Teaching, learning and national curricula

Structured national curricula provide numerous helpful features in support of children's learning. For example:

Objectives for each stage of children's education are clearly stated and provide a helpful clarification of what both children and teachers are expected to do. Research has consistently shown that the lack of clarity in teaching and learning objectives is a significant inhibitor of pupil progress.

Curriculum breadth and balance can be considered ‘as a whole', rather than simply in terms of the relationship between particular curriculum subjects.

Curriculum progression and continuity can be planned and monitored both from class to class and on transfer between schools.

Training and professional development programmes for teachers can be tailored to known national curriculum needs.

Resources for the official series of teaching and learning programmes can be developed on a large scale and in an organized, cost‑effective way.

Parents have the opportunity to know and understand what is being taught and may be able to support their children more effectively.

However, there is a dilemma for highly structured national curricula that can perhaps be encapsulated as follows. How can a specified curriculum, at one and the same time, address national concerns, set out a coherent national framework for content and progression and yet remain flexible enough to draw on the interests, experiences, approaches to learning and physical and intellectual capabilities of individual children? Will this facilitate inclusion, or is there a risk that some pupils will feel excluded by the specified content? How, also, does innovation occur? The truth, of course, is that no national curriculum can meet all these objectives. There has to be a trade‑off.            

Legislation in England since the late 1980s produced a tight specification of the curriculum in terms of both content and structure. Areas of study to be ‘delivered' and assessed were specified in the programmes of study and attainment targets, with ‘National Strategies’ for literacy and numeracy to prescribe pedagogy. To a large extent then, the curriculum for schools was placed in a linear form within each core subject – and this was backed up by formal assessment procedures.               

There are several disadvantages in this approach. First, psychologists such as Bruner (1977) suggest that children can learn most things at most ages if they are taught in an appropriate and meaningful way. Some children thus experience and become interested in things which the National Curriculum does not anticipate – and teachers may feel constrained in following up those interests. Perhaps indeed, their learning is driven by developmental considerations (e.g. Katz 1998; Pollard et al., 2000) which subject‑based national curricula often lack the flexibility to accommodate. Second, we now know that children do not often learn in a simple, linear way, with a step‑by‑step progression, as some behaviourist psychology might have had us believe. Other learning theorists, influenced by Vygotsky suggest that children learn in movements of understanding when they are able to ‘make sense' of some experience, particularly when they have an imaginative insight or are supported by more experienced or knowledgeable teachers, parents or peers (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988).  This is the rationale for the ‘personalisation’ agenda – to respond more effectively to individual need.               

Nor do subject specialists affirm the existence of a logical and conceptual sequence of national curriculum knowledge. Indeed, their criticisms are combined with those of psychologists and applied even in the case of those subjects which are usually taken to embody progressive logic, such as mathematics (Brown, 1989; Ernest, 1991; Noss, Goldstein and Hoyles, 1989). Ernest's work makes the point particularly clearly. He writes:

One of the greatest dangers in stipulating a statutory curriculum in mathematics at (several) levels of attainment is that it becomes a barrier which may deny a youngster access to higher concepts and skills when he or she is ready for them . . . The major flaw in this scheme (is) the mistaken assumption that children's learning in mathematics follows a fixed hierarchical pattern . . . This is nonsense. (Ernest, 1991, p. 50)

The over‑riding message is perhaps that learning is not always predictable or linear, and any curriculum that diminishes the opportunity for teachers to respond to pupil needs is less likely to promote meaningful learning. Could therefore, a crammed core curriculum actually inhibit learning? Some research certainly suggests that pupils' learning disposition and engagement may be undermined by over prescription (Claxton, 1999; Pollard et al., 2000). There is thus a risk then that tightly specified national curricula, backed by high‑stakes assessment procedures, could actually produce exclusion, with disengaged and disaffected children simply withdrawing in their minds and/or bodies.                

At the classroom level, talking with pupils goes a long way in resolving this dilemma. Children are perfectly capable of accepting that there is nationally expected curriculum, but will welcome teacher consideration of how it should be addressed and augmented to meet their specific needs and circumstances.  Indeed, a degree of pupil participation and ‘voice’ is seen as important contribution to learner engagement. Selley (1999) outlines how such ideas fit within a framework of ‘constructivist' teaching. Here, teachers ‘work collaboratively with the children so that the outcome is not only testable knowledge but mental growth, stability and power'.                 

The publication in 2003 of ‘Excellence and Enjoyment: A Strategy for Primary Schools' (DfES) signalled a change in the tone and substance of advice from central government in England at that time. In particular, there was a withdrawal from the belief that a tight subject‑based curriculum is the desirable model for learning in primary schools. Indeed, the Secretary of State's Foreword declared both that: ‘excellent teaching gives children the life‑chances they deserve' and that ‘enjoyment is the birth-right of every child'. ‘Excellence and Enjoyment' invited schools to cultivate a ‘distinctive character' in the new context in which ‘teachers have much more freedom . . . to design the timetable and decide what and how to teach'. The aspiration to make learning more vivid, real and enjoyable permeates the thinking behind the strategy, and recent workforce reform initiatives were seen as beginning to offer schools more flexibility for curriculum innovation.

The introduction of Every Child Matters (ECM) also made an enormous impact in the mid-noughties. Initiated following the Children’s Act (2004), the ECM Agenda was intended to progress the Government's aim for every child, whatever their background or their circumstances, to have the support they need to:

The legislation required organisations involved with providing services to children, from hospitals and schools to police and voluntary groups, to collaborate in new ways, sharing information and working together, to protect children and young people from harm and help them achieve their potential in life. Children and young people were to have far more say about issues that affect them as individuals and collectively.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have marked out parallel positions on these issues, with greater integration of public services for children and flexibility in curricular requirements.  In England too, the Gilbert Report (2020 Vision, DfES, 2007), aspired to ‘design a new school experience’.  Key elements were identified as personalisation, assessment for learning, learning how to learn, pupil voice and engaging parents and carers in their children’s education.  Underpinning all this was a commitment to a more holistic and meaningful curriculum and authentic learning for life. 

This trend towards more responsive and flexible national curricula appeared likely to continue in England when the Coalition government come to power in May 2010.  Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, published a White Paper on ‘The Importance of Teaching’ and emphasised the need to increase teacher and school autonomy.  A review of the National Curriculum was instigated, with Andrew Pollard and Mary James (from the Reflective Teaching team) as members of its Expert Panel.  After considerable debate within the Department for Education, a report was produced.  However, when the Secretary of State finally announced his intentions, progression in the core curriculum was to be more tightly specified and constrained than ever. Essential core subject knowledge was to be prescribed, despite the constraints which that would place on teachers in adapting the curriculum to meet their pupils’ learning needs.  Pollard blogged and issued a press release to make his concerns public, and James posted their earlier correspondence with the Secretary of State onto the website of the British Educational Research Association. At this point, there was very considerable press coverage.

Links to these documents are:






This last episode is an example of a research-based contribution to public policy undertaken in good faith but which ended unhappily.  As the historical record shows, there was widespread opposition by the teaching profession and many others to the national curriculum proposed by the Department for Education.  It was, however, introduced from September 2014.