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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Nurse and Room Leader - Hackney

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a qualified childcare p...

AER Teachers: PPA TEACHER/MENTOR

£27000 - £37000 per annum: AER Teachers: THE SCHOOL: This is a large and vibra...

AER Teachers: EYFS Teacher

£27000 - £37000 per annum: AER Teachers: EYFS TEACHERAn 'Outstanding' Primary ...

AER Teachers: YEAR 3 TEACHER - PREPARATORY SCHOOL

£27000 - £40000 per annum: AER Teachers: YEAR 3 TEACHER - PREPARATORY SCHOOLA ...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones