This blog is part of a series in the spirit of ‘Cranleigh Thinking’, intended to provoke thought and debate and raise questions. The arguments are born out of observation and experience and I make no apology for holes and gaps for readers to fill and question.

This particular series raises questions about the nature of curriculum, national policy and why Cranleigh has chosen the ‘Cranleigh Thinking‘ approach

For a fuller context, please refer to my previous blog ‘Running with a purpose

I have been always troubled by our country’s approach to curriculum policy. In my first year of Senior School, the new Conservative government in 1979 heralded many changes but what I studied was unaffected. However, as a teacher, my entire career has been subject to the changes begun in that period. Before the 1980s, the curriculum was not a place for government interference. Because curriculum is a more tangible, controllable and assessable element than education generally, it is therefore not a surprise that it became an easy target for a government wanting to implement change.

With 20 years left to the new millennium, here was an opportunity to create something both beautiful and appropriate. Instead it became a mechanism to assert control from opposition LEAs and introduce a market place while retaining some centralised control of standards and a measure for comparison.

It is interesting that in 1985, as part of a consultation and review process, the HMI understood the curriculum to be:

not only the formal programme of lessons, but also the ‘informal’ programme of so-called extracurricular activities as well as all those features which produce the school’s ‘ethos’, such as the quality of relationships, the concern for equality of opportunity, the values exemplified in the way the school sets about its task and the way in which it is organised and managed.

However such notions of ethos and values and relationships were far too slippery for the National Curriculum within the Education Reform Act of 1988. If schools are to be held accountable and compared in a market place, then something more narrow and concrete is required. A standard examined curriculum with results published in league tables was the answer. There is no denying that schools must be accountable for their outcomes, and I am very much in favour of parental choice, but the difficulty arises when the purpose of the curriculum itself is blurred in this way. What then happens in the short terms of democratic cycles, and the even shorter ones of ministerial office, is that examination change becomes the easier target for change. Hence we have qualification reviews rather than taking a good look at the purpose of the curriculum. Unfortunately, qualification, curriculum and education become almost interchangeable terms, which they are not.

There was another grand opportunity when New Labour came to power in 1997. Dearing had already published his review of qualifications (1996) which led to the implementation of the AS level. Dearing at least attempted to offer the broader perspective of an educator understanding that neither society nor young people needed a one-size-fits- all model, suggesting much greater parity between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ qualifications. This was first ignored by the Conservatives and then by Labour. Better to reform what you know in short time than do anything really radical, especially if it involves asking questions that might provide answers you do not like and might not be implemented before the next election.

And then came Mr Gove, bemoaning a drop in standards, though to be fair, wanting to make a difference to the lives of children through education. The world was changing fast, the UK with it. Here was an opportunity to recast the curriculum for that future. What did we get? More qualification reform and the English Baccalaureate.

The ‘English Baccalaureate’ – a name that promises something more for our young people – unique to the UK but perhaps with a mission like the International Baccalaureate? ‘An international education to develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a globalising world.’ No, the English Baccalaureate is, to quote the government website, ‘a performance measure’. Opportunity lost again.

The curriculum could be something inspiring and useful and beautiful for young people in a new century. Sadly, it has become something of a beast – a beast created without a clear purpose – and that is why I remain deeply troubled. Instead of looking forward to a possible future, government policy is looking backward again.