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The politics of curriculum in schools

Terry Wrigley 16/4/14

Policy paper

This paper provides a review of curriculum change under successive governments, highlighting the damage caused by intensive ministerial control and the impact of political ideologies of neoliberal functionalism and neoconservative nostalgia. Under New Labour, the impact of neoliberalism involved restricting educational aims to economic competitiveness, to the neglect of other curricular purposes such as personal growth and democratic citizenship. Coalition policies have struggled to reconcile this drive with nostalgia for traditional versions of academic achievement.

The paper begins by considering how the conditions under which mass education was established in Britain in the late Victorian age continue to affect current practice, including the reflection of class division in the divide between public and private schools.

It draws on examples from the decades before Thatcherism to show how the emergence of a broader view of education occurred, though it was often obscured by politicians’ and media caricatures of progressive education. This section includes a summary of the forms of support once provided by local education authorities and national agencies for curriculum and professional development.

International examples are provided to illustrate how English schools are being overtaken by systems which rely on improving teacher qualifications and professional collaboration, rather than surveillance and standardisation. This includes an outline of how Finland has reached excellent standards of education without cramming young children or demoralising teachers.

The drive to accelerate the formal learning of very young children, in nurseries and early primary, is seen as counterproductive since it overreaches child development, neglects learning through play, and replaces creative and engaged activity with rote learning and memorisation. The serious weaknesses of the new National Curriculum for primary schools are exposed.

Finally, the paper looks to the future by outlining some general principles for the renewal and enrichment of the English school curriculum. It argues that policymakers should avoid shifting between a narrow functionalism and the restoration of mythical past glories in order to prepare young people for the scientific and ethical challenges of a complex and changing world. This will involve an emphasis on cognitive development and problem solving, critical literacy, creativity, and communication for a range of purposes and in different media. It will improve achievement for all by reducing teaching to the test and introducing more learning related to real situations and culminating in the satisfaction of a product, presentation or performance.

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