Have you read the “Expert Panel Report”?

Have you read the “Expert Panel Report”?

You can see it at here.

This is the panel that is reviewing the English National Curriculum and the report sets out its finding so far.  It has far reaching implications for the school curriculum in England.

In many ways this seems to be a half finished report.  Many issues are left in the air (4.3, 4.19, 7.7 etc).  Suggestions are made, but much is left to be decided, and there is no ‘proof of concept’ of key ideas such as the new format of the Programmes of Study or the notion of a ‘three-tier curriculum’ (core, foundation and basic).

Suggestions are made about a possible new structure of the programmes of study, but these seem to point to something more akin to a syllabus than a national curriculum.  It would be a matter of great concern if the national curriculum was turned into a national syllabus.  Since its inception in 1989, the English National Curriculum has set out broad expectations of learning, and it has been left to schools to draw up schemes of work or syllabuses that provide the detail.  The former QCA provided some ‘schemes of work’, but these were for exemplification and guidance and were never statutory.  The National Strategies for literacy and numeracy were, in effect, syllabuses, but they were never statutory either.  A statutory national syllabus would be a very new departure for this country, and would greatly restrict the flexibility that schools now have.

The most difficult part of a national curriculum review is the re-writing of the Programmes of Study – yet this process does not seem to have been started, even in outline.  It is when the detail is attempted that the structural requirements become apparent, and that public debate becomes most intense.  So it is not clear from the report whether these proposals will give more flexibility to schools or less.  This will only become clear when the details of the new programmes of study are published

Despite its title (A Framework for the national curriculum) the report does not actually put forward a framework to show how the wide range aims set out in para 2.16 could be achieved in the context of the subjects, or how personal development is to be built into the curriculum.  Most countries have a real framework or structure that shows how the various parts of the curriculum fit together.  No such structure is suggested here.  What is the “Framework” referred to in the title?  If you have read either of the “Curriculum Design Handbooks” then you will know all about Frameworks – erhaps the Expert Panel should read them!

Much is made of reliance on evidence in the Report, yet in many cases it is hard to see how the conclusions came from the evidence quoted; for example, changes to the structure of the programmes of study in para 7.7, and the suggestion that primary schools should focus on fewer things in depth in para 8.10.

There is an underlying assumption that as a nation we are doing worse in international comparisons, yet we are actually doing better in the more subject-specific tests such as TIMMS.  It is true that we have fallen in comparison to some other countries in the more application-based PISA comparisons, but our scores have continued to improve each year the test is administered.  There is no mention of the fact that in a number of countries that are ahead of us in PISA (such as Finland and Singapore), the top 20% of pupils actually do worse than our top 20%.  These countries have a higher average because they have a narrower gap between highest and lowest attaining pupils.  The report contains no analysis of the relative performance of different groups of pupils within these tests, yet this is essential to a review of the curriculum, and essential to ensuring that any changes to the curriculum do not

Having said that, there are several things to welcome in the report; for example:

  • The belief that all children are capable of high attainment
  • The broad range of the aims (para 2.16)
  • The recognition that the curriculum should provide a “broad range of educational opportunities”
  • The emphasis on the breadth of the curriculum right through to KS4
  • The 2-year format adopted from Rose Review
  • The suggestion from the Rose Review that ICT should “permeate all subjects”
  • The importance given to oracy
  • jeopardise the education of the highest 20% in an effort to improve the lowest 20%.


There are also some specific concerns about parts of the report:

  • Despite the wide aims that include “understanding, skills and attitudes”, there are often references to focusing on “essential knowledge only”
  • The addition of the ‘basic’ category to ‘core’ and ‘foundation’ seems unnecessarily complicating.  Such a distinction is not the best way of ensuring relative balance.
  • ‘Downgrading’ Communication and Language to the ‘basic’ curriculum would seem a retrograde step.  If any change were made, then it would seem that C&L should be in the core and those elements of English that are not about communication and language should in the foundation.  It is not clear what distinction is being made here, or what elements of English remain after language and communication are taken out.
  • The proposed changes to the Key Stage structure seem both unnecessary and complicating.  At the moment, schools are free to spend two or three years on GCSE as they choose, so the proposal seems to be taking away flexibility from schools.
  • The suggestion that primary schools should focus on “fewer things in depth” may have the effect of narrowing the curriculum.  We need to see the details to be sure of this.  The suggestion seems to fly in the face of all the evidence adduced by the report that a broad curriculum promotes higher standards.  “Fewer things in depth” does not seem to follow from the line of argument. There is also a question about why this applies only primary schools.
  • Moving away from the Level Descriptions may be fine – but it is not clear what is being suggested in their place, and there seems to be a lack of appreciation of how the levels can be used to structure learning.
  • There seems to be a reliance on the writings of Hirsch and Black, and it would have been good to see a wider range of thinkers being quoted.


Specific references for these points

1)       Para 2.16   It is good to see the wide list of aims.   The recognition that the curriculum should develop “understanding, skills and attitudes” as well as ‘knowledge’ is welcome.

2)       In the same para, it is good to see the emphasis on “opportunities for participation in  a broad range of educational experiences”

3)       Para 3.2 .  The distinction between the national entitlement and the schools’ contribution is interesting.   It would be have been helpful to see the Panel’s thoughts on relative proportions.

4)       3.14.  The notion of some subjects being specified in greater detail than others is an interesting one.  The danger is that they will be seen as much more important and will swamp the others.

5)       4.6.   Despite setting wide aims in para 2.16,  the report talks of focusing “curriculum subjects on essential knowledge only”.  What happened to “understanding, skills and attitudes”?

6)       4.8.  Suggesting that ICT should “permeate all NC subjects” is welcome.  The status of D&T is interesting, but needs further detail to clarify what is being proposed.

7)       4.8  The report is right that Citizenship is, strictly speaking, not a subject.  However is it a very important part of a child’s education.  Perhaps this is the best illustration that a subject focus is not the best way to construct a national curriculum.

8)       4.3   A decision needs to be made, either nationally or by individual schools, as to when children should start learning a foreign language.  It might be thought that an ‘expert panel’ would have the expertise to make a recommendation.  The report seems to duck the issue.

9)       4.16   We would welcome the emphasis on breadth at KS4 – especially on the Arts (para 4.22)

10)   4.19  It seems odd that the report has not thought through the implications of broadening KS4.  As always, the devil will be in the detail and it is not until this is seen that the implication will be clear.  One might have thought that it was the job of the expert panel to do this sort of thinking.

11)   5.5   It is good to see that the panel is following the 2 year format of Rose Curriculum for the Primary Stage, although Rose actually did away with Key Stages altogether.  There seems to be little point in retaining them in the 2-year structure, and no point at all in creating formal Upper and Lower KS3.

12)   5.13   There seems to be little point in changing years of KS3 & 4.  This should be left up to schools.  As the Report itself says, schools are already free to start GCSE courses when they want.

13)   5.9  The emphasis on a broad programme in KS4 is good.

14)   5.13  The notion of GCSE courses that “combine …clusters of subjects” is an interesting one.

15)   6.11  As in (11) It is good to see the 2-year Rose format being adopted, and the year on year approach being avoided.  But why is Primary Maths to be different?

16)   7.7 – 7.9   This is an interesting notion (although very reliant on Paul Black’s suggestion).  However, there is no evidence that it will work (in fact the report says, “if this proposal is viable..”)   Is it not the job of an Expert Panel to check its viability?  Where’s the proof of concept?

17)   8.1 – 8.5.   We welcome the belief that all children are capable of high attainment.  The questioning of generic levels is also welcomed (they were off-limits in previous reviews).  The worry is what is going to replace them.  There is no specific, worked out, proposal here.

The report also ignores the way in which levels can be used to structure learning within units of study.

18)   8.10 There is an odd leap from “there are several (countries) that appear to focus on fewer things in depth”  (appear to?  Doesn’t the Expert Panel know?) to “we believe this approach is likely to be instrumental in securing higher standards”.  (Only likely?)   It seems that a wholesale change is being proposed on the basis of “several” countries that “appear” to do something that is “likely” to be instrumental in securing higher standards”.   This is a worrying section and seems to be “likely” to narrow the curriculum, which seems contrary to the broad thrust elsewhere.  It also flies in the face of all the other evidence quoted in the Report that a broad curriculum promotes higher standards.

19)   8.15   There seems to be nothing “indicated above” to suggest that this narrower focus only applies to the Primary curriculum.  There is a worrying distinction being drawn here.

20)   9.2  The emphasis on oracy is welcome

21)   9.10  The splitting of Communication and Language from English is interesting.  This was done in the Rose curriculum – but for what seem very different reasons.  Rose sought to emphasise the importance of language and communication and put it at the heart of the curriculum.  It is not entirely clear what the Panel has in mind here, but they seem to be saying that studying English as a subject is really important, but learning to use language and communicate is not so important.  The reason why English is a core subject is because this is where you learn to use language and communicate.  Take that out of English and you are left with literature which would fit more appropriate with the other Arts and no longer be a core subject.  It would be a serious worry to ‘downgrade’ language and communication to the basic curriculum and leave English as a core subject.  If anything, it should be the other way round.

Dr Brian Male

Dec 2011

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