What is a Suitable Education?
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A Broken System Change Needed

National Curriculum too narrow and failing generations of children

The National Curriculum has for many years been criticised for its narrow focus and lack of room for creativity or development of problem solving skills

In 2009 Cambridge University published its review of primary education, a hugely detailed and in-depth investigation undertaken over three years. It said the too narrow curriculum – which is overly focused on reading, writing and maths – is failing generations of children. This is damaging children’s enjoyment of school, their natural curiosity and love of learning.

The report is critical of the way the then Labour Department of Children, Schools and Families micro managed schools making it hard for them to help individuals and respond to their needs. It proposed that a national curriculum should cover no greater than 70% of classroom time and that individual schools be responsible for the rest.

The report said that SATS and league tables needed to be scrapped for it to be possible to make the meaningful changes needed. It also proposed that there be 12 aims for children: wellbeing, engagement, empowerment, autonomy, encouraging respect and reciprocity, promoting interdependence, citizenship, celebrating culture, exploring, fostering skills, exciting imagination and enacting dialogue. Learning should cover arts and creativity, language, oracy and literacy, and science and technology. At the time of the report approximately 50% of classroom time was spent on literacy and numeracy. The report called for a curriculum which fostered creativity, not only because it increased children’s employability in the future but because it is fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness.

Recommendations ignored in favour of more rote learning

Despite the report having the backing of the teaching profession the Labour government of the time ignored the report, choosing to commission an alternative review.

Subsequent governments have also disregarded the findings of the report, instead moving even further down the path of testing, rote learning of facts and increasingly formal learning focusing even more on literacy and numeracy.

In 2013 there was widespread criticism of the changes to the curriculum, this time introduced under the Coalition government. Robin Alexander, fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and professor of education at York University, criticised again the narrowness of the curriculum which left arts and humanities “to chance”. He said that primary education is an important developmental stage and not merely practice for secondary school. Short term learning, memorisation and recall had been prioritised over long term development, problem solving and deeper learning. “The review has consistently argued against the neo-Victorian opposition of the ‘basics’ on one hand and the rest on the other, which the revised National Curriculum perpetuates, sadly, in its sharper-than-ever distinction between the ‘core’ and foundation subjects. Such stratification is both educationally inappropriate and pedagogically counterproductive.”

Over 100 academics warn of the damage done by our National Curriculum

Over 100 academics in the field of education wrote an open letter to Michael Gove warning of the dangers posed by the National Curriculum which “consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules” and which “could severely erode educational standards”. “This mountain of data”, the letter said, “will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.”

“Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

The new curriculum is extremely narrow. The mountains of detail for English, maths and science leave little space for other learning. Speaking and listening, drama and modern media have almost disappeared from English.”

In 2014 Eton’s headmaster Tony Little added his voice to the many criticising what was on offer saying that little had changed since Victorian times and failed to prepare students for modern working life.


Read more

Where now after damning indictment of education? (The Guardian, 20 Feb 2009)
Full report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review  ‘Children, their World, their Education’
Leading academic criticises ‘Victorian’-style curriculum (Telegraph, 24 Sep 2013)
Letters: Gove will bury pupils in facts and rules (The Independent, 19 March 2013)
Eton headmaster: England’s exam system unimaginative and outdated (The Guardian, 5 August 2014)
‘Our curriculum is so narrow that it bores both pupils and teachers – and crushes creativity’ (TES, 21 October 2016)

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