Arguing over curriculum is healthy

In previous Blogs I argue that the purpose of schooling should be to support students to discover what, for them, makes for coherence across an otherwise confusing and fragmented collection of subjects.

(Gruel: the  English school curriculum:

That is easier to write than for teachers to design and even imagine. In curriculum terms, in England we live in dark times as we labour under the relentlessly-grey, laden skies of Ofsted+National Curriculum. In fact, ‘Curriculum’ as a topic has been banished from departments of teacher education in favour of a technical – technicist, if you will – diet of ‘teaching-and-learning’. Curriculum is a topic that deals with knotty questions of ethics, politics and the realities of life – what it takes for students to realise themselves as active citizens facing life challenges individually and together. Subjects make up a syllabus, a curriculum is the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of teaching the syllabus – its politics and ethics. Teacher educators sometimes struggle to deal properly with these perspectives under the Sauron eye of Ofsted. Let’s look at the political background to this

Way back – in the 1960s and 1970s curriculum and subjects were the responsibility of the Schools Council (1964-1984). This was a body that was independent of the education ministry.  It was a body that represented the major stakeholders in schooling – principally, Local Education Authorities, teacher Trades Unions and teacher professional associations. The Schools Council, together with charitable trusts such as the Nuffield Foundation with major social change agendas oversaw a radical modernisation of school curriculum introducing sweeping changes to the way we taught Maths, Languages, Chemistry, the Humanities, Geography and more. This was a period of expansive thinking and architectural innovation – Primary school open plan classrooms with ‘vertically integrated’ year-groups attracted international attention, Comprehensive schools were introduced at the same time as part of this wide-ranging reform period. Teachers were regarded as key stakeholders – in fact, teacher unions had a mandated majority on all of the Schools Council committees. But there was also a network of Teachers’ Centres, local authority spaces where teachers would attend seminars, hold meetings, share practices and ideas. Some of the greatest educational innovators of the time were Teachers Centre Directors. School inspection was a mix of local ‘advisors’ (i.e. embedded, familiar figures who were part of the community conversation) and, at the national level, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate whose remit was not to surveil teachers (they were prohibited from doing so), but to focus on the quality of curriculum. In fact, the HMI published policy briefing papers on curriculum development.

Margaret Thatcher had an inherent mistrust of the Council, partly because of its domination by trades unions, but also because her view – deeply held – was that curriculum was a matter for government, not teachers. As a politician, Thatcher always argued that the key to power was not simply winning policy debates, but capturing what she talked of as ‘the hearts and minds’ of people. Notwithstanding an independent review by HMI in 1982 which recommended that “the Schools Council should continue with its present functions and should not be made the subject of further external review for at least five years”, she abolished it and declared that “the government will never again lose control of curriculum”. It was replaced by the Secondary Examinations Council and the School Curriculum Development Committee – note the disparity in status between curriculum and examinations. Curriculum was taken out of the hands of teachers, stripping them of the core intellectual role they historically held, and which John Dewey argued was essential for a democratic society.

A subsequent Thatcher government (1994) created two separate agencies: the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) they sent two clear messages: that curriculum, finally, was nothing to do with teachers, and that curriculum was subservient to assessment and authority. In keeping with the command-and-control philosophy of modern Conservative, Labour and Coalition governments, curriculum was a problem that was solved inside the administration, behind closed doors, by technical experts. Ethics, politics and lived realities were not to be debated – Tony Blair rudely announced that Education was “not ideological” – and the technocrats moved in. What the QCA and the TTA were to do was to ‘deliver’ curriculum to teachers and schools. Why we went along with such a system is a mystery to be solved by social historians. We still swallow it.  In England we control knowledge in a way that we would look for in dread and dark authoritarian regimes, and we do this through a bureaucratised National Curriculum and an inspection system based on methods of compliance and control.

Margaret Thatcher, in her biography, The Path to Power, emphasised how central an election issue education and the school curriculum were – she saw this as a key site for political engagement. No longer. Previously, curriculum had, indeed, been healthy with argument and disputation. It was colourful and busy with ideologies and with competing theories of the purposes of education and schooling. There were right-wing and left-wing curriculum theorists, Marxists, liberals and Neo-liberals – all arguing that their view of curriculum met the demands of social justice and rights to knowledge. For some, schools and curriculum were to conserve and pass on the accomplishments of the tribal elders, while for others, curriculum was to provide a critical window on a flawed society; for some, curriculum was tightly structured around known and given ideas, for others it was a place of discovery and knowledge-generation; some promoted child-centred approaches to curriculum while others fought for the primacy of disciplinary knowledge. By-the-by, one product of this melee was the Religious Education curriculum in England, designed by what was knows as a SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education). Each local education authority has a SACRE made up of the Church of England, other faith groups, teachers, local authority and others according to taste. Flawed, skewed and all the rest, the principle stands like a beacon of reasonableness. What makes for a coherent curriculum takes into account all the interest groups and dimensions of local religious and spiritual life.

How far can this be taken? Paul Feyeraband, a prominent philosopher of science, famously argued that scientific theories could be voted on by lay committees with little damage to science (Science in a Free Society, London: Verso, 1978). Science no less than any other knowledge system was a matter for democracy. Well – ‘you pays your money, you makes your choice’! But here is a more immediate and practical proposition.

In 1915 the City of Cleveland, Ohio determined to engage in a project of modernisation. It looked to its infrastructure, governance, health systems and the like – and its gaze fell upon schools. This led to the Cleveland School Survey, a bunch of more than 20 investigations looking at all aspects of schooling: curriculum, teaching and teachers, school buildings, finance and so on.


Reports were drafted, redrafted by committees of experts and prepared for public debate. A hotel room was booked every Monday lunchtime for 12 months and the public invited to come in and discuss a report that was the theme of that day. Reports were sold at cost (60c). Meetings often overspilled. It was even reported that there were times when heated debates among the citizenry displaced reporting of the First World War from the front pages of the local press.

It is a challenge to democracy to claim, first, that education is not to be argued about and that, more importantly, it cannot be argued about in public. It is a slight to the citizenry to believe that education, schooling and curriculum itself are of insufficient interest to warrant public debate. It is erroneous to believe that any group assembled in private has the insight, the skills or a justifiable warrant to make decisions on what knowledge counts above what else. It shows the utmost disrespect to students to assume that they are merely the ‘bottom-feeders’ of a knowledge system that has, many times, pre-digested ideas and information until it is considered appropriate as a ‘diet’ for learning. It is self-destructive for a country engaged in the most challenging of global competitions to deskill its workforce (students and teachers) by systematically eroding autonomous thought and independent action in schools.



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