The control of policy and practice: the case of the core curriculum.

Author:Cullingford, Cedric

Abstract: The idea of a carefully managed curriculum, tightly controlled, has been with us for some time and for all the changes has remained focussed on the 'core curriculum' of English, Maths and Science. Questions remain whether this policy has been successful in terms of pupil performance. At the least, the central tenets of a core curriculum should expect to be understood by the pupils. In order to test this, 195 semi-structured interviews were undertaken with pupils representing the socio-economic differences of the population as a whole. The interviews explored in depth what they understood of the core curriculum, how relevant it was, whether it helped them to develop skills and whether it would support their future aspirations. The results were disturbing.


The growing international emphasis on educational policy has created a rhetoric of its own. There is an assumption that the 'reform' of education is vital to economic growth and that a 'learning society' consists of the flexible skills of a new workforce in which the future (and the competition) lies. The notion of 'reform' derives from the constant criticism of the status quo as if all those in education are failing to perform. All aspects of educational system come under scrutiny in a sign of centralisation. The policy makers wish to be in control. They blame the 'status quo' to justify their interference. Whatever their reasons, we see the centralisation of education in nearly all developed countries.

One sign of the desire to control, certainly in the United Kingdom, is the manipulation of educational research. The way this has happened is typical. First there were reports of the low standards of research, how irrelevant it was to practitioners and how badly carried out (Tooley, 1998). This was followed by the demand that in order to raise standards, research needed to be made more instrumental to justify the policy makers and to demonstrate what works best. At the same time, the rhetoric of 'research based policy,' actually nearer policy-led research, was used to justify the proposal of centering all educational research in a few centres of excellence. These were promoted as being independent of government interference but would, in fact, be as independent as other QUANGOs, as independent, that is as the suppliers of goods to Sainsburys or Wal-Mart.

The phenomenon of centralised control is widespread. Whilst research studies have demonstrated that such close interference with practice has the opposite effect to that intended (Dalin et al, 1994) many more have shown at how many different levels the politicians are in control. There are ironies in this. The ideologies of market forces and the independence of management continue to be furthered, but in matters of the curriculum, the outcomes and even styles of teaching, the central government is firmly in command. The United Kingdom might be an extreme case (Alexander, 2000) but it is not alone in seeking to create a uniform system, tightly managed. The justification for such an approach lies in the suspicion of what was called the 'secret garden' of the curriculum. There was suspicion that what was being taught was not in agreement with the agenda of the government.

This centralisation of policy is rarely questioned. The language used to justify it, like 'raising standards,' makes those who have their doubts sound as if they wish to lower them or, equally culpable in the metaphysics of this outlook, return to the past. All in the education system are supposed to be accountable. Not only must they perform better and better, meeting ever more demanding targets but also will they be inspected to make sure they are doing so. In the United Kingdom, it is not only schools that are being held to account in this type of inspection, but they are perhaps most subject to league tables, special measures (which means being taken over by government representatives) and being 'named and shamed'.

Control is manifested through inspection by a centralised office for standards in education (Ofsted). This is the result of a carefully worked out managerial approach which strike some outsiders as surprising, if not necessarily effective (Grubb, 1999). The result of centralisation has all kinds of implications to the professionalism of teachers and to their development (Pring, 2002).

From the publication of a report on how teachers should deliver the curriculum to the introduction of literacy and numeracy hours, teacher actions have been detailed to the last minute (Alexander, Rose, & Woodhead, 1992). For many people, it is curious to think back on a time when there was no such political manipulation and when policy was driven by professionals within the system rather than by amateurs outside it. The gulf between practitioners and policy makers has never been wider.

The history of centralised control in its present form can be traced back in Great Britain to the concern with a core curriculum. In 1976, the Prime Minister of the time made a speech (the 'Ruskin' speech, named after a Trades Union College rather than the sage). He criticised the fluid nature of the subjects studied in school; the lack of utility of what was studied and the need to have a debate about what was central to any curriculum. Since this time, culminating in the National Curriculum, which was introduced through the Educational Reform Act (sic) of 1988, the assumption that there should be uniformity and control of what is learned as a policy, has been almost taken for granted. Every slight amendment to the original structure only points up how massive remains the weight of the curriculum, testable at key stages from one to four, all taken before the main national terminal examinations.

The idea of a 'core' curriculum still remains. There are three subjects; English, Maths and Science, which are deemed to be most important. They dominate the timetable and are invoked as being the essential requirements for employability. English, Maths, and Science are predicated on essential skills like reading, writing and arithmetic and they remain symbolic of all else that is required from the potential workforce. The government clearly believes in their centrality and the efficacy of the policy of promoting them. For years these subjects have been given the time, the resources and the rhetorical support to make their dominance complete. After such a time, their utility should be deeply embedded in the minds of pupils and standards will have risen, but have they?

There are two main ways of researching the question of whether this policy of delivering the core curriculum is successful or not. One is through comparisons either with the past or with other countries. Either comparison is problematic. To test exactly the same thing in different times or indifferent cultures is virtually impossible, although this does not prevent politicians invoking international comparisons. Many of the measures of comparison, like mathematical achievement tests, look attractive but are deeply flawed. How can one measure different numbers of different cohorts of students in exactly the same way; even in these standard tests like those of arithmetic, let alone the more complex ones of thinking skills, motivations or attrition. International comparisons are the blunt instruments used by politicians alternatively to blame the teachers for under-performing or to praise themselves for the success of their policies.

The real measures of success should be in comparison with the past; are standards actually rising thanks to the policies? Again, measuring this is problematic. How does one demonstrate this? In rising numbers of those who attain targets or the more jaundiced opinions of employers who lament falling standards? The results are announced at the same time, as demonstrating either the greater numbers of pupils passing the examinations or lowering standards required according to taste or political prejudice.

There is, however, another way of exploring the results of the policies surrounding the curriculum and that is to explore the experience of those pupils who are the target of them.

After all, the belief in the ideal is constantly before us: highly articulate...

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