The National Curriculum at 25

The National Curriculum has existed since 1988. The international evidence is that it has served English education well, but it now needs revision if it is to last another 25 years.

Two science students looking at molecular structureWhen the National Curriculum was signed into law in 1988, it signalled an ambitious desire to have a more equitable education system which would ‘promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils, and to prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life’.

At that time, the Department for Education and Science identified four broad purposes for the National Curriculum: ‘Introducing an entitlement for pupils to a broad and balanced curriculum; setting standards for pupil attainment and to support school accountability; improving continuity and coherence within the curriculum, and aiding public understanding of the work of schools.’

Since then the National Curriculum has provided a solid, unified education to generations of children. While it is not perfect and has had its strong critics, it remains one of the best in the world and it has delivered its, sometimes conflicting, aims with remarkable robustness.

The idea that the English school system is a world-class one might be controversial to some. But let us look at the evidence from the latest international survey results, the recently-released Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for 2011

Firstly, we have to understand that England is a large country which is economically and culturally heterogeneous. This presents its own educational challenges and means that England will always struggle to reach the achievement levels of countries where the needs of learners are less diverse. But even so, and if we look only at year 9 science achievement as a representative example, England does well.  England performs significantly above average, and does better than many education systems with which England is often compared unfavourably. Most of those which out-perform it (including Singapore, Taiwan, Finland, Slovenia and Hong Kong) are small. Of the larger countries, only the Russian Federation, the Republic of Korea and Japan outstrip England.

And when we look in detail at the evidence in the survey, the picture is even more encouraging. It seems that the curriculum (and English schools) delivers on the higher-order skills that it measures. English school children in year 9 science are good at reasoning. The fact that Russia and Hong Kong perform better on overall achievement is purely down to their learners knowing more basic facts. When it comes to reasoning with these facts, they are no better than their English counterparts. And English children in turn ‘know’ more than their counterparts in most countries (including New Zealand, America, Australia, Norway and Sweden), so we can see that an English education is not light on the science basics.

The picture is also encouraging when we look at the attitudes to science that the curriculum instils in children. The responses of English year 9 children are remarkably positive and engaged compared to most countries, including Japan and Korea.

But that is not to say the system is perfect. It does need to evolve and it does need to address some of the issues it has failed to address. Many countries are undergoing educational reform. Korea and Hong Kong have new curricula in place aimed at tackling the challenges for the coming decades, and Singapore continues to evolve and strengthen its education system. If English education is to remain competitive and aspire to be better, it too must adapt. And whilst the very best in England achieve highly, there is a significant proportion (7 per cent) who fail to meet the lowest benchmark for achievement in science. This suggests that the aspiration for a single system capable of preparing all learners adequately for adult life has not been fully realised yet, and remains a challenge nearly three decades on.

Newman Burdett is Head of International Comparisons at the National Foundation for Educational Research.

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