Materials and momentum: why the Coalition has been so focussed on curriculum and assessment changes

June 27, 2014

On Friday 21st June I spoke as part of a panel at the prestigious Wellington Festival of Education. The title of our panel was “Progressively Worse? Have standards in teaching and learning declined since the 1960s?” I was on a very large panel* with a few people more expert than me on this topic – including two published authors on this topic. So I focussed my remarks on what policymakers have hitherto thought about curriculum and assessment matters and whether that had led to a ‘progressive’ dominance over these issues, which in turn was responsible, according to others, for the (at best) stagnation of cognitive performance over the last 40 years.

A summary of my remarks is below.

I have worked in and around Whitehall on education policy for 8 of the last 10 years (and 2 in a private company doing education outsourcing). And in that time I have dealt with almost every issue in education – often more than once – that occupied minds of the Chancellor, the Prime Minister, the Secretaries of State for Education and for Business Innovation and Skills, and Special Advisers covering all of these areas. To give you a sense of variety, I distinctly recall doing extensive work on:


  • Pupil premium and school funding
  • The school accountability system
  • Teacher quality
  • Extended schools
  • Personalisation
  • Pay and performance for teachers
  • School buildings
  • Skill – several times
  • HE tuition fees
  • Childcare quality
  • Academies
  • The size and composition of the DfE budget and of the BIS budget

There are two things missing from that list – curriculum, and assessment. So why did I never become engaged in those? I think there were two reasons. Firstly, there was a feeling that these were essentially technical questions – how children are assessed, and what children learn in (e.g.) history should be decided by experts, and handed down on tablets of stone to schools – it didn’t concern civil servants or policymakers other than those narrowly involved in staffing such reviews. And secondly, questions of how children are taught, about what, on a day to day basis are questions for Headteachers and their staff – as opposed to policymakers.

So is this an issue? Isn’t this really what school autonomy should be about – politicians steering clear of managing what goes on in classrooms on a daily basis, and focussing on changes they can and should have an influence on? After all, I am sure there are lots of areas of education policy which would be relieved to have this type of lack of oversight / interference / help (delete as applicable!)
To answer that, I want to talk briefly about the different approach this government has taken – driven very much by this belief in declining standards that is the title of this seminar – and discuss the structures and implementation around change and what this means for the future.

One of the critiques of this govt is that it has been both centralising and autonomous at the same time. Curriculum is one of those areas, as is assessment. Phonics, for example, is one of the rare input measures specified in Academy funding agreements. And what is the policy reason behind this? It isn’t just that they think the assessment system, and curriculum needed change. It’s that they believe that without direct and sustained government intervention, these are the tools by which progressivism and low expectations collide in driving mediocre education performance.

Let’s unpack this a little bit more, and use an analogy to help explain what I mean. Consider the world of education as a giant petri dish, in which millions of simple organisms float round – teachers, children, universities, teacher trainers, publishers, businesses etc – the base materials from which things evolve. The ‘hands off’ argument says that more complex organisms in the petri dish should evolve naturally; the base ingredients will cluster and grow, the strongest will survive (by which I mean in this analogy schools that pass the accountability tests) and an ecosystem will evolve. Government interference in that natural evolution is both philosophically wrong and practically complex, and hence counterproductive.

The counter argument – and one which this government holds – is that the organisms in our giant petri dish are not evolving in a values free way. And neither, importantly, are they starting from a large number of independent, single celled base ingredients, but are evolving from already formed and quite mature organisms, which have gathered up and formed in a very specific way. In other words, making changes to the way in which the ecosystem evolves needs to take account of where it starts from. In educative terms, in other words, the dominance of one viewpoint held by so many of the lodestones of the education system – individual schools, LAs, universities and ITT – means that a leave alone strategy will merely mean one a continuation of this viewpoint and approach.

The push back against this hitherto dominant tradition – provided by people like Daisy – is welcome. But let’s not fool ourselves about the size of this movement. The recent event to celebrate the launch of Daisy’s book was fascinating. On the one hand, such an event – that included senior representatives from DfE, from Ofsted, from Ofqual, from Academy chains, from think tanks, from universities, and from schools – a few years previously would have literally been in someone’s living room. Rob Peal said to me at the event how people in those early days – and this is when I freely admit I was blithely unaware of it – were passing round copies of Hirsch like samizdat. But on the other hand, this event was definitely (mostly) a gathering of believers. It was a church service, not a sales pitch.

So even if we accept something of a change in belief at the top of the system, the evolutionary activity in our petri dish still needs further work, it needs some form of greater external stimulus to counteract the dominant evolution to date. Government needs to provide materials (the new curriculum content and assessment metrics), but also momentum to create new centres of power.

What might some of these centres of power be? They are unlikely to be individual teachers. Teachers will be the recipients of much of these materials but in reality many of them will be unlikely to generate the momentum able to challenge both established power structures in schools, and other practical difficulties in significantly changing curricular and assessment course (the cost of buying new resources, time taken to completely rewrite curriculum and assessment models). Instead, centres of power might be:

  • Academy chains, particularly those doing School Direct and growing their own teachers and leaders
  • Publishers of textbooks and other curricular materials and assessment models (e.g. for dealing with life after levels)
  • Independent third party institutes and seats of learning – something like the Hirsch Core Knowledge Foundation in the US (which also provides materials). There is almost no equivalent in the UK
  • Maybe some academics who can provide an intellectual and evidence based argument for this movement, in the way Daniel Willingham has
  • Maybe think tanks – but not really, given their specific remit around Westminster for the most part rather than directly to schools and the sector

In other words, these new centres of power are institutions that can operate at scale to influence practitioners and provide materials and momentum and leadership for this change. And both are important. Materials without momentum leads to risk of further inertia, either because there is lack of enthusiasm for the change, or practical examples like costs of resources etc I mentioned before. That inertia is is why almost all English teachers teach Of Mice and Men, and all primary teachers cover the Great Fire of London in Y2.

So when people like Dominic Cummings argue that this should be the last ever national curriculum, to prevent anyone else tinkering with it – and make no mistake, the recent spat over British values being only the latest example of a continual desire to tinker – I think he is slightly naïve. He is right in his desire to see it being out of control of people who (in his view) would amend it for the worse. But such people could legitimately say that the current government seized control of it for their ends, and so could they. Indeed, my thesis is that it is because the curriculum and assessment systems are so values driven, and because they represent a way of driving change on a daily basis, it is right for the government to maintain a closer control over its delivery. Even if any one government accepts that it should not change the core content, it should have a role to provide momentum, to support new centres of power coming up, to ensure supplies and resources are behind this change: all of this is needed to prevent ongoing inertia and reversion to the mean.

*A Twitter all star panel – Sam Freedman, John Blake, Andrew Old, Daisy Christodoulou, Rob Peal, Geoff Mulgan, and myself. As an aside, given both the size of the panel and its (significant) agreement on large chunks of areas, it may have created for a better session had a couple of us swapped with, for example, Fiona Millar, who led a session following ours alongside Melissa Benn on whether the market was a jolly terrible thing in education, to which both speakers and large chunks of the audience (though not me) agreed it was.

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