A national curriculum should help children flourish

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19 December 2014 by ATL
A school curriculum is not an end in itself, but a vehicle to realise further purposes. You would think, therefore, that those who devise a national curriculum would start by laying out in some detail what its aims should be.

We cannot speak for the curriculum makers of Kazakhstan or Uruguay, but those in England and Wales have never seen this as a priority. Instead, they seem to have assumed from the start that the curriculum should be a boxed set of mainly traditional school subjects.

Our approach is different. It starts from the question, what should schools be for? It’s not controversial that schools should help students flourish, both personally and, as morally sensitive people, respectful of their relationships with others. This generates further, embedded, aims.

A flourishing life has a lot to do with wholehearted and successful engagement in self-chosen worthwhile activities and relationships. Moral responsiveness is found not only in face-to-face encounters, but also in the realms of work and of citizenship, national and global.

In An Aims-Based Curriculum, we drill down into the specific aims implicit in those ideas mentioned above. We suggest, for instance, that schools should open up a wide range of valuable activities, from gardening through civil engineering to reading poetry, from which students choose those that suit them best. This sometimes requires compulsory courses, and sometimes taster courses tied to optional activities. What schools should do is provide students with the basics and then give them opportunities in their learning to develop their potential. This is hardly a radical proposal but too often students trudge from lesson to lesson without their having had much opportunity to choose what to study.

But this is one example. Other pathways lead towards relationship education, citizenship, and an education for work - stressing the whole gamut of occupations, from barista to barrister. To make sense of their social world, learners also need a background understanding of its main contours and of how it has come to be what it is. They require a similar understanding of the natural world. Every aim mentioned so far depends on basic literacy and numeracy.

We have not said much about conventional school subjects. This is because realising the aims described can involve all kinds of vehicles, of which the discrete subject is only one. It is up to individual schools to work out whether cooperative projects, whole school processes, community involvement or separate subjects best suit particular circumstances – and for how long. We reject the conventional expectation that history is to be taught for nine years, maths for eleven, and so on.

These and other details are up to schools. A good national curriculum will not oppress them with specifics, but spell out and justify what the structure of aims should be. To prevent ministerial meddling, responsibility for the national curriculum should pass to a new and independent curriculum commission.

Michael J Reiss is Professor of Science Education at UCL Institute of Education (IoE). John White is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at IoE.

The aims-based curriculum is one of the approaches featured on our curriculum case-study website, A Curriculum That Counts. Read about it there or look at our case study on The Wroxham School, which uses an aims-based approach. 

By Michael J Reiss and John White.

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