why do we have a national curriculum

s the progress of the government's academies and free schools programme continues to dominate the education agenda with a rolling programme of announcements, rather less national discussion is taking place on what could be a far greater change in our education system. The government has delayed the implementation of its curriculum review, but the shape of what is likely to happen is beginning to emerge. The secretary of state's announcement on computer science may have been 18 months late в he has barely mentioned ICT up to now в but nevertheless, his arrival in the 21st century is welcome and the policy itself has much to commend it. What we teach in our schools is one of the most important decisions we make as a nation. The knowledge passed on to the next generation, the skills and abilities that we think children will need when they become adults, the attitudes and values we wish to instil in them are all at the core of the curriculum and can shape our society, let alone our economy, for years. It is not unreasonable, then, to expect the government to debate the assumptions that will influence its decisions. Yet whereas has addressed the nation on the importance of teaching the kings and queens of England, he has been rather less expansive on some of the bigger questions. To my mind, two issues are fundamental. First, who should control the curriculum? Second, should it be national, and so compulsory for all children, or should it offer greater flexibility to accommodate the wishes and abilities of individual children and their parents? These are big questions and don't lend themselves to easy answers. In a democracy, it seems right that the government should shape the curriculum.


Beyond that, different subjects will want to call on different resources to decide detailed curriculum content. Few would argue that universities and employers shouldn't influence what is taught in schools, or that there shouldn't be some flexibility for individual schools and teachers to make their own decisions. It would be unwise to deny a voice to parents or indeed some young people about what is in the curriculum, and religious leaders certainly wish to influence what is taught in the 7,000 faith schools. Balancing these legitimate interests isn't easy. Yet the only debate from the government about control of the curriculum has centred on the extra freedoms that will be granted to teachers in academies and free schools. It seems that the government's answer to the question 'who should control the content of the curriculum? ' is that it depends on whether the school is an academy or not. If it is, control rests with teachers; if not, it will presumably remain with the government. The same approach is evident in the response to the other key question в the extent to which the curriculum should be compulsory. This has long been a difficult and contentious issue. The national curriculum provides an entitlement to all children to be taught a range of subjects. It stops schools giving up on children who find it difficult to learn or who are difficult to teach. Yet there is no doubt that for some young people the national curriculum is too rigid and its restrictions can stifle teachers' creativity. Getting the balance right between the entitlement guaranteed by a national curriculum and the flexibility sometimes called for isn't easy. So what is the government's response? can have extra flexibility, but only if they are an academy or free school.


On what possible basis can the answers to these key questions about the curriculum be determined by the legal category of the school and not the needs of the children in them? Have children in non-academy schools less need for flexibility or are their teachers less likely to use such freedoms responsibly? The truth is that the government has sacrificed its curriculum review to its overriding ambition on academy numbers. It has used curriculum freedom to entice more schools to follow the academy route rather than leading a genuine national debate about the future needs of all children in all schools.
Debates about curriculum have always been highly contentious. The very word 'curriculum' has multiple meanings among educators. The term is used here to refer to the knowledge that a society selects from the total available reservoir of knowledge and therefore deems as valued and essential for students to learn in schools. In recent decades, there has been an exponential growth in the complexity and volume of knowledge. More people are now likely to be employed in knowledge generating industries. New technologies tend to speed up the processes of knowledge generation and dissemination. Information and ideas now flow rapidly across the globe through digital networks. We are all encouraged to log on, anytime, anywhere to access and engage with information in a wired world. However, access to information does not necessarily equate to acquisition or learning. Highly specialist knowledge is costly to acquire in terms of time, resources, and effort. It is simple. Prior knowledge is critical to understanding and acquiring new information in speciality knowledge domains.


Schools continue to be key institutions for determining who acquires what types of knowledge. Those students who do not get the essential or core knowledge distributed through schooling institutions are likely to be disadvantaged. So why is it important to have a national curriculum? The rapid and continuous growth in knowledge means that curriculum documents need to be regularly reviewed and revised. Concerns have been raised that current processes of curriculum renewal have not been keeping pace with new knowledge generation. Pooling of resources across states will assist the pace of curriculum renewal, revision and dissemination. Students are unlikely to acquire essential knowledge if it is not prescribed in curriculum documents. There needs to be agreement about the valued or essential knowledge that all Australian students need to learn for full participation in our society. Lack of curriculum consistency across states is also confusing for parents and students in today's highly mobile society. There has been a concerted push for a national curriculum in Australia for over two decades. It is imperative that we seize this opportunity to accelerate the pace of movement towards the development and implementation of a national curriculum across all key learning areas. At the same time, local education authorities, schools and teachers need to have the resources and professional autonomy to make this curriculum relevant and meaningful to students in local contexts. Professor Parlo Singh is head of the school of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University.

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