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 Education for all (home)

Section 6. Learning and Curriculum

The curriculum specifies that which is to be learned.  It must therefore reflect and embody the educational aims and values which are endorsed by our society and entrusted to teachers to teach. 

Key points

  • The lack of continuity from early years into adult education needs to be addressed within a broad curriculum framework.
  • That framework is often too shaped by a large number of specific targets to be attained.
  • Within that framework, teachers should be curriculum creators, not curriculum deliverers.

 From learning to curriculum

Learning, in formal settings, has to be achieved through the curriculum and it is vital that the curriculum facilitates learning, rather than constrains it. The different Reviews emphasised the desirability of lifelong learning, supported by curriculum progression. There is a particular need to improve curriculum continuity at the key transition points – that is, how the learning of each stage might provide the basis of learning at subsequent stages. For example, the transition

  • from primary to secondary is seen as a key problem by the Primary Review (p.371/2).
  • at 14 into different pathways and at 16 into different courses and providers (e.g. FE Colleges) is seen as a key problem by the Nuffield Review (NR p.101,117,121).
  • at 18: evidence was presented to the Nuffield Review of the poor preparation of young people for the kind of learning which would be expected of them in higher education – yet another problem of curriculum continuity NR p.156-167).

One reason why these reports should be seen together lies in IFLL’s (p.4) advocacy of a ‘curriculum offer’ for the learning in later life, a ‘citizens curriculum’ – with a four stage model of continuity: up to 25, 25-50, 50-75, 75+ (that is, the ‘fourth age’), and a ‘citizens curriculum’ built around four capabilities (digital, health, financial and civic, together with employability). The learning embodied within that curriculum would desirably build on what had been learnt previously – in terms, for example, of literacy, numeracy, digital literacy, and civics.

What is a curriculum?   

This question was posed explicitly in the Nuffield and Primary Reviews (NR p.98/99; CPR ch.14). The reason is that ‘curriculum’ is used in two different senses, each reflecting a different understanding of learning and the role of the teacher in promoting it.

On the one hand, the curriculum is a list of learning outcomes and the means by which those outcomes are to be reached. There is a long tradition of this understanding of curriculum as the Nuffield Review explains (p.99). It provides a detailed prescription of a learning programme – targets, content and methods for attaining those targets, assessment of whether they have been reached, and evaluation of the whole process (what has been called ‘rational curriculum development’(xxi)). The development of the National Curriculum to date has reflected that understanding, and subsequently there has been a range of prescriptions from Government or its agencies (e.g. the QCA) as to what should be taught and how (see CPR ch.13 on the literacy strategies). Typical of this way of understanding the curriculum is that teachers are seen as ‘deliverer of the curriculum’ (see Section 7 below).

An alternative view of the curriculum, urged in the Primary and Nuffield Reviews, and under consideration by the Coalition Government, is based on much lower level of prescription. A framework of entitlement is to specified, but, within that, teachers are to encouraged to exercise professional judgement in their teaching.  This approach is reflected in the TLRP 12’s Professionalism and Pedagogy: a contemporary opportunity.  It anticipates that the teacher
develops and tests out teaching approaches, adapts them to different circumstances, reformulates them in the light of experience.. The teacher is no longer one who delivers a
curriculum, but one who, in the light of an agreed framework broadly conceived, exercises professional judgement about the best way of attaining the educational aims.

A National Entitlement Framework

Section I above referred to the several times when the National Curriculum, established by the Education Act of 1988, had to be adapted or slimmed down because what was it did not measure up to the much more complex world of young people’s learning. None the less, there is a need for a national entitlement framework within which there can be the continuity and development of knowledge and practical capabilities. Otherwise, as is argued in all the Reviews (CPR ch14; NR p.101, 117, 121, 156 sq; TLRP 6 and 11; and IFLL ch.6), people will be disadvantaged, not able to progress at key transition stages to the next stage of education or skill training.

The Primary Review set out a curriculum framework (ch.14), rather than a detailed curriculum in the first sense outlined above. That framework explicitly embodies the educational aims (see Section 2) that the Review has argued for, but divides the learning areas into eight domains within which the aims should be embedded - namely, those of the arts and creativity; citizenship and ethics; faith and belief; language, oracy and literacy; mathematics; physical and emotional health; place and time; and science and technology. Work in this domains would comprise, it is proposed, 70% of teaching time.

Such a curriculum framework guarantees entitlement to breadth, depth and high standards in all domains. Language and literacy are paramount, but integrated into the overall curriculum framework. The Primary Review recommended that eight ‘expert panels’ be convened to ‘propose in broad terms the content, process and progression’ within each domain.  Additionally, there would be a community component determined within each locality, on which 30% of teaching time would be focused.

The framework is exactly that and, within it, teachers, working together locally, devise their own curriculum. It is not for Government to tell teachers what and how to teach

Similarly at the secondary level, and with particular reference to post-14 (see NR ch.7), there is seen to be need for flexibility within a national framework. Such a framework should have recognisable ‘domains’, generally called ‘subjects’, corresponding to the domains outlined in the Primary Review. There is considerable unity of thinking between these two Reviews.

However, referring back to the wider vision of learning, such a framework should include skill based and practical activities, which, as argued in Section 5, have tended to be neglected in the secondary school curriculum and more recently resurrected, mistakenly, under the title of ‘vocational studies’ for those not deemed academic. Though the curriculum should be, as argued above, strongly influenced by teachers in their specific school and community contexts, such development needs to be within a properly worked out national framework which ensures both depth and breadth and that embodies the educational aims outlined in Section 2.

Flexibility within the framework

Where, then, is the flexibility and the teacher-led curriculum development if the entitlement framework specifies the domains or the subjects to be taught? The answer in both Reviews is that the domains or subjects are the inherited ways of understanding human nature, the physical universe, the social context and the belief systems. As such they are the resources upon which the good teacher draws in order to help young people make sense of their experiences and their lives, and are enabled to act practically and intelligently.

For example, Bruner’s Man: A Course of Study aimed at 8 to 13 year-olds
MACOS  focused on three questions: what makes us human? How did we become so? How might we become more so? The course was structured around five distinguishing features of being human – prolonged child-rearing, use of tools, language, social organisation and myth-making. But the learners’ enquiry into the three questions, shaped by  these key characteristics, drew upon resources from major subjects of enquiry - anthropology, sociology, psychology, literature, and so on. Subjects were the resources from which the teacher and the learners drew in order to make e sense of the question.(xxii)

In essence, the same principles apply beyond the age of 16. Then, of course, the formal learning experience narrows. There is greater specialisation either in three or four chosen subjects for A Level or in occupation-related courses in either colleges or work-based training. There the teachers in university or college or workplace, from their own base of expertise and knowledge, enable learners, young or old, to be initiated more deeply and expertly into a world of ideas and of practice. That requires ‘curriculum making’, not ‘curriculum delivery’. TLRP 6, Challenge and Change in FE, shows the variations in young people who enter courses from different backgrounds and learning experiences, and with different aspirations.

Specific curriculum issues

The Primary and Nuffield Reviews pay particular attention to certain issues which affect the content of the curriculum. The Nuffield Review points to:

  • Science and technology:

There has been widespread concern (reflected in the Royal Society Reports(xxiii)) about the number of young people either qualified for higher education studies in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) or aspiring to do so. That concern sits alongside two others in the Reviews for ensuring science be part of everyone’s curriculum up to 16:

    • scientific knowledge is an essential tool for the intelligent management of life (referred to as scientific literacy – NR p.105);
    •  science at school provides the basis on which the learners can proceed to higher level science – and the country needs them;
    • science is a mode of thinking which is worthwhile learning in its own right.

The problem post-14 is two-fold: (a) catering for diversity of understanding and of aspiration, with the need to differentiate the content of science education and the mode of teaching; and (b) ensuring continuity from the different pathways into higher level science.  The Nuffield Review draws attention to curriculum developments which have tackled this problem, with special reference to ‘21st Century Science’ and to one element within it, namely, GCSE Applied Science (NR p.105-7). This, seen as ‘less academic’, involves scientific understanding and methods of enquiry employed practically in different occupations.

  • Humanities and Arts:

It was a matter of concern to both Primary and Nuffield Reviews (CPR p.226-9; NR. p105-6) that the balanced and broad curriculum was endangered at primary level by the required
emphasis on literacy and numeracy strategies, and, at secondary level, by the opportunity to opt out of the arts and humanities in order to pursue a more vocational curriculum.  There is evidence that subjects such as History, Geography and Music enrich learner experience as well as being important in their own right.

  • Modern Languages:

 These were now no longer a compulsory part of the Key Stage 4 curriculum after the age of 14, and this (it was pointed out, NR p.109) had led to a sharp decline in the numbers taking foreign languages, with the implication that fewer would enter higher education to study a foreign language, and fewer therefore would qualify to teach it – a downward spiral.

  • Literacy and Numeracy:

Clearly these were seen by all reports to be essential to the balanced curriculum. MBWB (p.x) saw them as crucial to subsequent well-being and employability and IFLL, too, to the continuing lifelong learning. NCDS reminded the reader of the analysis of the lack of such functional skills given by the Moser Report in 1998(xxxiv). However, the Cambridge Primary Review (p.208/9) was critical of the solution, imposed by the Government of the time, of separate literacy and numeracy strategies, arguing on the basis of evidence that they are more effectively taught if integrated with the rest of the curriculum.


Curriculum development should be pursued with regard to the overarching educational aims and to the wide vision of learning within the national entitlement framework, and also with regard to that continuity of learning at key transition points

We need, however, to get away from the dominant managerial approach to curriculum development, and to treat teachers once again at the centre as curriculum thinkers. The curriculum provides an enabling framework of knowledge and a set of principles indicating how to proceed in order for educational aims to be realised in practice. It requires practical application in the classroom and is thereby constantly refined as a result of reflection and experience to meet the specific needs of learners.

(xxi) See Tyler, R., 1947, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Chicago Press.  Also. Jessop, G., 1991, Outcomes: NVQs and the Emerging Model of Education and Training, London: Falmer Press.

(xxii) Bruner, J., 1964, Towards a Theory of Instruction, Harvard University Press.

(xxiii) The Royal Society – A State of the Nation Report, 2008, Science and Mathematics Education, 14-19, London: The Royal Society

(xxiv) Moser Report, 1999, A Fresh Start – Improving Literacy and Numeracy, London: DfEE


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