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

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