Gove’s new exams should not replace the national curriculum

By Jonathan Clifton

| 02 July 2012

After a week of speculation and leaks, last Friday’s TES provided a clearer picture of how Michael Gove proposes to reform the national curriculum and exam system. It appears the national curriculum will be abolished for every subject except maths, science and English, though even the curriculum in these subjects will be so short as to give teachers ‘almost total freedom’ over what is taught.

This is partly a device to avoid the need for legislation (abolishing the curriculum altogether would require a bill to go through parliament – something Gove might struggle to win given opposition from Liberal Democrats and influential Conservative MPs to the idea). It also reflects the fact that half of secondary schools already have substantial freedom over the curriculum by virtue of being academies. But the main reason to abolish the curriculum is to fit with his wider plan to reform the exam system.

Gove proposes to have single exam boards offering more rigorous O-Level qualifications in the core subjects, and to be much stricter over the content of exams in other subjects. In essence, these exams will set the syllabus for secondary study from at least the end of Key Stage 3 onwards – creating a new national curriculum by default. If Gove has set the content of exams, then he doesn’t need to set the content of the curriculum since teachers will tailor their teaching to whatever is in the exam.

This gets the relationship between curriculum and assessment the wrong way around. The purpose of having a national curriculum is to set out in a holistic way, following open public debate, those things that all children in this country should be entitled to learn. Once those things have been agreed, you can then design an exam system to assess whether pupils have learnt them. To hand this power to a single exam board in each subject gives too much power to a narrowly focused group and undercuts the need to take a holistic view of every child’s educational entitlement. The content of our children’s education should be an important political and strategic national choice, not the knock-on effect of an exam script.

Proponents of Gove’s ideas have pointed to two things to make their case: the fact Sweden has a single exam board and that in the past English exams were more rigorous. It is no use pointing to Sweden for inspiration on this. It recently legislated for a new national curriculum, with mandatory tests in years 3, 6 and 9. Assessment by a single exam franchisee is determined by the curriculum, not the other way round.

Neither is it helpful to point to a ‘golden age’ of education in England. By the 1980s, the lack of a national curriculum in England was causing children to receive a highly variable education depending on where they lived, with weak public scrutiny of what was being taught. The national curriculum was actually introduced in 1988 by the influential Conservative minister Kenneth Baker, in response to a perception that education had become a ‘secret garden’ run by unaccountable educational professionals.

The government should be engaged in a more constructive process of reforming the content of the curriculum, not abolishing it. We could learn from Australia, which recently undertook a holistic reform of their curriculum by asking what knowledge and skills an Australian citizen in the 21st century needs to be successful. IPPR has argued for a proper use of international benchmarking in our school system, to ensure we keep track with our competitors.

It may also be necessary to reform our exam system to tackle problems of underachievement and grade inflation. But this process should happen alongside the development of a national curriculum – not replace it. We should decide what we want our children to learn, and then design an exam to test it. To let the exam dictate the curriculum is the wrong way round.

Jonathan Clifton is a research fellow at IPPR. Follow him on twitter @jp_clifton 

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