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 the blogs, ‘Running with a purpose’ and ‘The curriculum beast

A curriculum should be inspiring and useful and beautiful for young people in a new century. Since the 1980s it has become something of a beast. Created with a muddled purpose to introduce a market place and ensure some central control, its unleashing has meant that purposes secondary to the education of young people are dominant and are undermining what a curriculum should offer our children and our society.

At the expense of being accused of reductionism, there appear to me to two starting points for the development of curriculum policy. We could start with a question about the purpose of the curriculum and develop policy outward from the answers. Or we could start with an idea of a desired end point of a curriculum and work backwards.The latter is easier to determine and more measurable in outcome and this could be one reason this method predominates. Added to which, an end goal is easier to set if the context is narrowed. Within an educational context, the natural place to look for that end is the university.

The trouble is that the end point for the university sector is not necessarily the same for society and, I would argue, a university is more interested in starting from a purpose question and working outwards. Universities are first and foremost research institutions and, aside from some vocational courses, one core aim is to produce the next generation of researchers; educating for society is clearly a reason for their existence but it is not the reason. Therefore, if the end point within an educational context is a curriculum which provides the next generation of researchers, then our curriculum will be designed to develop those skills required for research academics.

There is, of course, considerable overlap between the skills required for an academic and those for many of the professions that society has historically valued: lawyers, doctors and other medical practitioners, foreign and civil service, teachers, journalists and politicians. These professions hold power and influence or the means of creating personal wealth, and partly through relative scarcity enhanced by qualifications that form a barrier to entry. Moreover, research demonstrates that those with university degrees do earn more than those without. It is no surprise that increasing university entry was a target for governments interested in social mobility.

If we add into the mix the increasingly high grades required for entry to university and high-stakes league tables then the consequences for schools are obvious. Teachers and schools will inevitably prioritise those areas for which they are most accountable and they will focus their provision on securing those high grades. Those schools that are able to will select children who are most likely to attain them; and entrance to universities and the professions will come from those schools who are most successful at getting the grades, potentially restricting social mobility.

Since academic performance is now the major priority for schools, it is in their interest to become expert in teaching to the test. Added to this, successive governments have endeavoured to make assessment more scientific, more transparent and to make standards comparable between subjects. On the surface, this would seem a laudable intention but it has led to assessment being a series of hoop-jumping exercises that become easier for teachers to predict. Ultimately, knowledge of how to pass an exam can be more important than subject knowledge.

Students and parents are quite happy to buy into such a rationale, especially if they think they are more likely to get the grades they need with this approach. And, of course, for the most selective schools, this principle for success begins at an early age as parental anxiety is fed and hundreds of children are tutored for entrance examinations. The more selective a school is on academic ability, the more likely it is to secure strong examination results from its students. If a narrow set of learning skills is tested in public examinations, then it is sensible for the same skills to be tested as a means to gain access to a school.

Teaching those for whom this academic skillset is less developed is a more uncertain business. Therefore it is no surprise that the most selective schools perform best. These are usually independent, grammar or comprehensive schools in wealthier areas where house prices are such that only the most successful professional classes can afford them. A virtuous cycle is created for these schools where aspiration and success feeds future aspiration and success. Is it any surprise that those at the most selective schools in the country take-up a disproportionate number of places at university relative to the number of applications; or indeed that they dominate the professions?

We end up with a double irony that one central marker for success in a meritocracy, the university, could actually be restricting social mobility; and that the very skills a university demands are being undermined by the methods used to assess the standards required. This is not the fault of the university. It is a consistent failure of government to consider what the purpose of a curriculum should be or a preparedness to re-shape it.