What happens when you outsource the curriculum to the exam syllabus

Posted on 23-11-2013

In a previous post I looked at the vagueness of the 2007 national curriculum and some of the problems this posed for teachers. Often, when I discuss with this people, they say one of two things: First, that the curriculum wasn’t vague on content because it believed content shouldn’t be taught – it was vague on content in order to allow teachers to teach the content they thought appropriate. Secondly, that in reality the exam specifications provided the detail that the curriculums left out – so that whilst the curriculum might have been vague, the exam specs provided the detail. I’ll discuss each point in turn.

To take the first point – that the curriculum freed teachers up to choose the knowledge they thought was appropriate. In actual fact the curriculum was not as neutral as it liked to pretend. Firstly, in the curriculum guidance it was made very clear that there was ‘less prescribed subject content’ in order to allow for ‘more of a focus on key concepts’. Friends of mine who attended information sessions about this curriculum say that this point was stressed even more at these meetings. Secondly, whilst the curriculum did not specify content, at KS1, 2 & 3 it did specify a particular method of assessment – national curriculum levels. These levels were also vague and couched in the language of generic skills. Thus, the curriculum did not really free up teachers to teach the knowledge they thought appropriate. It wanted teachers to reduce subject content and focus on the key concepts and skills outlined in the curriculum and the levels. So by suggesting that reducing content would enhance conceptual understanding, the national curriculum encouraged the reduction of content. It suggested that high-level skills could somehow be worked on and acquired in the abstract. But that is not how the brain works.

The second point: it is correctly noted that in the absence of a curriculum providing detail on content, the exam will provide that detail instead. This is the case. However, whilst exam boards can provide high level specificity, they cannot provide – nor should they be asked to provide – finer detail than this. The exam board set the high level task – say, write an essay. But it is not the job of the exam board to specify the detailed knowledge that goes into making pupils able to do that task. Likewise, an exam board can say that essays will be marked for spelling, and they might even give some examples of what they mean by tricky spellings and spellings that they expect everyone to get right. But they do not provide a year by year list of spellings they expect pupils to know, broken down by difficulty. They expect pupils to be able to read an unseen non-fiction comprehension and to make inferences about that text. But they do not – nor should they – specify the range of vocabulary, idioms and background knowledge that you need to do well on unseen reading comprehensions. So, the exams add some detail to the curriculum. But they don’t – nor should they – add enough detail. And it is also worth pointing out that when exams were abolished at the end of key stage 3, even this small element of specificity was lost.

So, the provision of detail was largely left to the individual teacher. The individual teacher or school department were left to plan the detail in the curriculum. They had two main sources of advice – the detail in the national curriculum and the national curriculum levels, and the exam specifications. As we’ve seen, the detail in the national curriculum encouraged, and in the case of levels, forced, teachers into reducing subject content in an attempt to focus on key concepts. As we’ve seen, the exam specs provided high level detail about the types of tasks pupils should be able to do, but they didn’t provide the comprehensive and sequenced detail necessary to excel on such tasks.

The result was – and to a large extent still is – that the curriculum became endless repetitions of exam tasks. This was because a) the past papers and exam specs were the only detail teachers were given and b) the national curriculum promoted the idea that the kinds of skills that exam papers are looking for were not dependent on an underpinning body of knowledge and could be acquired in the abstract.

Here is a specific example of this. Take a look at the KS3 English curriculum from the 2007 curriculum. There is a section on key processes which is essentially a statement of aims – by the end of this course, pupils should be able to interpret information, infer and deduce meanings, etc. But that isn’t really a curriculum – it’s a statement of aims. As for how to achieve those aims, here is the specific content for reading from the KS4 curriculum:

reading pt 1

reading pt 2

Level 8 for reading is as follows ‘Pupils’ responses show their appreciation of, and ability to comment on, a range of texts, and they evaluate how authors achieve their effects through the use of linguistic, structural and presentational devices. They select and analyse information and ideas, and comment on how these are conveyed in different texts. They explore some of the ways in which texts from different times and cultures have influenced literature and society.’ Nothing in the curriculum gives you a guide that will help you achieve these criteria. There is no mention in the curriculum of the specific and detailed knowledge your pupils must know if they want to achieve level 8. The Core Knowledge Curriculum does provide this content – it has lists of vocab, word roots, sayings and phrases and specified texts. It also makes it clear that the knowledge pupils learn in other lessons will contribute to their reading ability. It is an extremely useful document. It will help your pupils to achieve, as opposed to just describing what achievement looks like. The 2007 national curriculum and the accompanying levels are like Moliere’s doctor, explaining that opium causes sleepiness because of its sleep-inducing properties.

The English GCSE exam gives you a bit more detail, but only a bit. Whichever exam board you pick, one of the final exam tasks is to read an unseen text and answer some questions on it. This is of course a perfectly reasonable and meaningful task. But again, it doesn’t give you the specific and detailed knowledge you need to achieve that task. Taken all together, the 07 National Curriculum, the NC levels and terminal exams provide teachers with no detail about what to teach and a lot of unhelpful, and in some cases plain wrong, guidance about creating that detail themselves.

All in all, this is a classic example of how flawed theory transmits itself into practice. The errors and flawed assumptions at the heart of the 07 national curriculum have at every stage frustrated efforts to create good classroom practice.