Skip to main content

Schools: National Curriculum

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2013


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place yesterday by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education on the national curriculum. The Statement is as follows.

“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 civilisation and extend opportunity, and how we can improve learning and extend knowledge.

At the same time, however, we are also discovering just how competitive this 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 were 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 those of 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 to 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.

Among other significant changes are 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 modem world. That is why I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for setting out the Government’s revised approach to curriculum reform. I am glad to hear that a number of the representations that we have been making from the beginning have finally been adopted by the Government. However, it has to said that it has been a very bumpy ride. The consultation has contained all the characteristics for which the Secretary of State has now become famous: first set out an ideological master plan full of reforming zeal; then rubbish anyone who raises concerns and questions, including educational academics, teachers and parents; and, finally, carry out a series of U-turns and admit that your critics might have been right all along. It is, quite frankly, exhausting and a long way from the thoughtful, grown-up national debate which should have been conducted from the outset, with the shared intent of improving young people’s life chances.

Nevertheless, we have some areas of agreement. We always said that it was a mistake to sideline speaking and listening skills in the teaching of English. This point was echoed by many employers and so we are pleased to see that this issue has now been addressed. We warned that the ICT curriculum was not addressing the technology needs of employers. Again, we are pleased that this has been updated. We welcomed the requirement for foreign language education in primary schools, but warned that it was unfair and divisive to limit the range of languages that could be taught. We are relieved that the Government have finally seen the error of their ways in this regard.

We argued strongly for citizenship to be included in the national curriculum; for young people to understand the contribution that they could make to the UK and as citizens of the world. We therefore welcome the Government’s belated conversion to the importance of citizenship education and the inclusion of human rights and international law at key stage 4. We criticised the removal of climate change in the geography curriculum, as we believe it is essential for an understanding of physical, social and economic geography. We are pleased that this has now been reinstated. Along with many eminent historians, we raised concerns that the history curriculum was too UK focused and lacked a world view. We are pleased that the programme has now been rebalanced.

However, in this notable and welcome list of U-turns, a festering anomaly remains, where the Government continue to ignore the best advice of those dealing on the front line with child health, sex and relationship issues. All the reasons why the teaching of other subjects should be spelt out in the national curriculum apply equally to PSHE, yet the Government seem determined to run away from their responsibilities on this issue. I hope the noble Lord, even at this late stage, will commit to reflecting further on this issue before a final decision is made.

Despite these welcome improvements, we still have a number of concerns about the proposals. First and fundamentally, the Government have underpinned all their proposals with a belief that education should be based on rote learning at the expense of developing young people who can problem-solve, think for themselves, be creative and work collaboratively. Young people need knowledge, skills and resilience. Can the Minister clarify whether he agrees that we need to reject the false choices that pitch knowledge versus skills and that we need to foster a more holistic approach in education?

Secondly, the new curriculum will apply to fewer than half of the secondary schools. If academies have the freedom to innovate, does that freedom not make sense for maintained schools as well? Does the Minister have a plan for addressing these contradictions?

Thirdly, the timing of the proposals and the implementation date of September 2014 put schools under enormous pressure to be ready for the changes, including having to provide the old and new curriculum in tandem for some age groups. Does the Minister recognise that many teachers felt ignored and ridiculed by the consultation process and morale is at an all-time low? Can he explain what professional development and resources will be made available to teachers to help them manage this transition? Does he accept that the presence of unqualified teachers in the classroom is a particular cause for concern when high-quality skills and experience will be required to meet this challenge?

Finally, does the Minister agree that particular support needs to be provided to children with SEN from a very early age, so that they are able to participate fully in the curriculum? Can he point me to where this support and flexibility are spelt out in the curriculum? How will parents be able to judge the progress of their children against their peers, particularly at primary school level, if the assessment levels and level descriptors are removed? Can we be sure that what replaces them will have the confidence of teachers and parents alike?

It feels as if this process of curriculum consultation has been unnecessarily rancorous. The Secretary of State has shown little skill or interest in managing the debate to achieve a consensual outcome. While we welcome the numerous U-turns, we remain concerned that the fundamental educational philosophy of this Government is backward looking, focused towards an outdated and divisive exam system and destined to do a disservice to the next generation of school leavers, who had a right to expect better. I hope the Minister will address these concerns and I look forward to hearing his response.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for her support for where we have arrived as a result of our consultation, if not for her comments on the journey we have taken to arrive at that point. As far as citizenship is concerned, we confirmed in February that citizenship would remain, along with other current national curriculum subjects.

The Government have reviewed the national curriculum in England since January 2011. In February this year, we published proposals that embodied a vision for a national curriculum that is slimmer, focused on essential subject knowledge and which—especially in the core subjects of English, maths and science—compares favourably with the curriculum taught in the most successful education jurisdictions in the world. Since then, there has been a vigorous national debate on the content and purpose of the national curriculum, which we have welcomed. It is right that every member of society should care about this. Our formal public consultation closed in April; we received 17,000 submissions; and we have published a summary of the consultation findings, as I said earlier. We intend to finalise the new national curriculum this autumn, so that schools have a year to prepare to teach it from September 2014.

The new national curriculum will retain the best elements of the drafts we published in February. We have, however, reflected carefully on the arguments we heard during the consultation period. That has led to some changes. In history, while we are pleased that many eminent historians welcomed the ambition of the draft, we also heard the concerns of history teachers that it was too prescriptive. We also acknowledged concerns that the curriculum was not sufficiently explicit that pupils should be taught about world history. In response, we have revised those proposals. They still set out that pupils should be taught a rich diet of British history within a clear chronological framework. However, the revised version also makes it clear that teachers will have the flexibility to design lessons that fire their pupils’ enthusiasm for history and teach the history of other societies around the world. The response has been very positive, even from those, such as the Historical Association and Professor Richard Evans, who had originally been critical of our plans. Similarly, we have revised the design and technology curriculum to ensure that it properly reflects our ambitions for teaching in this subject. The consequence of this revision will be that children are set on a path to be the next generation of designers and engineers.

We have made other changes, such as, as the noble Baroness mentioned, the inclusion of a stronger emphasis on vocabulary development in the programmes of study for English. We believe that these revisions will only serve to strengthen the national curriculum and ensure that all pupils get the education they deserve.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned SEN. The inclusion statement in the national curriculum framework document emphasises that teachers should set high expectations for every pupil and that lessons should be planned so that there are no barriers to every pupil achieving, including those with special educational needs. Organisations representing pupils with SEN have largely welcomed this statement.

We have discussed PSHE in this House on many occasions recently. The Government launched an internal review of PSHE in 2011 and the outcomes of the review were announced in March this year. After careful consideration, we have concluded that PSHE should remain a non-statutory subject without the addition of new statutory elements, although, as noble Lords know, I recognise that it is a very important subject and should be taught in all schools. We are exhorting all schools to teach PSHE and careers development at every turn.

On the advice of the expert panel set up to advise the national curriculum review, we have decided that levels and level descriptors should be removed. We have also borne in mind the feedback that we heard from many teachers that levels are unhelpful in that they distract teachers from ensuring that pupils master essential subject skills and knowledge and instead require assessments of progress to be made against vague, best-fit judgments. They are subjective and open to manipulation.

Our new national curriculum is designed to give schools genuine opportunities to take ownership of the curriculum. The new programmes of study set out what pupils should know and be able to do at the end of each key stage. This is particularly true at primary level for English, maths and science, and therefore assessments can be directly based on that rather than on vague level descriptors. Levels were designed as an assessment tool to summarise progress at the end of an entire key stage; they were never intended to be broken down into sub-levels and used to grade each piece of work.

I agree with the noble Baroness that it is time that we ended the circular debate about knowledge versus skills. We accept that it is essential that our pupils learn both these things. Our national curriculum is based on the latest cognitive thinking and practice around the world, including the work of Dan Willingham, whose book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, I recommend to anybody interested in this matter. It is also based on the experience in jurisdictions such as Massachusetts, where a knowledge-skills-based curriculum —although it is more knowledge-based—is followed. In recent years, this has led to what has become widely known as the “Massachusetts miracle” in terms of the turnaround in schools’ performance.

So far as the timetable is concerned, this Government are ambitious for our children and young people. However, international surveys show that in key subjects we are standing still while other countries and jurisdictions overtake us. To allow that situation to continue would be to neglect our duty and to sanction relative decline. We want pupils to start benefiting from the new curriculum as soon as possible. However, it is also the case that the timetable we are working to means that schools have over a year to prepare for its introduction. We are confident that they will use that time to prepare effectively.

We will of course be prepared to offer targeted support to schools when we think that that will be beneficial. We are working with the National College for Teaching and Leadership to identify what help might be required. However, our general approach, as noble Lords will know, is informed by the principle that schools know better than government what support they will need to teach the new curriculum in accordance with their own circumstances—hence our teaching schools and teaching school alliance programmes. Rather than top-down spoon-feeding, we will encourage schools to work with publishers, education suppliers, subject associations and each other to develop materials that respond to genuine need.

We are also providing £2 million in additional funding to teaching schools to build on the excellent work that they are doing. The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics will be funded to provide improved maths teaching, and our national support schools have also received additional funding to ensure the required CPD. The National College for Teaching and Leadership has established expert groups to support institutions delivering ITT in preparing trainees to teach the new curriculum.

We understand that we are asking a great deal of teachers and head teachers as we seek to make our education system truly world class. However, we also know that we are fortunate to have the best generation of teachers ever and we are sure that, supported by a national curriculum that is stretching and focused on teaching essential knowledge, they will rise to the challenge. We want schools to see the full picture of GCSE reform, A-levels, curriculum and the accountability framework at one time. It means an intensive programme of reform but we have slipped so far down the international league tables that we cannot afford to wait. Each year that we wait leads to more children being insufficiently challenged and educated. We believe that this curriculum will equip our children and young people with the knowledge and skills they need to compete in the world and enable them to have the education they deserve.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement that was made in the House of Commons yesterday. As one who studied the February draft in excruciating detail, I am happy to congratulate all concerned at the DfE on the quite striking improvements to be seen in this new version of the national curriculum, especially in the very lengthy English section. For example, in that section there is a far greater emphasis on spoken English and a far deeper recognition that continuous vocabulary development is central to the whole of education.

However, I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Can he assure us that teachers, confronted now with a good deal of extra excellent material and ideas to bring to life in the classroom, will, wherever necessary, be brought fully up to speed so that they can deliver on the new demands required of them? It is a big task and the curriculum will come to life only in the classroom.

Secondly, the importance of English and maths is obvious in their needing more space in the voluminous curriculum document than all the other 10 subjects put together—rightly so, since English and maths not only possess the precious content which is peculiar to them but also comprise the tools, as the Minister has just said, for shaping all else in education. Therefore, can the Minister assure us that English and maths will remain the sine qua non throughout school life from the ages of five to 18?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments, particularly about English. We are focusing heavily on ensuring that teachers have the resources to deliver this new curriculum, largely in the way that I outlined earlier. English and maths will be essential right the way through the curriculum until the age of 16, and grammar, punctuation and spelling will feature much more across the curriculum than they have done in the past. They will not be essential beyond the age of 18, although we have said that all pupils who have not achieved grade C in English or maths will go on studying English and maths until they are 18 and have reached that standard.

My Lords, first, I welcome my noble friend’s Statement on the curriculum. These Benches have argued for a long time that we should have a shorter and more focused curriculum that prioritises essentials. It is interesting to note that the national curriculum has been reduced from 468 pages to 281. I do not see it as a U-turn; I see it as a reflection of the consultation process, particularly on the issue of speaking and listening and on climate change.

I have a number of questions. One of them resonates with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and concerns continuing professional development. How do we make sure that schools are fully equipped? In some areas, for example, there are no training schools. Are we going to see resources go directly to those schools? What is the position on equipping non-teachers? As we know, in free schools and some academies non-teachers are taking classes. We also know that in all schools teaching assistants are covering PPA time and taking lessons. Therefore, what continuing professional development will be provided for those staff?

There is one area of great concern. I am delighted that a modern foreign language will be taught, but in primary schools there is often no one on the staff with that ability. What resources will be given to primary schools?

I am grateful for my noble friend’s comments; I know that they are well based on his 25 years experience of primary education in Liverpool.

On CPD, we believe that we now have about an 89% coverage of the country on teaching schools and the teaching school alliance, but, as I said, our belief is that teachers are best placed to develop best teaching practice through teaching in schools and school support by modelling good practice. An increasing number of products are emerging on the marketplace to help teachers, including MyMaths and Ruth Miskin’s phonics materials. Those are particularly suitable for primary schools.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The document is sprinkled with references back to the Education Act 2002, with its emphasis on promoting spiritual, moral, intellectual and cultural development of pupils and developing a balanced and broadly based wider curriculum. I agree with that, but I am not sure that the document fulfils it. I agree with my noble friend Lady Jones that ICT—computing—spoken skills in English and the subject of climate change are welcome. As a former foreign language teacher, of course I would say that foreign languages are welcome. I will come to PSHE later, but I hope that the Minister realises that some pupils need a basis of interpersonal skills and self-confidence to be able to learn anything. They cannot simply be filled with facts and knowledge.

I am pleased that there was consultation on the original document. I know that some concerns were expressed there. For example, 36% said that the curriculum was then too focused on knowledge and that there should be greater recognition of the value of skills. I reflect on last Thursday’s debate in this House, instigated by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, to which the Minister responded, in which across the House we expressed concern about careers education and the development of soft skills such as teamwork, communication and so on. I am not sure that that is sufficiently covered in this document. I am also concerned about the space for creativity and the prescription and progression between stages.

It does not seem to be recognised that citizenship and personal education are taught in a cross-curricular way, with certain formal inputs. I note that in the document there are 20 lines on citizenship but nothing on PSHE; there is reference only to sex and relationship education. Sex and relationship education is part of PSHE; it should not be given overemphasis. Things such as obesity, alcohol, drugs and smoking are equally important.

Is the Minister confident that this curriculum will deliver skills of communication and encourage self-confidence in pupils? Is he confident that culture, arts and sports are given sufficient emphasis? Is he confident that personal, social and health education and citizenship education are given sufficient reference in the document? Perhaps he can briefly respond.

I know that the noble Baroness shares my concern about PSHE being an essential part of any school, particularly interpersonal skills and self-confidence. I do not think that we are apart at all on the necessity for all schools to teach that. Indeed, that is what good schools do; it is all part of a good education. The difference between us is that we do not feel that we should legislate for every ingredient of such education to be statutory.

For instance, on career education, I was in Norfolk today, where we were whipping up support for schools in Norfolk, which have consistently been below national standards. One of our meetings was with business leaders. There is no shortage of enthusiasm from the business community to engage with schools to help them with careers advice, work placements and so on. I then visited Wymondham College, one of our top state boarding schools, where we got into a conversation about careers. I said that I was constantly being asked whether careers advice should be more consultancy-based in schools and whether that was sensible for schools. It was absolutely clear. Everybody in the room—the top eight teachers in the school—said that a careers session of 50 minutes at the end of your school life was a very poor substitute for a good education and that they engaged widely with businesses for careers advice. They already practise the suggestion from my noble friend Lord Cormack of career panels.

That is the best practice, which we should encourage all schools to do, so that all schools fulfil the ambitions of the noble Baroness. As I said, however, what is between us is that we think that to legislate for it in a box-ticking way would lower expectations rather than encourage all schools to aim for the highest.

My Lords, I should declare an interest as the founder and president of the Citizenship Foundation. I, too, would like to congratulate the Government on the outcome of their consultation and a lot of hard work all round. To have 17,000 people respond to a consultation must be a high response compared to some that we have had recently and it reflects the intense concern of people across the social spectrum—of course, including teachers and parents. I also recognise the dilemmas that the Government have in arriving at a curriculum, because so many subjects today call for inclusion, and there has to be some point at which you say, “Sorry, no more space”.

I particularly congratulate Michael Gove on resisting the advice from his expert panel and keeping citizenship education in the core curriculum at key stages 3 and 4. It has always seemed to me—and, probably, everybody in the Chamber—that the democratic world of today is unbearably complex. The work of this House is often beyond the ability of its Members to grapple with. It is irresponsible of us to the point of being hypocritical not to give our school leavers the chance, through a minimum level of competence, to take their part in this hyper-complex society—in particular, their democratic part. I fully endorse the conclusions reached that citizenship is part of the essential knowledge that we have to give our citizens, no less than teaching them the Highway Code before they get into a motor car.

I should like to ask my noble friend four questions. The framework document issued this week starts by saying, of citizenship, that the purpose of study is a high-quality citizenship education. I would be grateful if my noble friend would consider the extent to which we need rather badly to have a much greater quantity and quality of teacher education for that difficult subject. Secondly, I agree with my noble friend Lord Storey that this is a subject where you could bring in people from outside the world of formal teacher qualification. Very quickly, I think—

I would be grateful if my noble friend would consider extending the Ofsted inspection to cover citizenship education. If it is not within the compulsory Ofsted inspection, that lowers its status. That is certainly not needed. Finally, I do not see why this subject should not be as necessary, compulsory and essential for non-maintained schools as for maintained schools.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Phillips for his comments. I believe that we have greatly improved the citizenship curriculum, not least with the helpful advice from noble Lords such as him that it should be a much less issues-based curriculum, with greater focus on the political systems in this country. So far as Ofsted is concerned, I will look at that point in the context of what Ofsted already inspects for in terms of a rounded conversation and whether we can do anything further on that. As far as the core subject is concerned, I rather refer back to my earlier point that some independent schools teach citizenship very effectively in a much wider way. As far as teaching quality is concerned, we are doing all that we can to improve the quality of teachers. I may want to discuss with my noble friend further his specific points about citizenship teachers to see whether we cannot do more in this regard.