Nick Gibb: debating the national curriculum

The Schools Minister says that we are facing a fresh 'great debate' on the new national curriculum.

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

Thank you.

It was a pleasure to speak at the SSAT Conference in November to set out the principles at the heart of our white paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’- that the education system must trust the professionalism of heads and teachers.

Today I’ve been asked to talk about the Curriculum Review which we launched in January.

There is always a danger that headteachers and teachers might be suffering from ‘curriculum review fatigue’ after the last two decades. There was a view - expressed particularly by the QCA and QCDA as it became - that the curriculum should be in a perpetual state of revolution and change. That’s not our view. We need a review to sort out the curriculum, to reduce its volume and prescription about how to teach. But then we need a period of stability.

I’ve been greatly heartened by the huge response to the review - from not just the education sector but the academic world; business; and the wider public.

There have been almost 5800 responses to the call for evidence - the highest response to any education consultation. Included in that is the submission from SSAT itself.

We’ve had an extensive programme of events up and down the country to listen carefully to the views of teachers; subject experts; learned societies; Higher and Further education. And we’ll carry on consulting widely throughout the review process.

As I’m sure you’ll appreciate - it is early days and today I’m not going to get into the territory of pre-empting the outcome of such an exhaustive, expert-led, evidence-based review.

But the spirit of open and honest thinking; passionate but constructive argument; and hard-headed, detailed analysis of international and national research is exactly what we wanted to harness.

This same spirit was at the heart of the-then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech 35 years ago, where he called for a “rational debate based on facts” - what became known as The Great Debate - about the nature and purpose of state education policy.

Callaghan argued it was vital for the country’s future prosperity to ask radical and at the time politically toxic, questions such as whether or not to have a national curriculum; a national inspectorate; a national exams system; and national performance standards.

His point was two-fold.

First: that the education world did not have, what he called, “exclusive rights” on talking about what happened in schools.

He deferred to teachers’ professionalism and expertise in the classroom. But for him, the furious rows in the late-60s between the Plowden “progressives” and Black Paper “traditionalists” were far too insular. In a democracy, the whole of society has a stake and say in education. For him, reducing debate around schools and universities to political mantras merely alienated the public.

And his second point was that we constantly need to balance how education best equips young people not just for work but for life.
As he put it:

“There is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society who are unemployed because they do not have the skills. Nor at the other extreme must they be technically efficient robots. Both of the basic purposes of education require the same essential tools… basic literacy, basic numeracy, the understanding of how to live and work together, respect for others and respect for the individual”.

I’m not going to rake over the arguments of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s in setting up and establishing the National Curriculum, external testing and Ofsted.

But Callaghan’s words are worth bearing in mind as we today face our own twenty-first century Great Debate in education - how to create a truly world class curriculum, which keeps pace with the leading systems and meets the demands of business, universities and society to compete globally.

Our White Paper made clear there is much to admire and build on in England: Hundreds of outstanding schools. Tens of thousands of great teachers. Academies established and outstripping the rest of the secondary sector. And a culture of innovative specialisms entrenched and embedded throughout the sector.

But it was also clear that too many children are still being let down.

It’s no longer good enough to judge ourselves simply by how much we spend on education or against rigid, domestic targets.

The attainment gap between rich and poor remains stubbornly and unacceptably wide at all levels of education. Of those children who do not qualify for Free School Meals 77% achieved the required level in English at the end of primary school compared to 56% of those who do qualify for Free School Meals. Similarly at GCSE, 56% of non-Free School Meal pupils achieved 5 or more good GCSEs last year compared to 31% of pupils who do qualify - and that 25 point gap has remained stubbornly constant over recent years.

We’re falling back in the PISA international rankings, from fourth to sixteenth in science; seventh to 25th in literacy; and eighth to 28th in maths - meaning our 15-year-olds are two years behind their Chinese peers in maths; and a year behind teenagers in Korea or Finland in reading.

And we’ve got to listen to the concerns of the private sector - the annual CBI education and skills survey just last week found that almost half of employers had to invest in remedial training for school and college leavers.

In the modern world, there is nowhere to hide for school leavers. Jobs can be transported across international borders in a blink of an eye. The pace of technological change means that new industries are evolving in the space of years not decades.

And so having a National Curriculum that’s thin on content and overly prescriptive on teaching method is not doing our children any favours in such a tough environment.

The clues for success are there in the consistent, growing picture about how the best performing education systems operate - an international evidence base which simply didn’t exist a few years ago.

PISA, OECD, McKinsey and others tell us that despite most developed countries in the world doubling or even tripling their education spending since the mid-1970s, outcomes have varied wildly.

Because it is not how much you invest in education that counts. It is how you invest it.

The strongest systems recruit and develop the best teachers. They have strong leadership. They have internationally benchmarked assessments and qualifications. They take the right balance between giving schools greater autonomy and rigorously holding them to account.

And crucially they develop coherent national curricula that allow for the steady accumulation of knowledge and conceptual understanding.

Our National Curriculum was originally envisaged as a guide to study in key subjects; giving parents and teachers confidence that students were acquiring the knowledge necessary at every level of study.

But the glaring weaknesses are clear for all to see - as last November’s invaluable report by Cambridge Assessment’s Tim Oates, called Could Do Better, sets out.

Tim argues powerfully that we’ve been looking inwards and backwards when debating our curriculum, instead of outwards and forwards at what the rest of the world do.

And he sets out how previous reforms over the last 20 years have failed to eradicate the systemic and inherent problems which have built up:

• acute overload, with far too much pressure to move through material with undue pace - which inadvertently has created a tick list mentality;

• too many new core topics and subjects being added - which have diluted and undermined the curriculum’s purpose and stability;

• too weak and inconsistent a link with testing and assessment;

• and a constant blurring of the lines between prescribing teaching method with essential knowledge.

As he puts it:

“The England National Curriculum is, in law, an expression of content and of aims and values. It cannot do everything. To expect it so to do will most likely result in failure.”

And he’s right.

The National Curriculum is too important to draw it up simply by arbitrating between which lobby group shouts loudest - rather than on sound, evidence-based reasoning.

It must never be a prescriptive straitjacket - constraining teachers by dictating teaching methods.

It must never attempt to cover every conceivable area of human knowledge or endeavour.

It must never become a vehicle for imposing political or academic fads on our children.

It must never emphasise generic learning skills over vital knowledge, concepts and facts on which all children’s education is built.

The current system fails because it confuses the core National Curriculum and the wider school curriculum.

The real curriculum - taught and untaught - is the total experience of a child within the school. It includes not just class teaching but all the unseen, incremental social and personal development that goes into preparing a student for the wider world.

The National Curriculum can never - and should never - specify and control every element of it. And as Tim Oates says it will always run into terrible difficulty if it does.

So the new National Curriculum will get this balance right.

It will embody rigour and high standards and create coherence in what is taught in schools.

It will give every child the chance to gain a set core of essential knowledge and concepts.

It will set act as a benchmark for the entire state sector.

It will provide parents with a clear understanding of what progress they should expect.

It will be internationally respected by being judged against the leading curricula in the world.

But above all, it will give teachers the freedom to use their experience and skills to design their own programmes - to innovate beyond the academic core it sets out and let them get on with the job of motivating, enthusing and engaging young people.

We’ve got to get away from a mentality that just because an activity, topic or subject is important, it has to be specified in the National Curriculum. And just because something isn’t in the National Curriculum doesn’t mean it’s not taught.

It’s time for teachers to regain confidence in their own professionalism and judgement about how best to teach. And to demonstrate once and for all that politicians and civil servants trust them to do so.

That’s why our view is not just being advised by Tim Oates and his expert panel but by an advisory committee made up of some of the most outstanding head teachers in the country.

So let me end by reassuring you that this is not just another curriculum review.

We’re deliberately taking our time to get this right by carrying out the review in two distinct phases over three years.

We want this to be a one-off change that will deliver a stable National Curriculum because it focuses on core knowledge and core concepts - instead of needing to be constantly updated with all the knock-on effects on pedagogy, administration, teaching materials and training.

We’ve learnt the lessons of a continual cycle of reforms which simply entrenched existing weaknesses because they were made in isolation to the wider system.

And it is why the curriculum is so closely tied into the wider white paper programme, much of which I know you are discussing later on today:

• strengthening and reforming vocational education through Professor Alison Wolf’s proposals

• reviewing Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability to cut down teaching to the test and give parents clear information on their children’s progress;

• benchmarking qualifications against the leading systems in the world;

• targeting early years education on preparing pupils for their first years at primary school;

• setting out the biggest programme of reform in SEN and disabilities education for 30 years;

• reforming Ofsted - so it focuses on leadership, teaching, attainment and behaviour and cuts out unnecessary bureaucracy;

• strengthening training and recruitment to attract the brightest and best into the profession - as well as giving existing teachers top-class career development;

• and seeking to take out perverse incentives from the performance tables that can incentivise some schools to offer qualifications that are more in the interests of the school’s league table position than in the best interests of the student.

The whole thrust of these changes is to make sure that the no element of the curriculum is off-limits to any child - particularly those subjects and qualifications that progress to A level, further or higher education.

That’s why we’ve introduced the concept of the English Baccalaureate - which I’m sure we will discuss in a moment.

I know that far more than just one in 25 students on free school meals - and one in six overall - are capable of achieving at least a C in GCSE English, maths, two sciences, a language and a humanity.

So the entire system needs to be built around giving more students the opportunity to study the most rigorous core academic subjects, while leaving enough space for wider study.

We should be asking ourselves how in as many as 175 state secondary schools not a single pupil could even have taken the EBacc last year because they weren’t entered for all the subjects - the same subjects the Russell Group identifies as key for university study.

And it’s right to question and discuss how in 719 maintained mainstream schools, no pupil entered any of the single award science GCSEs; no pupil was entered for French in 169 schools; no pupil was entered for geography in 137; and no pupil was entered for history in 70.

So events like today’s are crucial.

We have never denied this is an ambitious programme.

But nor do want to shy away from the challenges ahead.

Developing a new National Curriculum is a deliberately detailed and in-depth process.

Sustaining momentum is vital.

And I thank you for your engagement so that together we can make it a success.

Published 23 November 2011