The shape of the new National Curriculum

Mary James was a member of the National Curriculum Review. Here she looks at the things it got right, and at the chances it missed to match learners more closely to learning.

Female student doing schoolworkThe National Curriculum Review (NCR) had high aspirations. It was guided by principles that few would contest: freedom, responsibility and fairness, and a goal to raise standards for all children. The idea was to construct a curriculum set out only in terms of essential knowledge, and leave schools free to decide organisation and pedagogy.

So what happened? What follows is a comparison between what the NCR Expert Panel recommended in its report of 19 December 2011, and what was in the proposals published by the DfE on 7 February 2013, in a few key areas. I was a member of the panel along with Tim Oates, Andrew Pollard and Dylan Wiliam.

A National Curriculum is an attempt to take stock of the kinds of knowledge, valued within our society, to which all pupils should have access. But education is also about the personal, social, emotional, physical, neurological and cognitive development of individual learners. It is always the product of an interaction between socially valued knowledge and individual development.

In the proposals published by the DfE in February 2013, there is little evidence that ministers were willing to take on board our point about the interaction between subject knowledge and child development. In computing, for example, KS1 pupils of 5 and 6 should be taught to:

  • understand what algorithms are, how they are implemented as programs on digital devices, and that programs execute by following a sequence of instructions
  • write and test simple programs
  • use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of simple programs
  • organise, store, manipulate and retrieve data in a range of digital formats
  • communicate safely and respectfully online, keeping personal information private, and recognise common uses of information technology beyond school.

The History programme of study assumes that chronology should be taught sequentially.  Thus the Romans are to be taught at the beginning of KS2 with no indication that the topic be revisited later. The implication is that what would be taught about the Romans could only be what a seven year old would understand. Professor Mary Beard might raise an eyebrow. 

Programmes of study and attainment targets

The panel emphasised the importance of a clear relationship between ‘that which is to be learned’ and assessment. We did not believe that attainment targets in their present form should be retained. Instead, we suggested that the programme of study should be stated as a discursive statement of purposes, anticipated progress and interconnection within the knowledge to be acquired. Attainment targets should then be statements of specific learning outcomes related to essential knowledge. A two-column format was proposed with programme of study on the left and attainment targets on the right, making the relationship between what is to be taught and what is expected to be learned transparent.

In his letter to the panel, of 11 June 2012, the Secretary of State wrote, ‘I have, as the panel recommended, decided that the current system of levels and level descriptors school be removed and not replaced’. Attainment targets do not appear here. Instead, there is now this simple statement at the front of each programme of study: ‘By the end of each key stage, pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study.’


The panel expressed concern at the pace of the review and lack of stability caused by frequent change. Other jurisdictions have reviewed their curricula over longer cycles e.g. 12 years in Hong Kong. Admittedly, these are mostly single party states or have Boards of Education that sit above party divisions. Rapid change can threaten coherence and affect the alignment of educational aims, curricula, assessment, inspection, resources, and teacher education. Finally, a positive response from the profession cannot be taken for granted. There is an urgent need to ensure that the teaching profession is supported in working to develop innovative, challenging and motivating programmes for its pupils.

The full response is available on the British Educational Research Association website.

Mary James is a Professor and Associate Director of Research at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education.

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