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Now is the time to deal with the ‘immorality’ of an overly crowded curriculum

Unless we act, even more students will struggle to achieve mastery, when schools fully reopen

Chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable Group and former Executive Headteacher in Blackpool

Describing “Teaching a content-heavy curriculum as immoral” is a pretty uncompromising statement.  It was made by Professor Dylan Wiliam (2020).  Curriculum developers’ tendency to overfill the curriculum – to ensure no child has “spare time on their hands” – has led to a curriculum suited to the fast learning pupils, with far too much content for most pupils to assimilate.  The vast majority of pupils are disadvantaged; left behind due to the pace of coverage required.

Over the coming months, schools will be faced with the challenges of: restarting schooling for many children and young people with its potentially very different practical arrangements; seeking to repair damage done at a psychological, social, emotional as well as an intellectual level; and developing a medium to longer term recovery plan.  Many people will also want to start to re-imagine what our education system should look like, as the experiences of COVID-19 and the lockdown are assimilated.

1. The Problems of too much content

The current content heavy national curriculum and examination specifications are going to be brought into sharp relief.  Pupils with high fluid intelligence, which includes the capacity to learn, process information much more rapidly than those with lower fluid intelligence.  Both groups are capable of learning the same information but those with lower fluid intelligence need longer. 

As pupils return to school, the need to re-cover and then cover so much curriculum content in such a short amount of time means that too many pupils will fail to master the concepts taught, before the teacher has to move on to the next one.  The curriculum has reached what Kingsnorth (2019) refers to as the Goldilocks Plateau: “that point beyond which not everyone can master all of the content”.  This will be an even greater issue for those year groups who have tests and examinations due in the summer of 2021; plans to address this need to be put in place now.

The Goldilocks Principle requires the curriculum to be just right.  Hitting the mastery sweet spot requires a series of decisions to be made to ensure, within the time available, the curriculum has the right amount of challenge and content;

2. Possible solutions for Year 10

Taking current Year 10 who will face their GCSEs after one or possibly two terms of disruption; reducing content is difficult but moving to greater teacher assessment and reducing the number of examinations is a first stage in reconfiguring the testing regime.  Instead of the speaking tests in Modern Foreign Languages; teachers submit a rank of pupils according to their on-going assessment of pupils’ speaking skills.  Contrived examinations based on pre-release materials, in a number of subjects, could equally be replaced by on-going teacher assessment. 

A rapid review of the content of GCSE and A-levels could lead to the necessary reduction in content prior to pupils starting their new courses.  Pupils starting GCSEs will have a disrupted Year 9 and most likely a disrupted start to their courses.  The “immorality” of an overly content heavy curriculum is not new nor a product of the COVID-19 pandemic; it is just more apparent and the need for reform more pressing.  So, this would be a sensible move irrespective of the experiences of the last few months.   

3. Unlocking opportunities for change

This would not only lead to better learning for the many but create space for other important aspects of education; schools at the heart of their communities where young people can grow and flourish.  Places where they feel safe, happy and can learn.  Let’s not forget PISA (2018) showed a significant downturn in pupils’ attitudes towards their lives; UK 15 year olds were 69th out of the 72 countries.  Headlines appeared about how unhappy many of our young people were and are. 

There are implications for the accountability system which has become a perverse distraction over the years; performance tables and the inspection process are both in need of a radical overhaul.  We need to be able to focus our energies on: children, young people, our communities and improving our schools, in the years ahead.  It has to be our primary obsession.

A rebalancing of schools’ purpose will also be required; to give appropriate weighting to the personal, social and emotional well-being of children and young people; their engagement as members of their school and local communities alongside their important intellectual development. 

Kingsnorth, S., (2019) Forget Finland. Could Estonia help to reverse our dire results? https://medium.com/solomonkingsnorth/forget-finland-could-estonia-help-to-reverse-our-dire-sats-and-gcse-results-b56cd746850a 29 September 2019 [Last accessed 10 April 2020]

Wiliam, D. (2020) ‘Immoral’ to teach ‘too full’ curriculum. 28 April 2020. Online TES. [Last accessed: 30 April 2020]. Available at: https://www.tes.com/news/dylan-wiliam-immoral-teach-too-full-curriculum

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