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National Curriculum

Volume 566: debated on Monday 8 July 2013

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the future of the national curriculum.

Our children are growing up in a world where the pace of change—economic, social and technological—is constantly accelerating. These changes promise wonderful new opportunities for future generations, but they also create immense challenges.

We are learning more every day about how our world works and how our minds work, how we can develop our civilization and extend opportunity, and how we can improve learning and extend knowledge. At the same time, however, we are also discovering just how competitive the new world is. As other nations modernise their economies and education systems, we cannot afford to be left behind in the global race.

That is why, when the coalition Government was formed, we asked officials in the Department for Education to analyse the best-performing education systems in the world. They examined the curricula used in the world’s most successful school systems, such as Hong Kong, Massachusetts, Singapore and Finland. Informed by that work and in consultation with subject experts and teachers, the Department produced a draft revised national curriculum, which we put out for public consultation five months ago. We received more than 17,000 submissions in our consultation and we have given them careful consideration. Today we are publishing a summary of the comments received and the Government’s response.

The publication of our proposals has provoked a valuable national debate on what is, and what should be, taught in our schools. I have very much enjoyed this debate and the passionate engagement of so many great teachers and concerned parents. It is absolutely right that every member of society should care about the national curriculum. It defines the ambitions that we set for our young people, and I, like the overwhelming majority of parents, want us to be more ambitious than ever before.

That is why we are demanding that children be taught how to write computer code, how to use 3D printers, how to handle more complex mathematical processes, how to appreciate a wider than ever range of literature, and how to speak, read and write in more than one language.

The updated national curriculum framework that we are publishing today features a number of revisions to the drafts published in February. The revisions have been made on the basis of evidence and arguments presented to us during the consultation period. In particular, we have revised the draft programmes of study for design and technology and for history. We have included more detail on modern design processes and more coverage of world history.

Other significant changes include the inclusion of a stronger emphasis on vocabulary development in the programmes of study for English and greater flexibility in the choice of foreign languages, which primary schools will now be required to teach.

Perhaps the most significant change of all is the replacement of ICT with computing. Instead of just learning to use programs created by others, it is vital that children learn to create their own programs. By demanding that children learn computational thinking and Boolean logic, we are determinedly raising the bar, but by equipping our children with the tools to build their own algorithms and applications we are also helping to foster a new level of creativity in our schools.

It is my hope that these changes will reinforce our drive to raise standards in all our schools. I hope that they will ensure that the new national curriculum provides a rigorous basis for teaching and a benchmark for all schools to improve their performance, and I know that it gives children and parents a better guarantee that every student will acquire the knowledge to succeed in the modern world. That is why I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for notice of his statement. The national curriculum should be a vehicle for raising standards, promoting innovation and strengthening great teaching.

Let me first pay tribute to the teachers, parents and pupils who have campaigned hard for changes to the Secretary of State’s original proposals. When did he come to the conclusion that it might be an idea for pupils to study climate change as part of the geography curriculum? When did he realise that speaking skills should be an integral part of the English curriculum? When did he decide to listen to business leaders, who warned him that the D and T curriculum did not include a focus on computer design and electronics? When did he decide that it might be an idea for children to study the history of China and India as well as that of our own country? Finally, when did he realise that it made no sense to limit the number of foreign languages that could be taught in primary schools? Surely it would have been a lot better if he had got his proposals right the first time round.

The Secretary of State’s new curriculum will apply to fewer than half of all secondary schools. Academies have the freedom to innovate. If that freedom makes sense for academies, surely it makes sense for maintained schools as well.

Why has the Secretary of State decided to abolish the levels by which teachers assess pupils’ progress throughout their school life? The levels system is well used, particularly in primary schools. May I urge him to think again about that?

The Department’s own impact assessment of today’s announcement warns of the risks for lower attainers and pupils with special educational needs or disabilities. How will the Secretary of State ensure that they, too, are challenged and supported and that their progress is measured effectively?

The changes are due to be implemented in just one year’s time. How will the Secretary of State ensure that teachers are qualified to teach to the new curriculum when he is letting unqualified teachers into our classrooms? Is it not time for him to reverse the decision to relax the rules on unqualified teachers? What support will there be for continuing professional development and training on the new curriculum ahead of its introduction in a year’s time?

The curriculum matters, but I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that what matters more is that we have a teaching profession that is high in quality and has high status and high morale. Does he accept that as a result of his policies and his rhetoric, teacher morale is at an all-time low? His divisive approach means that we have curriculum freedom for just some schools. Is not the time right for a reformed national curriculum that allows teachers in all schools the freedom to innovate, and therefore prepares young people for the challenges of the modern economy?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. He asked me first when I realised that we should have climate change in the geography curriculum. I actually realised that before we published the first drafts in February. If he had looked at those drafts, he would have seen that we said that people should understand

“place-based exemplars at a variety of scales”


“the key processes in physical geography pertaining to…weather and climate”.

In fact, the draft curriculum that we published in February contained more detail on the scientific processes behind climate change than the previous national curriculum, over which he presided. [Interruption.] All you need to do is read it, Stephen.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked about speaking. In the English curriculum as it was drafted in February, it was perfectly clear that drama, poetry and other forms of speaking were in it. If the Labour party does not believe that drama and poetry require speaking, I would be interested in its perspective on what exactly does.

The hon. Gentleman asked about world history. It was perfectly clear that there were all sorts of examples of world history in the first draft, from decolonisation, invoking the spirit of Kenyatta and Jinnah, through to the impact that this country has had on the middle east, India and north America.

In all those areas, we have listened and made revisions. My mother always said that self-praise is no honour, so I shall not lavish any praise on myself—I will instead lavish it on my fellow Ministers at the Department for Education. They listened extensively to the best in the field, and we have revised the curriculum. Judging from the fact that the hon. Gentleman did not take exception to anything in the current draft, I presume that he thinks it is an A* curriculum. I will take his comments as an endorsement.

The hon. Gentleman asked about level descriptors. They are widely mistrusted by the very best in the teaching profession, which is why outstanding teachers are moving away from them and why the very best academies, such as ARK and Harris academies, are developing their own methods of internal assessment. It is why Dame Reena Keeble, at Cannon Lane First School in Harrow, has her own method of assessing how children are making progress, which is far more popular and rigorous than anything that we used to have.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the risks for lower attainers. We are absolutely clear that because there will be higher expectations than ever before, lower attainers will learn and achieve more in school and be happier and more fulfilled later. Instead of the culture of low expectations that prevailed in the past, we will have a culture of higher expectations that values every child.

The hon. Gentleman asks about curriculum support. Not only will the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics be funded to provide improved mathematics teaching, but our national support schools will receive millions of pounds of extra money to ensure the required professional development. I have every confidence that teachers in our schools—the best generation of teachers ever—are up to the challenge. Whenever I visit schools, they say to me, “We want to ensure that our curriculum, like our teaching, is world class.” That is what we have delivered today, and I am delighted to have the, albeit grudging, endorsement of the hon. Gentleman.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the statement. Some critics suggest that if someone goes out with an idea, listens to feedback, thinks and goes out again, that is a weak form of policy making, but I say the opposite. As we have seen with qualifications, so with the curriculum—it is important to listen and this is a strong set of proposals. Will the Secretary of State identify all the risks concerning the time scale and scheduling of the proposals, and say what the Government are doing to ensure that implementation is as smooth as possible?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is right to put forward a proposition, consult on it and amend it when good advice is given. That seems exactly how the Government should operate. On the implementation timetable, as I alluded to briefly in my response to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), we are supporting a number of centres of excellence, not just in mathematics and science but also in outstanding teaching schools that are doing much to raise standards across the country and help deliver change. If evidence suggests that additional support is required in any area, of course we will provide it.

Both you, Mr Speaker, and the Secretary of State now have a vested interest in all things John Clare, and the more John Clare on the curriculum the better as far as I am concerned.

On a more serious note, the proposals look encouraging. I like the consultation process that the Secretary of State has gone through, but I hope it can be further refined because some statements we have heard recently, including over the weekend, seem to suggest that he puts so much emphasis on the very brightest students, rather than on the broad panoply of students. We need the right teaching and curriculum for all our children, not just some of them.

I could not agree more with someone who is increasingly my honourable Friend. First, the more we can do to support the work of the John Clare Trust in bringing that fantastic working-class poet to wider attention, the better. Secondly, the English literature curriculum includes for the first time a requirement to study the romantic poets, which I hope will be broadly welcomed. Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and although we expect our brightest children to do even better, I hope the new method of secondary accountability—on which we are still consulting—will make it easier for all schools to recognise their responsibility and obligation to less able students.

Liberal Democrats welcome the introduction of a slimmed-down curriculum, and the emphasis on teachers being able to teach and use their expertise. On continuing professional development and support for schools, there will now be a period in which teachers get ready to implement the new national curriculum. Will resources be in place, and will the Department do everything it can to give teachers confidence to move from one curriculum to the next?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. What we sought to do is similar to what was argued for in the Liberal Democrat manifesto at the last general election: a core entitlement in foundation subjects and a far greater degree of freedom elsewhere. I am grateful to Liberal Democrat colleagues across the Government for the positive way they have engaged and the helpful suggestions they have made at every turn. It is right that my hon. Friend underlines the importance of ensuring we move speedily to get the right level of professional support. In particular, teaching schools—outstanding schools across the country—are generating networks of support and could not be more important. I want to do more to help them in the year ahead.

The vast majority of parents and young people want a curriculum that is fit for life, including building life skills around self-esteem and confidence that will protect them from predators such as Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall. I would be interested to know why the Secretary of State turns his face against introducing that to the national curriculum.

The hon. Lady is a passionate campaigner on ways we can better protect our children, and there are a number of things we can do. As she may know, I had the opportunity to talk to a group of outstanding young people last week at the Stonewall conference on fighting prejudice in education and empowering young people. They made some important points about the best of personal, social, health and economic education, and we must learn from the best schools and ensure that others follow their lead.

As someone who has campaigned for some time for a greater narrative approach to history teaching in schools, may I thank the Secretary of State for retaining the chronological focus of the history curriculum, rather than the current “Doctor Who” style, time-travelling fantasy, in which pupils study the Romans, the Tudors and then the Victorians? What does he envisage happening to key stage 4 and the dovetailing with key stage 3, so that pupils will have the chance to learn narrative British history all the way up to 16?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. Several distinguished historians, from David Abulifia at Cambridge to Professor Jeremy Black at Exeter, have joined him in welcoming this curriculum. May I also congratulate him on the fantastic review of his new book on the battle of Bosworth in the books section of The Daily Telegraph on Saturday? I recommend it to everyone. The GCSE criteria on which we are consulting are designed to achieve exactly what he sets out.

The Secretary of State will be aware that my constituency sends the fewest number of young people to university or college of any in the UK. One of the ways we are tackling that is through innovative early intervention, and by making great use of continuous assessment, which allows children from under-privileged backgrounds to gain the confidence to take some serious examinations at the end of the national curriculum. Would he meet with the six very hard-working head teachers in my constituency to understand how any changes to continual assessment will undermine their pupils’ prospects of going to university?

May I commend the Secretary of State for his determination to reverse this country’s slide down the international league tables? He is right to ensure that his expectations for English children are no lower than other countries’ expectations for their children.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. It is vital that we assert, across the political divide, our determination to ensure that our country becomes a world champion in English, maths and science, alongside generating world champions in tennis, rowing and other great activities.

May I warmly welcome the remark that the Secretary of State just made? Instead of just learning to use programs created by others, it is vital that children learn to create their own programs. Where else, apart from computing, will that be the approach in the new curriculum?

I should say that, in both art and design and music, it is clear that students will be encouraged to create—there is an emphasis on drawing at an earlier stage in the art and design curriculum, so that people can become familiar with one of those foundational skills. It is also the case that the design and technology curriculum will include everything from the use of 3D printers to the most sophisticated methods of contemporary design. I was inspired visiting a school in the hon. Lady’s constituency to see exactly how high-quality computer science can be delivered to a range of students who were enjoying their teaching, thanks to the support that she has consistently championed.

The main complaint from local engineering businesses in my constituency is that too many young people leave school and college with good GCSEs, and sometimes A-levels, in maths and sciences, but do not have the deeper understanding of the subject to be able to pursue a career in engineering. What do these reforms do to ensure that we are growing the engineers of the future?

I am delighted that the changes that we have made to the design and technology curriculum have been welcomed by James Dyson, one of the most authoritative and persuasive voices when it comes to design and engineering. The new approach that we are taking, specifically in design and technology, will complement the essential skills of maths and science that engineers need.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of how well suited the new curriculum will be to closing differential educational outcomes between, for example, boys and girls or different ethnic groups?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. One of the biggest problems in the English education system is the structural inequality, which we have inherited and which the previous Government worked hard, in their own way, to try to overcome. One of the things that is clear about those countries that have successfully managed to reduce educational inequality is that they have maintained high expectations for all students, and that is what this curriculum embodies.

I thank the Secretary of State and his Ministers for bringing financial education into the school curriculum, following our campaign, so ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). Does the Secretary of State agree that, as well as better equipping young people for the decisions that they will make in adult life, the relevance of these questions may also improve their interest in and appetite for learning maths?

My hon. Friend makes a typically acute point. The two things reinforce each other: an appreciation of financial education and mathematics and mental arithmetic all go together.

In Darlington, we have done a good job over the years to improve the performance of the worst-performing schools. One of the ways we have done that is through tracking students on an individual basis and challenging where need be. I am deeply concerned about the proposals to remove assessment levels, because tracking is so important in governors and parents, and young people themselves, challenging teachers and schools. How will tracking be done when the Secretary of State removes assessment levels?

The hon. Lady makes two important points. First, by removing the current national curriculum levels we create space for more sophisticated methods of tracking. One of the problems with current level descriptors is that they are opaque and confusing, and sometimes different schools register different levels of achievement at different levels. The new method we propose will mean that there is far greater rigour in how assessment is carried out. Secondly, Darlington is a model local education authority, because it has encouraged more and more schools to take on academy freedoms. I hope that more Labour local authorities follow where Darlington has led.

Carrying on with the subject of financial education for young people, I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comments. He will be well aware that the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards also endorsed putting financial education on the curriculum. Does he agree not only that that will reinforce mathematics as a relevant subject, but that a good grounding in financial literacy can prove to be a major engine for social mobility?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The more confident every student is with the increasingly sophisticated range of financial temptations they face, the more that social mobility and resilience can be built in.

I echo those comments on financial education. I also congratulate the Secretary of State on the improvements to the computing curriculum, which will be warmly welcomed by businesses, such as Postcode Anywhere and those in the growing cyber-security cluster in Worcestershire, that have long been arguing for a more computing-focused and less IT learning-focused approach.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Industry has been clear that the changes we have made from information and communications technology to computing are exactly what industry needs to ensure that young people are prepared for the opportunities that await them.

The Secretary of State says that changing the curriculum is essential if we are to catch up with the rest of the world. I agree that that has to be the priority, but if it is so essential why is he not applying it to academies, which make up the majority of secondary schools?

Academies do make up the majority of secondary schools. At the moment, academies make up only 10% of primary schools, and the curriculum is of course more specific when it comes to the foundation subjects at primary level. The curriculum generates a sense of expectation and lays the foundations for the new GCSEs, which we expect to be the principal benchmark for accountability at the age of 16 for all schools.

Did the Secretary of State notice Professor Black’s comments today? He said:

“You can’t debate our sense of national identity and our national interest unless you understand our national history. This curriculum put British history first as well…It kicks out woolly empathy”.

Does he agree that that is the right way forward in the longer term?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s point. Professor Jeremy Black is one of the finest and most productive historians working in academia today. He is also one of the most engaging of teachers.

There is only one constituency in the land where Winston Churchill was never welcome, including after the second world war: the Rhondda. I am therefore delighted that this curriculum, which bizarrely insists on only one politician—Winston Churchill—being studied in the whole of the history of the 20th century, will not apply in Wales or in the Rhondda. Why will the Secretary of State still not make clear his position on sex and relationship education, which is the one thing that can make a dramatic difference to the number of teenage abortions and teenage pregnancies?

What emphasis will there be on spelling in the national curriculum, and by what age will primary school children be required to learn their 12 times table?

The 12 times table will be required by the end of year 4, which is a significant advance on where we are at the moment, and there are indicative tables as part of the national curriculum document that lay out how we can ensure that students can spell. I should also say that, on a recent primary school visit that I undertook, I asked the students whether they had enjoyed their national curriculum tests. The universal view was that the tests were fun, but the most fun were the spelling, punctuation and grammar tests that this Government have introduced.

The changes to the history curriculum are often presented in a binary way, as a choice between endless facts and “woolly empathy”. Can the Secretary of State explain the wise logic behind the value of children learning a basic chronology of British history before they are asked to think about what it felt like to live a long time ago?

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely central point. Every country that teaches history well insists on the history of its own nation being taught. Even the progressive Administration in Holyrood make a point of stressing the importance of Scottish history—I can see the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), for the Scottish National party, nodding—from which other things flow. I recognise that all nations should in this respect, if in few others, emulate what Alex Salmond has done.

I am delighted at the inclusion of financial education and computer programming, both of which are essential skills for our children. Does the Secretary of State believe that they will also help to encourage young children to engage in traditional mathematics, through real-life work and tangible examples?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the key things about his successful campaign on financial education is that he always made it clear that it was about reinforcing the importance of rigour in mathematics, not simply meeting the needs of a vocal lobby outside. The way he ran the campaign is a model of how a Back Bencher can shape the education of millions for the better.

Can my right hon. Friend reassure me and the House that he has rooted out all the woolly thinking that pervaded the curriculum as drafted by the previous Government?

To root out all the woolly thinking that used to pervade the curriculum would have been like cleansing the Augean stables. There may well be a piece of fluff in some corner of the curriculum that we did not manage to get to, but I hope we have managed to hose down the stables effectively.

Since becoming an AET academy—under the Academies Enterprise Trust—Eston Park in my constituency has gone from good to special measures in less than two years. I welcome today’s proposals, but how can the Secretary of State ensure that free schools and academies benefit from all the excellent thinking that is going on in his Department?

One of the best schools I have ever visited is in my hon. Friend’s constituency—Nunthorpe academy, which is run by Debbie Clinton, a school that has gone from special measures to outstanding in the last couple of years. However, he is right that one or two academy chains have not done everything they promised. In the case of the organisation he mentioned, we have taken steps to deal with that.

The Secretary of State will know that the Royal Academy of Engineering has stated that we will need at least 100,000 graduates in maths and engineering to compete with the rest of the world. This is something that informed my decision to hold a festival of engineering and manufacturing in my constituency. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you very much. Does he agree that firm leadership will be required from schools to ensure that we get the best teachers in the right place to deliver on the need that the Royal Academy of Engineering has outlined?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is a pity that, in one of our best universities for engineering—University college London—fewer than half the undergraduates enlisting in that course are from the United Kingdom. We need to do more, and my hon. Friend is leading the way.

The Secretary of State referred to more coverage of world history. On the assumption that the 20th century will include the holocaust, will he give me an assurance that the life of Palestinians since 1948 will be given equal attention?

These are delicate waters, into which I fear to tread too definitively. One thing I would say is that there has been near universal welcome and support for the centrality of the holocaust and the unique evil inherent in the holocaust being in the national curriculum. Once one gets on to the position of the state of Israel after 1948, it is probably better if I step back. I have strong views on the matter and I would not wish to impose them on the curriculum.

I hope colleagues, including the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), are aware of the event taking place in Speaker’s house tonight under the auspices of the Holocaust Educational Trust.