Report on the National Curriculum Review

The report by the Expert Panel for the Dept. of Education National Curriculum Review has been published*.  You can download a copy here.  I wonder whether this report will be accepted in any meaningful sense, as parts of it seem very radical (more on this at the end of the post).

Research Based analysis
There are several strands that emerge from my reading of the report.  One of the most welcome aspects is the overall approach they take to their enquiry.  This is a comparative and research based report.  The authors seek to use research findings about the practices of the highest performing systems in order to inform their ideas.  This means that the report is one that we can engage with, as teachers and as history teachers in particular.  Recent ill informed and ad-hoc attacks on teachers and history teaching based on ideas of common-sense are much more difficult to grapple with.   In many places the panel is clear that further work needs to be done, and this is a strength rather than a weakness of the report.

Headlines for history
The two big headline recommendations that affect the way we teach history is the idea that the subject might become ‘statutory’ at KS4, perhaps not in a way that requires certification, but which will, nonetheless require students to keep studying the past after they move into KS4.  The second is a related one, that KS4 should be stretched over three years. I’ll discuss both of these below, but first I think there are bigger fish to fry…

Coherence and less prescription
One key aim seems to be to maximise what the authors call ‘coherence’ and to make the position of the various elements of the curriculum more transparent.  They want to set out much more clearly the relationships between that which is taught and the assessment of it, between the different key stages, between assessment and progress, and to make it clear that high expectations will lead to greater levels of success.

Part of this strategy of coherence is that the amount of prescription should decrease.  It seems to me that there’s a clear risk of increased prescription – clarity in the minds of policy makers is often translated into detail ‘guidance’ that has the effect of ramping up levels of prescription in schools.  Nonetheless, I think the reports authors are genuine in their desire to see less prescription and a more simple – the need to “evaluate the goals implicit in our current practices and select only those that provide a sound basis for the future.” (page 15) is stated early in the report. This is very welcome.

However, as we’ll see, there are places where (and the authors admit this) there is a risk that the proposals might increase prescription if not implemented carefully.  For instance, the requirement that geography, history, modern foreign languages, design and technology and ‘the arts’ all become ‘statutory’ subjects at Key Stage 4, could lead to an overloaded curriculum at this key stage. Their answer, a slimmed-down set of requirements for these ‘statutory’ subjects that need not be certified, might offer a solution, but as we’ll see below, also has some risks.

Aims of the curriculum
One way in which the report’s authors would like to develop curriculum coherence is in the clarity of the aims of the different parts of the curriculum. They set out three levels of the system that should have aims:

Level 1: Affirming system-wide educational aspirations for school curricula

Level 2: Specifying more particular purposes for schools and for their curricula

Level 3: Introducing the goals for the Programmes of Study for particular subjects

In their comparison with other ‘high performing’ systems the panel noted that the top level “system-wide” aims tended to be ‘ambitious’ (page 14).  They claim that the wording of the 2002 Education Act  fulfils this requirement for ambition.  We could argue about this, but the reports authors save their efforts for discussion of the aims of different schools set out in Level 2 of their model.   The aims they suggest, set out on page 16 and 17 are certainly ambitious.

The interesting aspect of their approach is that the prominence of each aim will be different at different key stages, with an emphasis on key skills and personal development at primary school.  Primary school should also provide a bridge towards subject knowledge, whilst Secondary School should ‘take pupils forward towards certification, further and higher education” (page 17).

The aims of each programme of study, (one for each key stage) should also be made explicit, so that these aims are transparent, but also so the the learning intentions of each programme are communicated to pupils, and enables greater focus of teaching and learning support.

Structure of Key Stages
This part of the report seems to be the weakest, at least to me.  Some of the recommendations seem sensible and well-founded.  For instance, the creation of an upper KS2, in which teaching would be increasingly oriented towards subjects might allow greater work between teachers at primary and secondary school and would enable us to counter the KS3 slump that many year 7’s seem to go through.

They believe that KS4 should be expanded to three years, at the expense of KS3, which would last two years.  There are, however, several unanswered conflicts in what they propose.  They claim that, in making some subjects ‘statutory’ at KS3, they obviate the need to squeeze a national curriculum into two years. They also hope that in expanding KS4 to three years, they will allow GCSE subjects to be taught in more depth.  So under their proposals time would be used twice!  The time in KS4 that will allow the NC to be taught is also going to be used to teach GCSE subjects in more depth.

They also claim that an expanded KS4 will “avoid premature subject choices that might disadvantage students later, especially those lacking strong parental support” (page 32).  I am really very confused by this.  By making students start their GCSE courses a year earlier, they hope to avoid premature subject choices?  This will only be the case if they wish to see students start many GCSE courses in year 9, but narrow these down in year 10 and 11, but this will not change the date at which they make their decision.

Content of Subject Curricula
The authors are not advocating a skills based curriculum (page 15), and it’s clear from their discussion of aims that they are thinking in terms of subjects, which is a welcome confirmation that history is here to stay (indeed this is one of the most welcome aspects of the rhetoric that has emerged from the Conservative government since its election).   They also deal sensibly with the false dichotomy that some raise between ‘skills’ and ‘knowledge’.  This too is welcome, and might have particular implications for the way that we address curricula in history.

As part of the goal of less prescription they recommend that foundation subjects have “significant but refined and condensed Programmes of Study, with minimal or no Attainment Targets” (page 25).

There are significant risks for history in this approach.

Turning first to the hope of “significant but refined and condensed Programmes of Study”; the report talks several times of ‘essential knowledge’ (pages 23, 26, 33, 43 and others).  The trouble with history is that much of it can be deemed essential, depending on who you talk to.  Every historian has a fact, or a figure or a person or a term’s scheme of work that they’d fight tooth and nail for in order that it be retained in their schemes of work.  That’s not the worst of it however.  In a multicultural society, what IS essential history?  Teledons and others have tried to answer this question, with varying degrees of success.

Even that is not the end of the problem for history teachers.  History is a political football.  Politicians and the media enjoy nothing more than a good kicking of the history curriculum.  How will it be possible, in this climate, to come up with ‘essential knowledge’ that can be taught as part of a slimmed down history curriculum when the Daily Mail can always come up with set of questions with which to test how much the nation knows.

Without an attainment target history risks becoming a second class subject.  Unless there is a real change in the culturally instrumentalist approach that causes us to value certificates above learning, there is a risk that students will not see the point of studying a topic that they didn’t choose, and which there isn’t a national ‘level’ or some other measure of attainment.  Head teachers under increasing pressures of accountability and league tables have, in some schools, already confined history to the status of second class subject, as they chase the crucial figures for 5 A*-C GCSES including English and Maths.  If history is made ‘statutory’ at KS4, provision for many students may well be cursory.  The report’s claim that schools will be held to account for the quality of these curricula by parents and ofsted do not convince me, unless Ofsted’s re-mit and criteria can be meaningfully expanded from the kinds of statistical analysis that seems to drive them at the moment.

Formative Assessment
It will be clear from this reading of the report that another strong theme that drives the report – that of formative assessment. This might be unsurprising given that one of the panel members is Dylan Wiliam.    The issues at the heart of the formative assessment agenda run through this report.    If the recommendations of this report are taken up assessment in the National Curriculum will be much less about assigning pupils to levels or grades.  It is worth reproducing in full the paragraph in which they set out their objections to ‘levels’:

“We are concerned by the ways in which England’s current assessment system encourages a process of differentiating learners through the award of ‘levels’, to the extent that pupils come to label themselves in these terms.93 Although this system is predicated on a commitment to evaluating individual pupil performance, we believe it actually has a significant effect of exacerbating social differentiation,94 rather than promoting a more inclusive approach that strives for secure learning of key curricular elements by all. It also distorts pupil learning, for instance creating the tragedy that some pupils become more concerned for ‘what level they are’ than for the substance of what they know, can do and understand.95 This is an unintended consequence of an over-prescriptive framework for curriculum and assessment.” (page 44).

Instead they set out a need for models of assessment that will allow “tracking [of] which elements of the curriculum [pupils] have adequately achieved and those which require more attention”. They write about the “importance of establishing a very direct and clear relationship between ‘that which is to be learned’ and all assessment (both formative and ongoing, through to periodic and summative” (page 42).  It is also clear from the report that this model of assessment will require us to develop subject specific models of progression at each key stage, in order to be able to make clear the learning steps that need to be taken.

There’s much to be really hopeful about here.  The shortcomings of the Attainment Targets in history have been something that we’ve worried about for years. A scaffold, not a cage: progression and progression models in history, Teaching History, 113, pp. 13-23.  The illustration of such progression models provided in the report by Paul Black sets out common points of progression and also common misconceptions and pitfalls that students fall into in their studies of physics.  Work in studies such as “How Students Learn” and in others could allow for the creation of these models of progression for history.

We’ve already seen that the lack of an attainment target might see history further downgraded as a subject in the eyes of many students and Head Teachers.  However, there’s also a problem for the devising of high quality curricula and therefore the teaching of high quality history lessons.  Many history departments will not have the time, the will or expertise to draw up attainment targets that are closely related to the ‘essential knowledge’ (which, as we’ve seen is a problematic concept for history teaching) being taught.    Paul Black’s excellent illustrations for such an attainment target for physics belies the hours of study and thought that he has undertaken over years of research about what and how students learn that subject.  Most teachers of history (me included) do not have the required knowledge to do this for history.  Without an attainment target we abandon history departments to their own resources.  For many, this will mean no change.

Ambition and Optimism
The ‘ambitious’ nature that the panel wishes for the ‘system-wide'(14) aims, and the idea that assessment should do more than simply classify attainment and ability, reflect a welcome strand of optimism.  The report does make reference to the large range of factors that affect attainment, but brings with it a sense of possibility and of capacity to improve.

There is reference to the difference between Western and Confucian ways of thinking about ability.  The authors claim in that in the west ideas of fixed quotients of intelligence lead of low levels of expectation, whereas in the east “Crude categorisation of pupil abilities and attainment is eschewed in favour of encouraging all pupils to achieve adequate understanding before moving on to the next topic or area. Achievement is interpreted in terms of the power of effort rather than the limits of ability” (page 45).

I’m delighted to see a reference to the Learning without Limits research work, which eschews traditional ideas of ability and differentiation and instead encourages teachers to think in terms of inclusion access and assistance over hurdles (I’ve written about this research agenda before).  It’s a mark of the radical approach of this report that they can refer to ideas such as these, which challenge the deeply held, common sense view of education that can sometimes obscure our analysis.

In conclusion – the concept of coherence.
In many ways the report does present a coherent vision of the possibility of improvement in the education system.  The idea of assessment being focused on feedback and ensuring that students are ready to progress coheres with the sense that achievement is not limited by ability but by effort.  However, this coherence could easily become another set of assessment requirements that are taught to.  The main hurdle, and this hurdle is referred in the report, is the change from an instrumentalist approach to education and from a model of accountability based on levels and pupil performance at different levels of ‘ability’.  Without this cultural change the pressure on teachers to reach arbitrary benchmarks, rather than to focus on the barriers to learning of the students they find in their care, will continue.

It will be for politicians to lead in this culture shift. In his written response to the report, the secretary of state seems to acknowledge that more time is needed if a truly radical approach is to be taken. However, even in this response I feel that he is guilty of cherry picking the reports findings. He does not mention the need to reform accountability measures, and instead picks out specific pieces of knowledge that children in other jurisdictions ‘know’ long before ours do.
More information about the whole process can be found at the Key and the historical association.

*Via Dave Wallbanks post on

5 thoughts on “Report on the National Curriculum Review

  1. On twitter @pdwyer86 asks @ed_podesta do you think there is something to be said about starting GCSE option courses in year 9 and then narrowing again in year 10?

  2. Thanks for the pointer to the report. I hadn’t read it until laid up in bed with a cold this week. Perhaps it’s the virus talking, but I can see why Michael Gove had such difficulty with it – an enquiry whose specific brief was to ‘thin-out’ the National Curriculum achieves this by shunting subjects into a ‘Basic Curriculum’ which remains mandatory. In fact the number of statutory subjects to be taught at Key Stage 4 actually goes up.

    I therefore doubt that we’ll hear from this particular panel again. Having been involved in a similar exercise with a much larger gang of academics this year, I can recognise some of the elisions and evasions that cover up what is probably a profound disagreement within the panel and certainly with this (or probably any) government.

    I didn’t understand the method used in the research. Partly this was because, on studying the appendices, many clear signals from the calls for evidence and surveys were simply ignored, without comment. There’s a detailed analysis of this here from a partisan position but the questions are legitimate. It was not clear to me, in my Lem-Sip addled state, what qualified a country to be “High Achieving”, something that was given great weight. The list of such countries seemed to vary from paragraph to paragraph, giving the impression that supportive results were simply being cherry-picked (and providing press-release material for Mr. Gove).

    There’s a marvellous article by Ben Goldacre here which makes an impassioned appeal for us to ‘get real’ on matters of policy, by using the methods of the physical sciences, specifically the use of randomised trials. It plays to my prejudices, reinforced by this report, a belief that we really have no idea what works in education, because we haven’t honestly tried to find out. Should we teach, for example, French or Computer Programming? I don’t think we know.

    As a teacher of one of those subjects that seems clearly destined to leave the National Curriculum the report is quite unhelpful in addressing the question “what then?”. The answer seems to be up to Ofsted. If things drift like this then I imagine that departments will have to guess what’s actually going to be required, mount the most honest defence of timetable and staff resources against the resurgent MFL and History departments – and Ofsted will pass or fail them based on … what? This is kind of worrying.

    There’s more, but the thing that struck me in the end is a puzzle to me. Leave aside the rather weird admiration of a Confucian system in which the bright (sorry, more effective working) students are twiddling their pencils whilst the class slowcoaches catch up, the panel would expect:

    …. results not to exhibit the bell-curve of normal distribution, but a skewed curve where the majority achieve at the higher end.

    My problem with this very appealing sounding idea is that we specifically grade and adjust all our examination results to produce exactly that bell-curve (don’t we?). If the curve doesn’t look like the classic bell, then we assume that the examination was inaccurate. That’s because we believe, I think with some foundation, that the ‘ability to score highly on Geography GCSE’ is distributed among the population in line with other talents and attributes – for example athletic scores. You can, by intensive coaching and training, shift the centre of the curve left and right, but you can’t change the shape of the curve, without squashing at either end.

    That the report would like to do some ‘squashing’ at the high end is the unfortunate, and perhaps unfair, impression left at the end of the ‘radical’ sections at the end.

  3. Excellent summary, thanks Ed.

    I must confess my reaction to the report has primarily been one of confusion, I’ve struggled to get a sense of any coherent proposals – perhaps as a result of the alleged difficult birth of the report, being bounced between the panel and the government.

    The one thing I think it does spell is a further divergence between the educational system within the various nations of the UK. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the longer term.

  4. On facebook, Paul Warde ( says:

    Very interesting stuff, Ed (without actually reading the report). My layperson’s perspective is that history is most likely to be successful when taught by people who are given the freedom to extol whatever they are most passionate about. But in the current culture the signals sent by national attainment levels may be too strong to overcome with a more decentralized model, so you may be right – and too many people might fall into inertia. I have to say I am taken by the Finnish system of almost entirely localised assessment where peer group pressure and professional self-esteem among teachers is the key criteria for assuring good results – and very successful it is too, but it has taken decades to build. Certainly at the university level, while being very open to suggestions for shaping courses, I (like most colleagues) am very resistent to prescription – but as we do many team-taught courses there is always a fair degree of negotiation involved. From that perspective too, while it obviously relates to only a small number of those who study history at school, the one thing I’d like to see more of from students arriving is not any specific knowledge, but simply the habit of reading – without which they can neither read the necessary amount to get through a degree well, nor know what good and bad writing is. We’re also being increasingly shoehorned into the dismal knowledge/skills dichotomy. Hopefully someone, somewhere, will start to undo that distinction soon.

  5. On twitter, Chris Culpin @cculpin N C review – Brave to tell truth re current assessment disaster (I think you mean Level Statements not Attnmt Targets) – but….

    Oates NC Revu cd be awful for Hist: compulsory to 16 – but low status, non-GCSE course of “essential knowledge” – chosen by Gove

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