Let's have a truly national curriculum

Are we to be one nation or two? Independent schools are exempt from regulations governing the subjects studied by 93 per cent of Britain's pupils. John White argues for a revised curriculum that is 100 per cent national
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The Independent Online
HOW NATIONAL is the national curriculum? The rough answer is 93 per cent. It is mandatory only for pupils at maintained schools, not for those in the independent sector.

It is 55 years since Rab Butler, the architect of the post-war educational system, indicated the four areas of educational reform that he thought should not depend on legislation. These were curriculum content, teacher training, the universities, and public schools. His conservative successors of the 1980s and 1990s lost no time in reversing the first two policies, and to some extent the third. They left the fourth alone. Will the Labour government complete the job?

It should. There are no good reasons why public and other independent schools should be outside national curriculum regulations. It might be argued that many of these schools already use elements drawn from different parts of them. Most senior schools follow Key Stage 4 programmes so that their students are not disadvantaged in the GCSE exam. About 20 per cent of prep schools undertake Key Stage 2 exams (SATs) in English, maths and science for 11-year-olds. If independent schools do this voluntarily, why resort to compulsion? But this is really not terribly persuasive. State schools don't have the chance to pick and choose, and there are no good grounds for allowing independents to do so when it suits their interests.

Another argument is that parents often choose the independent school they do because the curriculum is not standardised and meets their child's specific needs. This relies on the - unjustified - assumption that independent parents, but not state school parents, should be allowed to choose their child's curriculum.

The national curriculum we were given in 1988 committed schools to virtually the same 10 compulsory subjects as in the 1904 secondary regulations; prescribed what the content should be in extraordinary detail; and gave teachers next to no idea of what all these complicated arrangements were "for" - what purposes the national curriculum was meant to serve. It often seemed to have as much to do with keeping a firm rein on teachers as with helping pupils.

It is quite understandable that independent schools did not press to lose their curricular autonomy and that they steered well clear of this version of a national curriculum. Despite, it should be said, the powerful role they played in influencing its final shape, not least at Key Stage 4. Among other things, the proposal that dance should be compulsory up to 16 was rejected because mainly independent boys' schools could not see large teenage lads taking to it.

Some would jib at private schools laying down the educational law for maintained schools like this when they themselves wanted no part of it. But their participation is welcome as a step towards a fuller involvement in a genuinely national curriculum. For none of the arguments which can be cobbled together to justify their exclusion from it is a starter. All children should have a curriculum broad and rich enough to allow them to build themselves a self-determined, fulfilling and socially responsive life. If statutory provision is right for the 93 per cent in state schools, it is right for the 7 per cent outside.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has now engaged on a fundamental review of the national curriculum for implementation after 2000. There is a case for claiming that independent schools should be subject to any revised regulations.

One side of this is simply the negative point - which cannot be reiterated too often - that no good grounds have been adduced for their exclusion. More positively, think what it might mean for our conception of our national community if they were treated like everyone else. Are we to be one nation or two? Is a private education to be an entree into a privileged way of life ignorant of or uncaring about the lives of those less advantaged?

It need not be like this. It could help to prepare pupils for a common fate with their fellow citizens. Thomas Arnold of Rugby, the great 19th- century school reformer, had a similar vision. The best of our independent schools still do. Being obliged to share a national curriculum with the 93 per cent could massively reinforce that message.

The QCA discussion document on a new national curriculum will be published in July. No doubt it will provoke all kinds of different reactions. Some people will urge economic ends, others the intrinsic delights of learning, others personal fulfilment or moral responsiveness. Political parties, teachers, teacher unions, employers, academics, civil servants, parents - and even independent schools - will all try to influence the agenda.

But this is a matter too important to leave to the tussle of sectional interests. Every citizen's voice should count equally in deciding the nation's educational aims. We need to get behind pressure groups and political footballing to a vision of a fair, liberal, mutually-supportive democratic community that comes into view once sectionalism is rejected. This vision could supply a new national curriculum with its most fundamental purposes. It could generate from these more determinate aims like preparation for the self-determined life, already mentioned. It could root the national curriculum in our unwritten constitution itself. No school could detach itself from this curriculum without dissociating itself from our shared future as a free democratic society.

The QCA has already urged more space for education in citizenship and for personal/ social development as part of the specific content of the new national curriculum. Let us hope that it highlights civic and personal considerations as aims of the curriculum more globally in its final recommendations to government. If it does, as early as 2000 the independent sector can conveniently reconnect itself to the nation.

John White is professor of philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, University of London.