It’s becoming clear how Michael Gove is going to reform the national curriculum and exam system. The national curriculum will be abolished for every subject except maths, science and English but even in these subjects it will be so short that teachers will have “almost total freedom” over what is taught.
Half of secondary schools already have substantial freedom over the curriculum by virtue of being academies but abolishing the curriculum altogether would require a bill to change the law. The main reason for doing it this way, however, is to fit with Gove’s wider plan to reform the exam system.
Gove wants a single exam board offering more rigorous O-Level qualifications in the core subjects, and to be much stricter over the content of exams in other subjects. In essence, these exams will set the syllabus for secondary study from at least the end of Key Stage 3 onwards – creating a new national curriculum by default. By setting the content of exams, e doesn’t need to set the content of the curriculum.
This gets the relationship between curriculum and assessment the wrong way around. The purpose of having a national curriculum is to set out in a holistic way, those things that all children should be entitled to learn. Once those things have been agreed, you can then design an exam system to assess whether pupils have successfully learnt them.
Proponents of Gove’s ideas have pointed to two things to make their case: the fact Sweden has a single exam board and that in the past English exams were more rigorous. But Sweden has just legislated for a new national curriculum, with mandatory tests in years 3, 6 and 9. Assessment by a single exam franchisee is determined by the curriculum, not the other way round.
Neither is it helpful to point to a ‘golden age’ of education in England. The national curriculum was introduced in 1988 by the Conservative Education Secretary Kenneth Baker, in response to a perception that education had become a ‘secret garden’ run by unaccountable educational professionals.
The Government should be engaged in a more constructive process of reforming the content of the curriculum. We could learn from Australia, which recently undertook a holistic reform of their curriculum by asking what knowledge and skills an Australian citizen in the 21st century needs to be successful. IPPR has argued for a proper use of international benchmarking in our school system, to ensure we keep track with our competitors.
It may also be necessary to reform our exam system to tackle problems of underachievement and grade inflation. But this process should happen alongside the development of a national curriculum, not replace it. We should decide what we want our children to learn, and then design an exam to test it. To let the exam dictate the curriculum is the wrong way round.
Jonathan Clifton is a research fellow at IPPR.