 - 19:21

Phonics is a good idea - you cannot read if you cannot lift the words off the page - English is not an ideographic language but an alphabetic one - and therefore is phonetic even if the phonics involved are rather opaque - you cannot get away from learning the correspondences between sound and letters (or you cannot read).
As for the six subjects, these are the basis of a liberal education. Clearly music, art and PE should be included in a curriculum, but the problem is that the curriculum is now cluttered up with junk like PSHE, and assorted 'vocational' subjects that have little relation to the academic disciplines whose names they bear (ie electronics, woodwork, art etc) and this has led to a reaction against them. Electronics is difficult, so is a proper understanding of art and an ability to draw or paint. The reason they are being sidelined is that they have been taught in easy, dumbed down versions. Schools and educationists have only themselves to blame for the outcome of such teaching, based on skills not knowledge (how you exercise skills without knowledge is a mystery!)

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 06:38

Jenny - 'junk like PSHE' is an emotive soundbite. Personal, social and health education is is part of a liberal education. As the Association of American Colleges and Universities says:

'Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.'

A liberal education, then, is not tied to just six subjects. That's a distortion of what a liberal education actually is.

As for knowledge v skills - it's not one or the other but both as the quotation above makes clear.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 06:44

Jenny - you're right that phonics is important in building the foundation of reading. But the Government's imposition of phonics, supposedly first, fast and foremost, is not based on evidence. The evidence cited by schools minister Nick Gibb actually said the systematic teaching of phonics (any method) was an important part of learning to read but should not be seen as the sole method. Phonics alone is not enough.

This appears to have been recognised by teachers of reading in England. DfE commissioned research found such teachers were supplementing phonics with other methods.

Unfortunately Gibb, who appears to believe he's an expert in early reading, constantly uses the terms 'phonics', 'systematic' and 'synthetic' as if they meant the same thing. They don't - and it's worrying that the person who imposes a particular method on schools doesn't appear to know the difference.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 07:49

Have people here heard of this; http://headguruteacher.com/2015/07/03/rsa-occupy-the-curriculum ? I'm finding this pretty exciting/interesting. Like the framework. Like that they are going for it without reference to DfE. Just want to share this here as it's relevant to the Baccalaureate conversation.

agov's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 09:01

Do schools not follow the national curriculum for Design and Technology? And teach whatever might be required for public exams in electronics? Or do they just throw in a bit of non-examined rubbishy electronics as they don't have any better way of filling the timetable?

John Bolt's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 09:28

No, academies and free schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum. One well known free school teaches no technology at all at any level. It seems that the 19th century notion that a bit of Latin and Greek is all you need to be able to rule India is alive and well in our education system

Guest's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 16:12

"What happened to Broad and Modern?" I've no idea and am unaware of such a curriculum model. I do acknowledge the DFE and Ofsted mantra of 'broad and balanced'. The latter has and continues to hold potential banana skins for academies and free schools that are not obliged by the national curriculum.

Through the desire to make EBacc compulsory in LA schools the government are however in danger of unravelling any potential positives to be had from Progress 8 before it has even started. That is to say, schools merging the EBacc options into the Progress 8 at the expense of non-EBacc subjects.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 16:31

Guest - Progress 8 is flawed. For a start, it presumes all Year 11 pupils will take at least 8 exams. This is more than is expected in other countries. If the curriculum was uncoupled from what is taught then pupils could study a wide curriculum until 16 without the stress of having to be examined in it.

The second objection is that Progress 8 presupposes all children progress at the same rate and progress is always vertical. Children learn in fits and starts - sometimes flying, sometimes falling back, sometimes remaining steady (this is actually essential for consolidation).

Guest's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 16:44

For the record I was neither supporting nor decrying P8. Rather I was highlighting the lack of forethought within the government that places two of their initiatives at odds with each other.

The following may be of interest to those with open and analytical minds:


Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 16/07/2015 - 15:25

Guest - you're right that Gov't initiatives are at odds with each other. Another example is the much-touted 'freedom' offered to academies. As Trevor says, a curriculum is being imposed no matter how much lip service is paid to the ability of academies to opt out of the national curriculum.

Nick Gibb made it clear that 'good' schools will do certain things: teach synthetic phonics (although this changes to systematic phonics at other times, or just phonics); 'Shanghai maths' and a 'knowledge-based curriculum'.

Guest's picture
Thu, 16/07/2015 - 18:49

To be pedantically accurate about it:

1. LA schools must follow the national curriculum (nc) per se but P8 still left some flex regarding GCSE options. It follows then that the nc straightjacket was in KS3 not KS4
2. Academies and free schools do not have to follow the nc and also have the same flexibility regarding P8.

It seems to me then that the nc freedom relates to KS3 only

The potential dog in the manger is the desired (but not yet enforced) EBacc. Why? Because all schools stand to lose the existing P8 flexibility. This however will be compounded if the EBacc based P8 becomes a national floor target, at which stage KS4 in all state funded schools will become a curricular straightjacket.

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