New curriculum takes off on 1 September 2014

25 Aug

I           What is the Curriculum?

A new national curriculum is being implemented from September 2014 in all maintained schools.  However, academies and free schools may plough their own furrows.  Notwithstanding, the law requires that all institutions, including academies and free schools, offer a curriculum which is broad and balanced and which “promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils” in schools and within society and prepares them “for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life”.

Despite the problems of time-constraints, the guidance has made explicit that “the school curriculum comprises all learning and other experiences that each school plans for its pupils” and the national curriculum forms only “one part of the school curriculum”.

In addition to devising an eclectic curriculum, every school must also make arrangements for a daily act of collective worship of a wholly or mainly Christian orientation – unless exempt from doing so by the local Standard Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) – and “teach religious education to pupils at every key stage”.  Secondary schools must also have on their timetables Sex and Relationship Education (SRE).   Each school should make provision for personal, social, health and economic education (PSHEE), based on good practice.

Maintained schools, with the exception of academies and free schools, are subject to a legal requirement “to follow the …..programmes of study, on the basis of key stages, subject content for those subjects that should be taught to all pupils”.  A school may go beyond this and include other subjects or topics of its choice in planning and designing its own programme of education.   However, every school must publish its curriculum by subject and academic year on-line.


The figure below sets out the subjects required at each key stage.

Key Stage 1 Key Stage 2 Key Stage 3 Key Stage 4
Age 5-7 years old 7-11 years old 11-14 years old 14-16 years old
Year Groups 1-2 3-6 7-9 10-11
Core Subjects        
Foundation Subjects
Art and Design
Design and Technology
Physical Education
Religious Education
Sex and Relationships

While the arts (i.e. art and design, music, dance, drama and media arts), design and technology, the humanities (i.e. history and geography) and a modern foreign language are not compulsory subjects at Key Stage 4, all pupils in schools and academies have a statutory right to study at least one subject in each of these four areas.   In fact, the law sets out the following requirements.

(i)            Schools must provide access to a minimum of one course in each of the four entitlement areas.

(ii)           Schools must provide the opportunity for pupils to take courses in all four areas if they so wish.

(iii)          A course that meets the entitlement requirements must give pupils the opportunity to obtain an approved qualification.

Schools are required to meet the needs of all pupils – setting high expectations for all, challenging the most able while tailoring the curriculum to meet the needs of the less able, including those with special educational needs to comply with the new SEN Code of Practice.  Schools also have to provide for pupils who have a first language that is not English.

The national curriculum to be taught in maintained schools (with the exception of academies and free schools) can be found here.

Schools and academies at secondary level will begin preparation for the new GCSEs in English Language, literature and mathematics for first teaching in September 2015.

Secondary schools and academies will also prepare to teach the new A and AS levels in art and design, biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, English Language, literature, history, physics, sociology and psychology in September 2015.   The course requirement for all barring psychology may be found here and subject content for the examination boards, here.

II          Maths Hubs

A national network of ‘maths hubs’ fashioned to match the standards achieved by top performing East Asian countries was unveiled by the former Education  Minister (now Environmental Secretary) Elizabeth Truss.

The 32 schools and academy trusts across England will spearhead the implementation of an ‘Asian-style mastery’ approach to maths which has achieved world-wide success, according to the Department for Education 

These hubs will develop the programme with academics from China and, in the Autumn Term 2014, 50 teachers from Shanghai will work in the hubs to teach pupils and run master classes for other teachers.

Elizabeth Truss, said: “There is no reason why children in England cannot achieve the same standards in maths as those in Japan, Singapore and China. We put in more resources in England than in these countries and we have the best generation of teachers ever. Yet our children are two to three years behind by the age of 15. We must learn from the systematic practice of these high achieving countries, who are constantly seeking to improve. Maths hubs will bring this approach to all parts of the country and all schools will be able to benefit.”

The Mathematics Hubs programme is being funded by the Department for Education and co-ordinated by the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics.

III        Commentary

Whenever the government initiates changes, there will, inevitably be cries of horror especially from those in the field of education.

One shouldn’t be surprised.  Because schools have demands made on them coming from a multitude of quarters, they tend to develop a hard-of-hearing strategy if nothing else, simply to keep their sanity.   If any school leaders out there are reading this, they will adopt this strategy when taking in what I have written.   By acknowledging this, I trust they will be able to forgive whatever follows.

First, it is comforting to know that the government guidance acknowledges that the curriculum is the sum total of all the experiences that a child has in a school.   This includes the statutory and non-statutory “bits”.

Second, it is impossible for any school to provide for the entire curriculum.  The best it can do is deliver what is statutorily required and light a spark in every child that will turn into a fire of curiosity which will illuminate a path for her/him to explore, learn and grow in a lifetime.

Third, while the curriculum tends to dwell and focus on absorbing knowledge, there is a world of learning that is ignored at a school’s peril.  This includes developing skills in areas such as the performing arts and design and technology.   It will also be important for the school to help children develop insights into the metaphysical.  Knowledge is important.   However, it is (only) the first requirement of education albeit without it, it will be impossible for a teacher to develop children’s talents for application, synthesis, analysis and evaluation.

Epistemology, i.e. a knowledge of knowledge, specifies that learning is more than gobbling and storing facts.   Epistemology is not only about “knowing what” but also about “knowing how” and “knowing why”.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the new curriculum has come in for heavy criticism from the cultural world. The creative guru, Ken Robinson, international adviser on education in the arts and former professor of arts education at the University of Warwick, outlined his ideas in the first instalment of The Educators on BBC 4 on 13 August 2014, stating: “Very few people, after school, use calculus or algebra.  I’ve never anywhere said that the arts are more important than the sciences, or that dance is more important than mathematics.   What I am saying is that they are equally important”.   In his ideal timetable there would be an “equal balance given to sciences, languages, the arts, humanities and to physical education”.

Writers, artists and gallery directors have attacked the former education secretary, Michael Gove, in no uncertain terms warning that the nation’s economic health as well as its cultural heritage is being put at risk by the curricular reforms and examination system.    The director of the Tate, Sir Nicolas Serota, said:  “There’s a narrowing of the curriculum and not putting value on creativity. It’s intrinsically wrong — we should be educating the whole person — but also it’s very short-sighted in terms of the economic health of this country.

“It’s the creative industries that are roaring ahead and winning us international recognition — not just Baftas and Oscars but computer gaming and fashion. We are world leaders in these areas and we need to encourage kids and their parents to think that there’s a future in those careers.”

Sir Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, which is opening its first Mandarin-speaking school in China, thinks the government is getting the balance wrong. “We idolise the Chinese method, but the Chinese idolise our creativity,” he says. “We went too far in the 70s and 80s in being child-centred but now it is all swinging too far back the other way towards regurgitation of mechanistic imposition. It’s no good getting grade 8 piano if you can’t feel the music. Education shouldn’t just be about exam success but also creating good citizens. If there is not also a cultural, creative, moral, spiritual and personal dimension, you are going to be drab.”

Sir Antony Gormley, the sculptor who created the Angel of the North, fears that pupils’ creativity and originality is being destroyed by the reforms. “Exams are set for robots, marked by robots and we are invited to become robots. The idea of following one’s nose and getting inspiration has gone,” he said.

The cellist Julian Lloyd Webber worries that music is still being side-lined. “There have been nice words.  Successive governments have said we are committed to ensuring every child will have access to playing an instrument, but it doesn’t happen.” Schools that do encourage music thrive, he argues. “The whole atmosphere of the school can be transformed. It’s the discipline of learning something together. Playing music can help maths and science.”

The children’s writer, Michael Morpurgo, author of The War Horse and Private Peaceful, thinks that budgets are a factor. “When it comes to the arts, schools have less and less money or space for music, dance or theatre. These things are driven to the margins — but school should be a place where a child can explore.” When he was a primary school teacher, he left part of the day free for creative writing. “The system is becoming too one-sided, too utilitarian.”

The Department for Education insists that creativity remains important. Ministers have set aside £340 million for arts and cultural education programmes including support for the BFI Film Academy and the Royal Shakespeare Company for their work in schools. Mr Gove had also promised to set up music education centres across England.

However, if schools give equal weighting to all subjects they will run out of time.

Many independent schools do so much better because of smaller classes and longer days to include sport, public speaking and the performing arts.  They are fortunate, because the exorbitant fees charged make it possible to have resources which maintained schools simply dream of.  Notwithstanding, if we are to do justice by our children, we have to find a way of fitting as much as we possibly can in – the statutory and the other non-statutory, equally important aspects of the curriculum – and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Finally, John Cridland, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said on 8 August 2014 that the British education system placed far too great an emphasis on examinations and qualifications (based on the overt curriculum).   Students leaving school overburdened with factual knowledge had precious little understanding of the vital skills needed in the workplace.  He called on the government to introduce the teaching of character and resilience (what is commonly known as the covert/hidden curriculum).  He wants this change reflected in a new inspection framework and captured in the school league tables.

But can character be taught or does it need to be modelled and promoted by the staff in schools and parents?  Empathy, motivation, single-mindedness in achieving worthwhile objectives, resilience, team-working and deferred gratification are very much parts of this equation.

Professor Carol Dweck, noted world psychologist at Stanford University, California, wrote a book in 2006, Mindset, which is dominating the consciousness of teachers and policy-makers in England and reaching the parts that other educational tomes find difficult to reach.   The central idea in this book is that children (like adults) have fixed or growth mindsets.   Over the years, she has studied children’s reactions to failure to test what kind of mindsets they have.   Those with fixed mindsets were more likely to cheat, lie about their results or look at the work of students who were doing worse than they to make them feel better.   Those with growth mindsets on the other hand persevere in the face of failures, and doggedly turn the denominators of their deficits and liabilities into numerators of successes.

If such qualities are carefully nurtured it could just be possible that we may be able to accommodate the totality of the desired “gallon” curriculum into our “pint-pot” of time.


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