The best schools won’t need the new tougher curriculum for England

THE government’s framework for a “rigorous, engaging and tough” national curriculum for schools has now come out. Alongside introducing five year olds to fractions and requiring 3D printers to be used in design and technology lessons, primary school leavers will need to be familiar with a list of over 200 words, including “relevant” and “thorough.” But while the new curriculum is certainly thorough, it is no longer relevant.

Since Michael Gove took over at Education, we’ve seen a wave of reforms aimed at delivering greater autonomy to schools. The rapid expansion of the academies programme and the creation of free schools have been central to this, providing freedom over the timing of the school day, the setting of the curriculum, and decisions over teaching staff and how they will be paid. The government is now extending some of these freedoms further. In January, Gove announced that all schools – not just academies – will be able to choose how to pay teachers, allowing them to link pay to performance. And last week he announced that, from 2015, all state-funded schools will have the freedom to set term dates. Yesterday’s publication goes against this surge of reform.

Central prescription hasn’t fixed failing schools, and the best are succeeding despite the national curriculum. Outstanding schools make their own decisions about what works best. They are collaborating and innovating on an unprecedented scale – sharing ideas, developing the curriculum together, and joining forces on teacher training and development.

Of course, the UK should provide a world class education system. Unfortunately, the national curriculum has not delivered this. It was established in 1988 with the intention of guaranteeing a minimum standard of education for every child. Yet 25 years later, 40 per cent of young people do not achieve five A* to Cs at GCSE, including English and Maths, and just one in six achieve the English Baccalaureate (the government’s measure of success in a core of academic subjects). It is reform of how students are assessed, and the qualifications that they obtain, that will ensure they can compete globally. This does not depend on the national curriculum.

The introduction of a new curriculum becomes even harder to justify when you consider the number of schools it will affect. Already, over 1,000 primary and almost two thirds of secondary schools are academies, free from having to implement these reforms. Gove wants all schools to eventually become academies, and Labour has pledged to allow all schools to opt out of the national curriculum.

This reflects the fact that schools do best when prescription is removed. A compulsory curriculum, along with restrictive pay, terms and conditions policy for teachers, have held schools back from rewarding high quality teaching. By introducing a framework to allow performance-related pay from September, the government has taken a big step towards delivering a school system led by teachers, which strives for excellence. In producing a new national curriculum, ministers have kept in place a barrier to this vision.

Lauren Thorpe is a research director at the independent think tank Reform.

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