Visit just about any school, north or south, and there is no mistaking that English and Maths are main priorities. Most classrooms have English and Maths displays and significant chunks of the school day are devoted to the teaching of these two subjects. Prospective parents are treated to tours of schools during which, it seems, the teaching of English and Maths is discussed at length. But what of the wider curriculum? What of every other subject that does not fall under the heading of English and Maths?
The expectations are crystal clear. There is no expectation within the National Curriculum to offer a narrow curriculum in which English and Maths dominate at the expense of other subjects such as history, art, music, science, geography, design and technology, and RE (to name a few).
The current National Curriculum for England states that:
Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based and which:
- promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society
- prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life
It also explains that:
- The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.
- The national curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications. The national curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.
Although academies are not obliged to follow the national curriculum, they nevertheless must provide a curriculum that is broad and balanced.
Debra Kidd, teacher and author, sees the need for schools to offer a truly broad and balanced curriculum as something that unites both traditionalists and so-called progressives. “Progressives might argue that a broad and balanced curriculum provides an education system that values all kinds of human capacity and potential equally enriching and enhancing their life experience,” she explains. “Traditionalists would probably argue from the knowledge perspective - that learning the best that has been thought and said, necessarily encompasses many subject areas including wider curriculum subjects such as art and music. At its most basic level, a broad and balanced curriculum provides children with the contextual knowledge and vocabulary that ultimately furnished their literacy - this is a point made by Hirsch. So whichever position you take ideologically, there's a strong argument to be made about this.”
Very clear arguments
Yet despite the very clear arguments and justifications for a broad and balanced curriculum, not to mention the legal requirements, some still claim that the high stakes testing on which schools may be judged necessarily leads to an unbalanced curriculum.
Recently, the publication of the controversial Ofsted document, Bold Beginnings, with its clear message that reading should lie at the heart of the reception year, has concerned early years specialists who fear that this may lead to imbalance in the curriculum in early years, and possibly beyond.
I asked Ofsted for a comment on the importance of the wider curriculum and was pointed in the direction of a speech given by HM Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman at Ark’s Teach 2017 conference in November this year, in which she said: “I believe that teachers’ preoccupation with the substance of education – the content that is taught in lessons – should be celebrated and encouraged. And it should be used by school leaders and management teams to think deeply about how the curriculum fits together in its entirety – from the material that is introduced, to the frequency and context in which it is revisited, learnt and eventually mastered. Then how it’s all brought together, how links are made.”
It's a positive message, but is change still needed? As Tim Taylor, freelance teacher and author of A Beginner’s Guide to Mantle of the Expert (published by Singular Publishing Ltd), explains: “Since the introduction of SATs the curriculum in primary schools in England has become progressively narrower. As the old saying goes, we measure what we value and value what we measure. Except, there is more to education than a narrow band of skills in English and Maths and children are being short changed by this obsession. There is no doubt the drive towards raising standards was motivated by people who meant well, but this drive (with mixed results) has had unintended consequences, the worst of all being a reduction in a broad and balanced curriculum that engages and interests children.”
So, what’s to be done? Are we really as committed to a broad and balanced curriculum as we evidently should be? Or do accountability measures have a tyrannical hold on schools? I guess we’ll know the answer when wider curriculum subjects are as prominent in schools as any other subject, and their full cross curricular potential is realised.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.