What is a broad and balanced curriculum?

Historically, the curriculum schools have taught hasn’t really mattered that much. Then, when the National Curriculum was introduced in the late 1980s, committees of experts had made all the decisions for us. As more and more schools have academised and won free of the strictures of  the National Curriculum, you might have expected a flowering of thought about how best to structure and select what children should be taught, but far more effort has been expended on the how of education. This may, in part, be due to Ofsted’s long preoccupation with judging the quality of teaching and learning provided by schools.

This is, happily I think, set to change. New chief inspector, Amanda Spielman has said that, “One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.” Needless to say, with Ofsted’s increasing focus on the curriculum, schools will soon, if they haven’t already, be panicking about precisely what inspectors hope to see.

No doubt various shysters will spring into action, promising to instantly magic a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum out of fetid air, but it might first be worth asking what might be meant by this term. Firstly, the curriculum is much more than the timetable. Clearly what subjects a secondary school offers and how much time is allocated to each will have a bearing on children’s studies, but it does not determine what teachers will teach. We should also be clear that an exam board specification is not a curriculum. Here’s why:

The domain is everything it’s possible to know about a subject. For obvious reasons, exam boards pick aspects of this domain on which their courses will focus. This necessarily narrows the curriculum and, to some extent, GCSE and A Level specifications will exert an inevitable influence over curriculum decisions. The examination then narrows the focus further to what is possible for a pupil to demonstrate in about 2 hours. A good examination will carefully sample as widely as possible from what’s covered by the specification, but exam boards have, in an effort to paint themselves as being as easy for pupils to do well in as they possibly can, gone to enormous efforts to give schools as narrow a range of possibilities on which to focus in classrooms. This is a rational approach to what are perceived to be the levers of accountability, but it creates the perverse incentive for schools to squeeze the curriculum into 5 years worth of exam practice. No one could reasonably argue that this could ever represent a broad and balanced curriculum.

As Spielman notes, “I have seen GCSE assessment objectives tracking back into Year 7, and SAT practice papers starting in Year 4. And I’ve seen lessons where everything is about the exam and where teaching the mark schemes has a bigger place than teaching history.” Whilst this might, arguably, be a sensible approach to maximise pupils’ performance in national exams, it’s surely no one’s idea of a desirable model of public education.

Here are a few things which do not represent a broad and balanced curriculum:

  • Class time on SATs practice papers before Christmas in Year 6
  • Neglecting those areas of the Key Stage 2 curriculum that are not examined to concentrate solely on those areas that are
  • Starting GCSEs in Year 9 (or earlier)
  • Squeezing out arts subjects in Key Stage 4 to allow for ever greater English and maths allocations
  • Using GCSE specifications as a model for designing the Key Stage 3 curriculum

Spielman offers some further examples:

…if you are leading a school that enters 90% of young people for the European Computer Driving Licence – a qualification that can take only 2 days to study for – then you must ask yourself whether you care more about the school’s interests than about making the most of pupils’ limited time at school. If you don’t encourage EAL (English as an additional language) students to take a taught language at GCSE because they can tick that box with a home language GCSE instead, then you are limiting their education. Again, if you are putting more resources into providing exam scribes than in teaching your strugglers to read and write, or scrapping most of your curriculum through Year 6 to focus just on English and maths. If you are doing any of those things then you are probably doing most of your students a disservice.

If a school does any of these things it could be accused of “putting the interests of schools ahead of the interests of the children in them.”

You could respond to this accusation by pointing out that schools are disproportionately judged on their pupils’ exam success and that ignoring this reality is a short cut to the dole queue. What I want to argue is that while it might feel scary to widen your curriculum offer and spend less curriculum time on exam preparation, this is, counter-intuitively, probably the best way to ensure students do well in exams. My advice is to use the precious time in Key Stage 3 to expose children to those areas of your subject’s domain that are not covered by GCSE specifications. Pupils are unable to think about anything which they do not know. As Michael Fordham argues here, if knowledge is over emphasised, then future possibilities are opened up. Teaching pupils more than they will ever need to know for an examination expands the probability that they will know enough to do well. Teaching them just enough to do well reduces the likelihood that they’ll know enough. Fordham also argues that while breadth is a legitimate aim for a curriculum, balance probably isn’t. With this in mind, I suggest there are three ideas to which we should aspire. A curriculum should be

  1. Broad (How much of the domain will pupils experience?)
  2. Culturally rich (Does the selected content conform to shared cultural agreements of what is considered valuable to know?)
  3. Powerful (Does the selected content allow pupils to think in new and unexpected ways?)

Here are some questions to ask yourself about the curriculum your school or subject offers:

  • If your school is not bound by the National Curriculum, is your alternative at least as good?
  • Are pupils taught content some of them might reasonably be expected to encounter in other contexts, or is school the only place they’re likely to encounter it?
  • Does your curriculum enable pupils to offer informed critique of establishment views of what is considered culturally valuable?
  • Is there something you have not included in your curriculum that you consider important or interesting? Is there anything you could replace to make sure you’re teaching what you value?
  • Is the curriculum you’re offering the one you’d want your own children to experience?

5 Responses to What is a broad and balanced curriculum?

  1. Hirsch makes a convincing case in his book ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ for the importance of a prescriptive knowledge-rich curriculum from primary through secondary school. It is something countries doing well in international educational benchmarks have and something that countries doing poorly lack. It makes so much sense to have a common curriculum – shared resources, shared expertise on how to teach topics and transfer-ability between schools. Here in New Zealand only maths has managed to keep specific knowledge listed in the curriculum, the rest have vague statements giving huge latitude to teachers to choose topics and subject content until students reach secondary school when national exam specifications start to make their presence felt.

    • bocks1 says:

      I’ve yet to meet a teacher that does not believe knowledge matters but that does not make Hirsch correct in the plugging of knowledge rich (or, as some would interpret his work, knowledge only). A balanced curriculum should demonstrate exactly that to which it aspires … balance. Knowledge, skills, mastery, heutogogy, critical thinking, amongst other themes.

      • Michael Pye says:

        Isn’t that a point about structure. As I understand Hirsch’s approach is to emphasis knowledge in planning, allowing critical thinking and problem solving skills (he may not use that term) to naturally emerge from the mastery of content and the interplay between large numbers of students having a shared cultural base. Heutogogy and meta-cognition would then hopefully emerge with little dedicated time being set aside to develop them.

      • David Didau says:

        All of those things are knowledge. There is nothing else as I explained here http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/understanding-occams-razor/

  2. craigwestby says:

    ‘What I want to argue is that while it might feel scary to widen your curriculum offer and spend less curriculum time on exam preparation, this is, counter-intuitively, probably the best way to ensure students do well in exams.’

    Well said, David. We have been rewriting our curriculum (incorporating interleaving & retrieval/practice) and placing more emphasis on broadening knowledge and already we are seeing children’s reading understanding improve, as well as more general enthusiasm about our world.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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