Elizabeth Truss speaks on the national curriculum to the Fellowship Commission

The Minister for Education and Childcare explains changes to the curriculum.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP

Thank you very much. I am really pleased to be here and to have the chance to outline our thinking on the curriculum. I am also looking forward to hearing policy recommendations from National Leaders of Education. The Fellowship Commission and the hard work that flows from it are not merely greatly appreciated but invaluable.

NLEs were posed the following Challenge Question for the 2013 Fellowship Commission: “How can the proposed curriculum and qualification reforms be successfully implemented across all schools, within scarce resources?”

I would like to focus today on the School Curriculum, as opposed to the National Curriculum. The two are related, of course, but quite distinct.

The National Curriculum is our framework for education, which we launched six weeks ago. There has been much debate about what should be in it.

That debate will doubtless continue. But what really matters is that this is a new approach to education, one that gives head teachers and schools far greater freedom. How they implement the National Curriculum is down to them.

The School Curriculum is best described as the life within the National Curriculum. Government has a part to play in setting out the trellises and marking out the footpaths. How the garden grows is for schools to decide. 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.

There will be no new statutory document telling teachers how to do their job. No national strategies telling teachers everything that they have to do. No national roll-out. This is a huge cultural shift. And it is complemented by more money going to the front line.

It is a massive opportunity for teachers, and especially head teachers. We know that many will grab it with great gusto and be eager to share best practice.

The reason we are proposing to disapply the National Curriculum next year is so that head teachers will have a year to decide how to maximise this opportunity.

There are many existing examples of energetic, engaged schools. Pimlico Academy has written a curriculum that is being promoted nationwide by Civitas. Based on the Core Knowledge Curriculum developed by E.D Hirsch in the United States, it is being marketed to other schools.

Woodberry Down Community Primary School in Hackney has brilliant teachers whose pupils work with advanced fractions, multiplication and division in a fun way that will stick with them for life.

The Prince’s Teaching Institute works in partnership with Cambridge University to develop Continuing Professional Development courses and run a network of schools that participate in a Schools Programme and help organise Regional Events.

This sort of exchange of information and ideas will be typical of education systems that succeed in the 21st Century. Happily, modern technology makes such exchanges simpler and faster.

The flip-side of this is that the advanced nature of technology provides a particularly strong imperative for creating an up-to-date, flexible education system. It is both an opportunity and a challenge: technology can be immensely helpful in delivering the curriculum but it also raises the stakes - we will fall hopelessly behind in the global race if we do not equip successive generations with contemporary skills.

Our draft programmes of study for design and technology are very deliberately less prescriptive and more widely focused than the status-quo. This will be a broader, more practical, activity-based curriculum. Schools are free to teach elements such as CAD-CAM even if they not directly prescribed. Further input from experts during the consultation period will help us finesse this further.

The interaction of different subjects

Design and technology offer a reminder of the interaction between subjects. Computers have a central role in design and technology these days and our new, more challenging computing programme of study is designed to prepare pupils to work in the cutting-edge industries of the future. Small mathematical calculations can cause mechanical failure on a grand and disastrous scale. And reading the great works of literature can be one of the most enjoyable ways of learning about history.

I do not believe in blurring subject lines altogether, but plainly teachers will often want to show pupils how skills can be useful in a variety of contexts. I visited a school near my constituency that begins lessons by looking at the Stock Exchange, which is both an excellent way of demonstrating the importance of maths and may create a few multi-millionaires!

Repetition and practice will always be integral to effective learning, but a well-rounded, inspirational education is about much more than that. For example, in history we want to make sure that children have a clear sense of chronology and of Britain’s place in the world, but then we want them to learn how to navigate their way around that knowledge.

Previous national strategies stifled such innovation and inhibited lateral thinking on the part of teachers. Contrastingly, the likes of the Institute of Physics and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics have really helped schools to shape learning. Such organisations will feed into a new School Curriculum - or rather large number of School Curricula - which government does not control.

But nor is government abdicating responsibility. At the same time as giving head teachers and schools much greater flexibility, we are adopting a very tough approach to accountability. We expect head teachers to take a lead in ensuring that their staff are well-trained and able to deliver the new curriculum.

Ofsted’s inspection evaluation schedule requires inspectors to consider the accuracy with which best practice is identified and modelled, as part of the assessment of leadership.

And where schools are failing we will say so publicly, and take action.

The point is that we don’t want schools to fail because they haven’t had a chance to succeed. Central control and uniformity mean sclerosis. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, they actually make it harder for teachers to learn from and adopt best practice - because no-one has the freedom to develop best practice in the first place.

Evidence based education

Dr Ben Goldacre, Research Fellow in Epidemiology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has just published a paper commissioned by the DfE. It is about how evidence and research are used in education and I encourage you all to read it. I know that such an emphasis on rigour and expertise is very much at the heart of what the Fellowship Commission does too.

Dr Goldacre persuasively makes the case in his paper that just as medicine has benefitted enormously from trials, so too can education. He writes:

There are many differences between medicine and teaching, but they also have a lot in common. Both involve craft and personal expertise, learnt over years of experience. Both work best when we learn from the experiences of others, and what worked best for them. Every child is different, of course, and every patient is different too; but we are all similar enough that research can help find out which interventions will work best overall, and which strategies should be tried first, second or third, to help everyone achieve the best outcome.

He also eloquently spells out why an evidence based approach is liberating rather than restrictive, writing:

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.

Simply put, it is government’s job to set the “what” but not the “how”.

The case for school autonomy is proven - but depends on effective sharing. The OECD’s education expert Andreas Schleicher has written:

Global educational comparisons like PISA show consistently that schools in high performing education systems tend to have considerable discretion with regard to how they set their academic direction and how they manage their resources… Our PISA data show that if you have a school system in which knowledge is shared effectively and you are a school with significant autonomy, your students are likely to perform better on PISA than students in a school with limited autonomy, on average across OECD countries at least. But if you are in a system without a culture of peer-learning and accountability, autonomy can actually work against you.

As Dr Goldacre has highlighted, there are parts of the world where a proper grasp of how research can improve teaching practice is essential for career progression. Teachers in Shanghai and Singapore take part in “Journal Clubs”, where they talk about and assess a new piece of research, and debate whether it could be usefully applied in the classroom. They then report back on shortcomings and scope for improvement.

Research and teaching schools

Universities provide an excellent template for how ideas can be explored and exchanged. Many of the most celebrated ones in the country are research universities. There is no reason why we shouldn’t also come to boast about our world-class research schools.

The Sir Isaac Newton Free School in Norfolk, which opens in September, will be a sixth form specialising in maths and science, and link in closely with Norfolk’s world-class engineering and science industries, as well as being a beacon for maths and science teaching.

We already have 363 Teaching Schools in 136 local authority areas, and two-thirds of all schools work with other schools in leadership development clusters. Academy chains operate along similar lines. This is a very good platform on which we can build.

Chains do not have to mean uniformity. The most appealing chain restaurants allow their proprietors a great deal of flexibility, so whilst there may be old favourites on the menu, the decor can vary considerably and customers may be treated to live jazz (or forced to endure it, according to taste). That said, if you hit on a genuinely winning formula, there’s no shame in sticking to it. It just shouldn’t be dictated from central HQ.


We want to give head teachers and teachers the opportunity to be brilliant, and the chance to dazzle and inspire. That inspiration should extend further than their pupils and reach their peers in the teaching profession.

Random controlled trials have their place in education. But instead of random controlled trials we have had the merely random. It is a curiously unambitious and unimaginative attitude to what schools can be - and ignores what the best schools already are.

So diktats are out and evidence based education, innovation and shared best practice are in. I am very grateful for your involvement in this exciting process - and extremely optimistic about what we can achieve.

Thank you.

Published 18 March 2013