Some Initial Thoughts About The National Curriculum Review

For quite a few days now, I’ve been meaning to sit down and read the recently-published National Curriculum Review.  I’m not going to explain what it is or why it exists, as I’ll assume you know this.  To read the report in full, click here.

I’ve decided to blog about some of my initial thoughts.  These are by no means my only thoughts, just the ones I came up with as I worked my way through the document.  I will no doubt have more thoughts, and I will probably revise some of these thoughts following tonight’s #ukedchat session.

I apologise to any secondary colleagues reading this, as it is mainly focused on the impact the review would have on primary education.  Here goes…


3.14 The National Curriculum should remain a combination of core and foundation subjects. We believe that it should specify the detail of essential knowledge in core subjects but focus on a more limited set of significant expectations for a range of foundation subjects, i.e. drawing a clear distinction between core and foundation subjects. In this way, all pupils would be able to access a core of essential knowledge, but schools would not be overloaded by prescription. To summarise:

  • core subjects should be specified for each key stage through detailed Programmes of Study and Attainment Targets. We recommend that further non-statutory advice on the interpretation of the Programmes of Study and Attainment Targets should be made available. 
  • foundation subjects should be specified for each relevant key stage through significant but refined and condensed specifications.

Whilst I like the idea of the National Curriculum being stripped back, what constitutes ‘essential knowledge’?  Who is it that decides this?  I would argue that a firm grounding in arts-based subjects and a good grounding of English grammar are essential knowledge, but others who have more power than me might be inclined to think that being able to conjugate Latin verbs is essential.  The review states that schools won’t be overloaded with prescription, but having read the whole review and its focus on ‘knowledge’, I struggle to believe this.


3.16  There should also be annual reporting to parents for both core and foundation subjects.

Reporting for individual subjects will mean a return to subject-based teaching.  Is this the beginning of the end for the cross-curricular creative curriculum?


3.21 The local curriculum should also provide opportunities for schools to innovate and to develop particular curricular interests or specialisms insofar as they decide they are appropriate.

Is this a move towards all schools having a specialism?  Could all schools in a local area be asked to choose their specialism, with parents choosing which school they want their child to go to, based on the specialism?  Can an approach like this guarantee a breadth of rigorous coverage of all subjects?


Option 2 – Reclassification of subjects/topics which remain statutory (i.e. moving them from the National to the Basic Curriculum)

I agree that D&T and ICT should be reclassified into the basic curriculum, with a less-prescriptive focus on attainment.  However, for this to work, they should be embedded across all subjects.  Is this compatible with the inevitable shift towards subject-based teaching that I feel will arise if the recommendations of this review are carried through?


4.13 It is worth noting at this point that the optimum age at which to introduce modern foreign language teaching remains a contested matter that requires careful consideration of evidence; this is not yet fully resolved and we therefore present modern foreign languages in lower Key Stage 2 as a query at Figure 3 at the end of this chapter. However, we do believe because of its importance that it should be included in the National Curriculum at upper Key Stage 2, which represents a change to the existing arrangements.

This isn’t going far enough.  Why are we waiting until Year 5 to include MFL in the curriculum?  I do have a bias towards this subject, as it is a specialism and a passion, yet there is no reason why it shouldn’t be included in the National Curriculum from Year 3, or even at Key Stage 1.  Many schools who are already teaching MFL do so from Year 3 onwards, why not embrace this and continue this good practice?


Figure 3: The arts, at Key Stage 4, would combine art and music but also other aspects of the arts (e.g. dance and drama).

Dance and drama would be a welcome addition to the curriculum before Key Stage 4.  Are they covered enough in the English and PE curricula?  The use of drama before KS4 would also feed into the proposals to increase the use of oral skills to aid learning.


5.5 For these reasons, we recommend that the present Key Stage 2 should be split to form two new key stages, each of two years’ duration. To avoid renumbering of established key stages, the new provision could be known as ‘Lower Key Stage 2’ and ‘Upper Key Stage 2’.

5.6 Programmes of Study would describe the subject matter to be taught and Attainment Targets (where specified) would describe the learning outcomes expected at the end of Year 2, Year 4 and Year 6. At the end of Year 2 and Year 4, schools would report to parents on the basis of statutory teacher assessment. External testing at the end of Year 6 would continue, as recommended by Lord Bew.

I agree that splitting KS2 is a good idea, yet don’t most schools do this already, even if the National Curriculum doesn’t dictate that it should be?  This is a necessary step in order to maintain pace in all four years.  However, I can’t help but fear that the “statutory teacher assessment” in Year 4 would become yet another way for schools to be ranked and children to be pressured into performing like exam monkeys.


6.5 However, it is also important to recognise that some jurisdictions (Singapore, Hong Kong) do not organise their curriculum specifications year-by-year, but do have prescribed/approved textbooks.

Textbooks next? Maybe I’ve looked up the National Curriculum Review from 1940 by mistake.


6.12 We recommend that schools should be required to publish their schemes of work for scrutiny by both parents and inspectors.

Once again, parents are lauded as experts.  Are doctors obliged to publish their decisions for patient treatment for scrutiny by patients’ families and then advised to act on this non-expert opinion?  This is another attempt to completely devalue our professional judgement and ability to do our job by insinuating that those who are not trained to teach have the right to judge the quality of our work.


Chapter 7

Knowledge isn’t always key.  What about skills?  Are we heading down the route of producing exam-passing monkeys?


8.3 We have concerns…about the ways in which ‘levels’ are currently used to judge pupil progress, and their consequences. Indeed, we believe that this may actually inhibit the overall performance of our system and undermine learning. For this reason, we suggest a new approach to judging progression that we believe to be, in principle, more educationally sound.

Surely any replacement for levels will just become the new ‘levels’ by which we judge children?


8.4 We are concerned by the ways in which England’s current assessment system 

encourages a process of differentiating learners through the award of ‘levels’, to the extent
that pupils come to label themselves in these terms.

I share these concerns, but any replacement will still ‘label’ children.  I fear that this is an aspect of our system that we will never be able to fully eradicate.


8.14 For example, ‘holding the group together’ is a key feature in Singapore, where around one quarter of children enter primary school with no experience of formal pre-school settings. These children are frequently assigned to special classes of between five and eight pupils, and are taught by highly skilled and qualified specialist staff with the aim of bringing them up to a level of understanding which enables them to be re-integrated into mainstream groups as quickly as possible, giving a more even spread of attainment in teaching groups.

Lovely idea, but in these times of extreme budget cuts and support staff disappearing from schools, who will run these groups?  Will they be led by teachers?  Will there be extra funding for these teachers, or will these groups mean that other class sizes will increase due to a shortage of staff?


8.17 We have therefore opted to recommend an approach to pupil progression that emphasises ‘high expectations for all’ – a characteristic of many high-performing jurisdictions. This conveys necessary teacher commitment to both aspiration and inclusion, and implies the specific set of fundamental achievements that all pupils should attain.



8.22 Specific provision for pupils with learning difficulties is important – with the aim, 

wherever possible, of enabling them to continue to progress with their cohort and peers. … There was no desire to halt the move towards inclusion, but it was thought unhelpful to assess and measure progress of some children with SEND against current criteria (National Curriculum Levels and Performance scales)…there is a need for something more flexible that recognises and assesses individual progress; that assessment should focus on successes rather than being grounded in failure; and a teacher’s narrative judgement should be used in assessments of a pupil’s progress.

This would work well in theory in primary schools and up to KS3, but what happens at GCSE level?  Would there be a different exam for those with SEND?  This would really exclude them once they enter the job market.


8.26 Reporting, according to our suggested model, could be based on a ‘ready to progress’ measure broken down into key areas of subjects.

What happens when a child is deemed ‘not ready to progress’?  Are they kept back a year?  Are they given extra tuition?  By whom?


8.27 Performance tables could be constructed on the basis of the proportions of pupils in 

any cohort having reached the ‘ready to progress’ level at the end of the key stage (i.e. every
two years, if our earlier recommendations are accepted).

So there we go, performance tables will be published at the end of Year 4.  The most-tested children in the world go up another notch in the assessment stakes.


I look forward to seeing what happens as a result of this review.  As I see it, there is a complete shift away from creativity and a creative, cross-curricular curriculum.  The Cambridge Review was paid lip service, with the focus being on knowledge and the ability of children to prove their knowledge every two years.  So if you’re planning on having children soon, rest assured that by the time they leave school, they will be able to recite dates and facts like a walking Wikipedia.  I sense a certain shift towards Victorian educational values.

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