Alan Smithers: 'So, who will decide on the curriculum now?'

Few in the present economic climate will be surprised that the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) is to be scrapped. It has become overblown financially and has lost its way educationally. The current curriculum is full of vacuous generalities about cultural understanding, collaboration and inclusion, but leaves us little wiser about substance. But this government faces the practical realities of what, if anything, is to take its place.

There has to be a curriculum. Indeed, the point of compelling children to be in school is to teach them certain things. But which things, and who decides? Until 1988, what was taught was mainly left to schools and teachers. Apart from the final years, when exam syllabuses had to be accommodated, they could teach what they liked. As Kenneth Baker, the father of the national curriculum, is fond of recounting, you could have the dinosaurs and Inuits taught time and again, but very little else. The consequences were all too obvious in the first national tests that revealed that more than half of children leaving primary schools could not handle words and numbers properly. Good schools had good curricula and poor schools poor curricula. Parents with school-age children found it difficult to move from one part of the country to another without disrupting their education.

All attempts to agree a national curriculum in the past have run into difficulties. Baker's became massively over-prescriptive because the subject groups fought furiously within themselves and could not settle on what to leave out. When Labour came to power, it told schools how to teach as well as what to teach. It saw the curriculum as a solution to social problems and added in citizenship, and personal, health, social and economic education. Reviews like Sir Jim Rose's of the primary curriculum pretended everything could be got in through thinking in terms of "areas of experience" rather than subjects.

It is not just content that is contested but how it is to be expressed. Setting out what we want children actually to know is thought to be too old-fashioned for the 21st century. Aims-based, skills-based, and competency-based curricula have all been mooted. But the rejection of knowledge may have been premature. The distinguished American Professor E D Hirsch has convincingly argued that central to closing the achievement gap between children from rich and poor homes is a carefully sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum.

Absolutely key is who is to be entrusted with devising the curriculum. As Professor Diane Ravitch, the author of an American best-seller on schooling, has observed, there is a fear of "big government" and concern that control could be captured by "the wrong people" – those with different views. So who, then? Academics can't be relied on, as we saw with the original subject groups and the Cambridge Primary Review's impractical cogitations. Employers seem unable to think beyond numeracy, literacy and teamwork. Parent groups are difficult to organise. Local authorities are in retreat.

The Education department increasingly lost patience with the QCDA and set up its own curriculum group in parallel. The Government, as it looks to save money, may be tempted to bring the national curriculum in-house. It should, however, remember that the Education department is staffed by career bureaucrats, few of whom have direct experience of schools other than in their own schooldays.

But leaving schools to their own devices runs the risk of creationism and madrasahs. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, does at least have the advantage of his predecessors' experience. From Baker he can learn that it's a mistake to try to prescribe everything, from David Blunkett that telling schools how to teach is a step too far, and from Ed Balls that piecemeal reform does not deliver a coherent curriculum.

The lesson appears to be shared ownership. There could be a centrally set core curriculum occupying perhaps half to two-thirds of the timetable. Beyond this, schools would be free to decide. The Government's push on academies makes the questions of how much and what is to be specified even more urgent. The curriculum goes to the heart of why we require young people to be in schools. The financial crisis has prompted a rethink, but it is imperative that decisions are taken on educational, not cost-saving grounds.

The writer is the director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape