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The educational system of a society is fundamental to the development and ultimate advancement of the community. Educators and governments all over the world have acknowledged that the educational structure and practices adopted can have a significant effect on the education of the population.
This can lead to significant impact on economic and social outcomes for their citizens. Therefore, all governments are constantly seeking to come up with the most effective system. An effective educational system which yields high results is therefore seen as being essential for a nation’s well being.
In a bid to provide effective education, most countries have developed unique educational systems which are as a result of the various cultural backgrounds or even political orientations of the particular nations.
The United Kingdom is one of the nations which have set out to come up with an effective education system for its population.
The year 1989 saw the introduction of a National Curriculum of subjects which were to be followed by all maintained schools in England and Wales. For the first time, compulsory subjects under what became known as “the core” were dictated by the central government.
The government also had a greater say in the educational affairs and British schools became subject to multiple state regulations and were obliged to follow the state regulated curriculum. The National Curriculum requirements cover a broad range of subjects and following of the curriculum is mandatory.
This brings about the question as to whether the National Curriculum for England and Wales is aligned to the democratic ideals that England subscribes to. This paper shall argue that the National Curriculum for England and Wales is contrary to the ideals of a democratic learning society.
Introduction of the National Curriculum
There are numerous definitions of curriculum and each definition depends on particular context that one is looking at. In this context, curriculum is best defined as “A program of activities designed so that pupils will attain, as far as possible certain educational ends and objectives” (Taylor & Johnson 1974; Hirst 1968).
Before 1988, decisions about curriculum in the UK were as a result of compromises between central and local government with the central government coming up with broad policy initiatives while the implementation of the said policies was left to the Local Education Authority (LEA).
The LEA in turn left policy implementations to the various schools leading to a great variation between teachers in different schools. As such, prior to the year 1988, the role of curriculum creation was left to schools and local authority advisors.
The central government undertook a policy of non-intervention in the school curriculum which was regarded as “a secret garden” that was beyond the realms of politicians (Kelly 2009, p.189).
The National Curriculum of England and Wales was established following the 1988 Educational Reform which introduced a curriculum consisting of basic subjects that were mandatory to all state schools.
While the 1988 Educational Reform Act consisted of various other changes, the National Curriculum was arguably the most major change implemented. Conway (2010, p.5) asserts that this curriculum was meant to ensure that “schools taught science and technology, as well as literacy and numeracy”.
The Education Reform Act also sought to bring about closer monitoring of students performance in school and to ensure that teachers were teaching in accordance to the law. The curriculum also specified the associated national assessments that would be undertaken by pupils at various key stages.
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The degree of central control that came about as a result of the 1988 Educational Reform was alien to British tradition. Through the National Curriculum, the “secret garden” era of education which had until then characterized England’s education system was brought to an end.
The major changes implemented by the National Curriculum were to a large extent the direct result of the Auld enquiry into the William Tyndale School.
The reports on this school which had broken down into chaos due to the administration being entirely unconstrained by any form of centrally prescribed curriculum resulted in the 1988 Education Reform Act.
In the William Tyndale School in London, a teacher was given free rein in his own lass and the teacher in question proceeded to give his pupils free rein as well.
The Auld Report was under the backdrop of unfavorable coverage of the radical teaching practices adopted at Tyndale Primary school which had led to a breakdown of the school.
Bartlett and Burton (2007, p.205) state that this situations let do an increased public concern over education standards and a national curriculum was seen as the only means through which appropriate schooling could be for students could be ensured.
The National Curriculum for England and Democratic Ideals
Democracy dictates flexibility and inclusion in decision making for all members of the society. Wolf and Macedo (2004) rightfully assert that democratic participation is not limited to participating in the electoral process but also includes decision-making and some levels of involvement in a number of social contexts.
The National Curriculum of England and Wales is based on the ideology of “curriculum as prescription” (CAP) as is evidence from the rigidity of the curriculum. CAP supports the notion that “expertise and control reside within central government, educational bureaucracies, or the university community” (Goodson 1989, p.1).
The agencies of CAP hold all the power and control and the schools merely serve to deliver the services as prescribed. Schools are allowed a degree of autonomy but only if they accept the rules as prescribed by the “in control” forces.
This scenario which is characteristic of the National Curriculum is contrary to the ideals of democracy where all actors are supposed to have a say as to how institutions are run. The fact that autonomy is tied to accepting the rules prescribed by the governing bodies is also more characteristic of a dictatorship than a democracy.
The National Curriculum led to the imposition of new obligations to the teachers who had previously relied on independent strategies to fulfill their roles.
From the very onset, teachers were in a state of disorientation due to the requirements and demands that were place upon them by the National Curriculum (Hopkin & Sharp 2008).
Prior to the introduction of a National Curriculum, teachers undertook various implementation strategies when teaching subjects such as science and history.
These strategies were based on the perceived needs and interests of the students and the teacher implemented the strategies that were most effective for the given situation. The National Curriculum imposed on teachers’ strategies that were deemed by the government as most effective.
This happened without consultation of the teachers who are in the best position to determine what the best strategies for teaching are.
Education can be used as a tool for instilling ideals in the minds of children since they are highly impressionable. This is well in line with Vygotsky’s social development theory which proposes that the social interaction of the child plays a very important role in the cognitive development.
Vygotsky asserts that children are influenced greatly by the adults [educators] with whom they interact with in the school setting. The National Curriculum of England and Wales is responsible for the perpetuation of capitalistic ideals as well as hierarchies of roles and authority.
Hulya (2006, p.44) asserts that “governorship from industry, sponsorship, work experience outside education for students and teachers and an enterprise culture, including local competition between schools and colleges, are all ‘work related’ dimensions of educational life”.
The traditional elitist curriculum was therefore displaced by the National Curriculum which attempts to form an explicit connection between school subjects and work. The National curriculum is structured such that the core subjects are those which the government deems to be of interest.
Scholarship is therefore deviated into fields which serve the purpose of central control. Fields of study which do not serve this purpose are displaced or given little relevance. This restricted role of schools to mirror the organizational patterns of the world is in line with the Marxist perspective on education.
The dominant teaching model used in the UK is the Aims and Objective model. While this model has been a pervasive feature of UK curriculum and lesson planning since the middle of the last century, this approach has gained greater prominence following the 1988 curriculum and pedagogical reforms (John 2006, p.484).
Owing to the emphasis on competence in skills for teachers, teachers are required to demonstrate that they can “set challenging teaching and leaning objectives and use them to plan lessons showing how they will assess pupils’ learning” (John 2006, p.484).
While the model has its inherent merits, it is forced upon teachers and students. There exists a belief that students need to follow the model since the standards documented by the National Curriculum require as much from them.
This overlooks the fact that classroom teaching is dynamic and more complex than the policies indicate. The model is therefore incompatible with emancipatory education and actually places children in danger of being indoctrinated with whatever content the makers of the curriculum deem necessary.
Bruner (1996) declares that opportunities for self-conscious reflective-ness are in danger of disappearing all together since this model emphasizes on items of knowledge being bundled up into well-written objectives.
Having teachers’ present different interpretations of controversial topics is crucial in the promotion of pluralism and democratic values (Arthur and Philips 2002, p.72). By having a rigid model, teachers are forced to give a uniform interpretation therefore encouraging conformity.
Democracy is a choice and therefore, key democratic ideas and material should be taught to children without necessarily imposing them on the children (Sears & Hughes 2005, p.18).
The overly prescriptive manner in which the National Curriculum was implemented and the intensive external examinations to which students are subjected has resulted in a situation whereby ensuring satisfactory results is the key priority of schools.
William (2003) asserts that this has created an incentive to narrow the curriculum by teaching only what appears in the test. Teachers are able to predict the aspects of a subject that come up in the tests and the ones which do not.
As a result of this, emphasis is laid on the examinable aspects of a subject at the cost of a holistic approach to teaching the subject (William 2003, p.3). Teachers are seldom interested in encouraging pupils to make meaning of their education. Instead, students are encouraged to cram in preparation of the numerous tests.
This is contrary to Jean Piaget’s Constructivism theory which argues that individuals generate meaning from their unique experiences (Deanna 2007).
Students should therefore be encouraged to make meaning of the things they are taught as opposed to being spoon feed with already pre-conceived ideas by the teacher all the time.
Children should therefore be shown the attainable goals and let to create their own unique meanings so as to motivate them. Valid reasons must also be provided as to why particular actions are undertaken.
A school’s curriculum should be designed in such a manner that it promotes the intellectual development of the pupils. This development should be wide encompassing various differing aspects of life.
While the National Curriculum has as its core goals the promotion of the intellectual development of the pupils, it does this in a very rigid manner and does not stimulate growth through discussions.
While the core academic subjects as prescribed by the National Curriculum are seen as essential catalysts for the intellectual development of every child, the intensive testing regimes that are as a result of the National Curriculum deprive schools of the freedom to encourage these developments.
Primary school work was to be thought of in terms of “activity and experience, rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored” (Marsden 1997, p.232). Teachers have no incentive for indulging their students in stimulating discussions that are necessary for an all-rounded intellectual development.
Democracy is characterized by equal treatment for all the citizens. In a school setting, this would imply that all the students are given equal amounts of attention by their teachers. The National Curriculum of England and Wales predisposes teaches to give more attention to some of the pupils at the expense of others.
The position of a school in the performance table which also dictates the amount of government funding is directly determined by the average marks attained by students in tests.
In a bid to raise the school’s aggregate, some of the schools in Britain have adopted Setting and streaming so as to maximize the chances by students passing tests. Streaming constitutes tracking which involves the separation of students according to some measure of cognitive ability that they exhibit (Andersen & Taylor, 2005; Lucas 1999; Oakes 1985).
The underlying ideology behind tracking is that students have varying cognitive abilities and by grouping them, educators can effectively gear their programs to best meet the ability level of the students in question.
As opposed to mixed-ability teaching which places the different ability students in the same environment, a tracking system of education places homogeneous groups together so as to facilitate the provision of a more specialized teaching for each group according to its specific needs.
The tracking system is evidently structured around Bandura’s self-efficacy theory. In this theory, Bandura proposes that a person’s attitude and abilities play a crucial way to the way they perceive situations and consequently respond to them.
The differing abilities in students will consequently lead to different perceptions and hence varying cognitive abilities. Stiggins (2008) suggests that this grouping has a negative effect on the low achieving students.
Whereas high achieving students are propelled even further by this assessment which divides students into winners and losers, low achievers feel alienated and succumb to hopelessness up to the point where they stop trying to make a difference in their academic lives (Nichols & Berliner, 2008).
An infallible truth is that knowledge must rest on a foundation. This foundation plays a huge part in how the knowledge is perceived in the mind of the pupil to whom the knowledge is being imparted.
Progressive educational policies are supposed to empower children to recognize and resist commercial and political forces that are around them in the real world. The National Curriculum fails to do this since it contains in it weak substantive content.
Conway (2010) asserts that the current school curriculum has as its unexamined foundation industrial and political ideals. The National Curriculum is a subject-based enterprise that is portrayed by progressive education lobbyist as a curriculum for the doomed.
This curriculum has been decried as “a reversion to nineteenth-century didacticism and utilitarianism, to early twentieth-century academic parochialism and protectionism” (Marsden 1997, p.235).
This is because the National Curriculum exalts political and commercial forces as opposed to presenting an unbiased outlook to the pupils. Such a foundation predisposes the children to being influenced even more by political and commercial forces.
The Marxist perspective on education suggests that the school system instead of performing the role of reducing social inequalities actually legitimates them.
This promotion is by providing “an open, objective, and ostensible meritocratic mechanism for assigning individuals to unequal economic positions” (Hogan 1979, p.396). In a society that is striving for equality, the National Curriculum is bent on ranking pupils in a hierarchical manner.
The National Curriculum fosters the belief that success depends on acquiring good grades in the assessment tests that pupils are subjected to.
Key to the construction of any Educational Curriculum is coming up with a definition of the educational purposes that schools should set out to attain. This is in line with Vroom’s Expectancy Theory which proposes that for motivation to occur there must be some attainable goals that the person can reach.
This creates a relationship between the input and the expected outcomes. Marsden (1997) asserts that as a result of the National Curriculum, teachers have deviated from their previous objective of teaching children to teaching subjects.
Ideally, the curriculum is supposed to be structured in such a manner that it encourages students to take up a critical stance towards knowledge. Students are not supposed to be passive recipients of preconceived concepts. They are supposed to be critical of the information that is availed to them by their teachers.
The National Curriculum provides little incentive for teachers to stimulate critical thinking by their students. This is because the National Curriculum is characterized by a serious of high-stake tests that are used as the ultimate assessment tools for the pupils.
These assessments are used as the primary determinant of the competence of the pupil in the various subjects. Teachers have come to discover that in this high-stakes setting, rote-learning provides a short-cut for pupils to improve scores.
As such, teaching well (which includes letting pupils follow subjects of interest) is incompatible with improving test scores.
The National Curriculum has led to the acceptance of established modes of power relations with the people who are most closely connected with the running of curriculum and schools, the teachers, being omitted from important debates and policy making on schooling.
Evidence of this is by the fact that role of the teacher in the National Curriculum has been greatly diminished despite teachers being in a position to provide for an assessment that is more complete. Harlen (2007) asserts that
Teachers’ judgments can, when moderated, provide more accurate information than external tests because they can cover a much wider range of outcomes and so provide a more complete picture of students’ achievements. (p.138)
Teachers are the parties who are with the students for the longest time with interactions between the two parties taking place both inside and outside of the classroom environment.
Instead of empowering schools, the National Curriculum has turned school head teachers into bureaucrats which are detrimental to the well being of the school.
Before 1988, the prime role of head teachers was as curriculum managers in their respective institutes. The head teachers had no say over the budget of their schools and hence concentrated their efforts on coming up with an effective curriculum for their schools’.
The National Curriculum brought about a situation whereby head teachers have less control over the curriculum and hence they could not play the role of curriculum manager.
The New curriculum gave head teachers greater financial control over their own budgets. Head teachers have therefore become more involve in the bureaucracies of school operation.
Lawton (1973) goes on to assert that a good deal of what is taught in schools should be decided by reference to “the common cultural heritage”. This is because the society greatly influences the growth and development of the child.
The postmodern perspective on education places emphasis on education being specific to the cultural contexts and needs of a people. By definition, culture is “a system of values and norms that are shared among a group of people and that, taken together, constitute a design for living” (Vance & Paik 2006, p.39).
This definition underpins the notion that culture has a huge impact on the lives of the individual. According to Bandura’s social learning theory, people often acquire their social skills through observation, imitation and modeling.
He states that in as much as we acquire intellect through class work, the social skills that we have are learnt from other people. Bearing in mind that schools in the UK exist under differing cultural backgrounds, a centralized curriculum does not serve the best interest of the people.
This is because schools are created to serve the interests of the society. The National Curriculum through its tests systematically under-represents some aspects of the assessed subjects. The possibility of increasing a pupil’s scores is therefore tied to increasing competence on only part of the domain.
The National Curriculum assessment mechanisms inevitably lead to a narrow sampling of the knowledge and skills of the student as compared to teacher assessment.
Johnson (2011) asserts that there is therefore lack of the ability to provide a truly holistic view of the development and achievements of the student by use of the National Curriculum.
Acquisition of funds is a very important matter in all education institutes. Before the enactment of the Educational Reform Acts of 1988, the LEA was responsible for controlling and funding of schools. Schools were given leeway and allowed to run in a fairly autonomous manner.
The National Curriculum led to the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) being greatly empowered to run a system of schools inspection. These inspections are carried out every 4 years to monitor the quality of education and identify areas in which the school is under-performing.
Funding of schools is tied to schools keeping in line with the requirements of the department for Education as specified by the OFSTED. Hulya (2006, p.43) declares that centralized curriculum control through the National Curriculum is the price to be paid for the local management of schools.
Child-centered pedagogy is one of the progressive education approaches that the National Curriculum effectively nullified.
Froebel was one of the pioneers of progressive education and his belief in a “Divine unity inclusive of nature, the child, the home society and the moral order” significantly impacted the UK elementary education from the 1950s. (Marsden 1997, p.224).
Child-centered education aims at giving children the freedom to develop naturally in a democratic environment. It stresses on the notion that the child must be allowed to develop in its own unique manner without the guidance of teachers.
The Plowden Report of 1967 commended the child-centered approach to classroom teaching and impacted upon state education by promoting progressive education. The Plowden report revealed that play is the central activity in all nursery schools and that the accusations that play was a waste of school time was misconceived.
The report pointed out that “play – in the sense of ‘messing about’ either with material objects or with other children, and of creating fantasies – is vital to children’s learning and therefore vital in school” (Central Advisory Council for Education 1967 193).
The introduction of a National Curriculum for England and Wales led to the government having more power over the education services. This in turn limited the possibility of progressive education blooming in state schools.
Harlen (2007) reveals that Child-centered education was officially discouraged by the 1992 DES report which “dismissed discovery learning and recommended more subject-based lessons and whole-class teaching”.
Considering the fact that child-centered pedagogy allows that child to develop in a unique manner in a democratic environment, dismissing of this pedagogy by the government meant that children could only be taught in the manner that was prescribed by the National Curriculum.
The National Curriculum did away with child-centered education and in its stead promoted subjective learning. Children were to be taught to respect school rules and develop a habit of self restraint.
Kelly (2009) declares that these teachings on what constitutes “good behavior” are in actually sense teachings on the respect for the socio-technical division of labour. Children are therefore indoctrinated into respecting the rules of the order that are established by class domination.
The National curriculum promotes a Pedagogy that is not child-centred and personal growth and development is promoted through inhibiting it by repression.
Arthur and Philips (2002, p.72) express deep concern that education and in particular school history may be used as propaganda whereby the government or one political actor will try to subvert it for the purpose of indoctrination or social engineering.
Parents have always wanted to play a bigger role in the education of their children by being involved in some aspects of policy making. Before the national Curriculum was implemented, Hulya (2006, p.43) reveals that parents had little control over the choice of school or curriculum that their children were subjected to.
Following the National Curriculum, parents were free to choose schools and have a bigger say over the education of their children. The Education act of 1988 specifically highlighted the parent’s right to be more closely involved in decisions that were related to their children’s education.
However, Hulya (2006) points out that the alleged giving of parents a voice as “consumers” of education is contradictory by the imposition of a centrally determined National Curriculum.
This centralization effectively drowns out the parental voice resulting in a situation where parents have little if not even less control over the curriculum just like in the pre National Curriculum years.
The increased politicization of the educational debate in the late 1970s is what led to the Educational Reform Act of 1988. These reforms further increased the role of politics in the education system of the UK.
The implementation process of the national curriculum was and continues to be undertaken by a relatively few number of people. In the build-up of the National Curriculum, The proposal of educational reforms was left to a small number of civil servants and researchers.
The National Curriculum was enforced in law by placing responsibilities on three principle actors: head teachers, the OFSTED and governing bodies. The interpretation of regulations depends on OFSTED inspectors and this power may be abused by the inspectors.
The inspectorates from the OFSTED can be very powerful controllers therefore infringing on the independence of schools. This is contrary to the democratic ideals where power is not concentrated among a few individuals but rather distributed among a greater number of people.
In this scenario, education can be seen to be an instrument of elite domination and students are socialized into values that are dictated by the ruling elite.
The 21st century has been characterized by an emphasis on democracy and an upholding of the principle of equality which holds that selection is on a basis of merit. Equality of opportunity has been pursued with the view of ensuring equal opportunity to all the members of the society.
The school system has been one of the principle means through which democratic values have been perpetuated. Until the 1988 Education Reforms Act, the autonomy of schools was guaranteed in the UK.
This is because it has always been theorized that government intervention in the school curriculum is a major tool of totalitarianism.
While the UK is not a totalitarian state, this paper has demonstrated how government intervention in the school curriculum sits uneasily with ideals of a democratic learning society and predisposes the UK to becoming a totalitarian state.
This is because the provisions concerning the curriculum and testing by in England and Wales are too prescriptive amounting to a form of authoritarianism.
The curriculum has turned England’s state schools into non-creative institutes where the primary role of the teacher is to struggle to preserve order while preparing pupils for the many tests that they face throughout their schooling.
The role of head teachers has changed from that of curriculum managers to bureaucrats with little say over the curriculum. The National Curriculum has resulted in complicity by scholars even as whole fields of study are displaced in favour of subjects that are of interest to the policy makers.
Progressive education whose benefits have been documented by many reports including the famous Plowden report have been dismissed for subject-based lessons which emphasize on material that the National Curriculum stipulates.
This doing away of a pedagogy that was proven to be in the best interest for the children by the government in a unilateral manner is more characteristic of an authoritarian rule than a democracy.
This paper has noted that the National Curriculum was implemented as a result of the Auld Report Findings which indicated that the ILEA had no policy for standards of attainment and there was no accountability of teachers.
The National Curriculum was therefore envisioned as a way to establish standards of quality education for England. While it is true that the free-rein approach implemented in the William Tyndale School resulted in chaos, this was not a universal phenomena but rather an isolated incident.
The radical reforms that led to the implementation of the National Curriculum were therefore not warranted since the William Tyndale School fiasco was not a representation of what was going on in the rest of the UK schools.
While it would not be a good idea to abandon the National Curriculum of England altogether, major changes need to be imposed to make it compatible with the ideals of democracy.
As it currently stands, the National Curriculum is too politicized and more compatible with a monolithic system which serves the interests of the state monopoly.
While central control gives the government a chance to act as a watchdog on behalf of the taxpayers, central control also bring about the possibility of authoritarianism.
This paper set out to demonstrate that the National Curriculum for England and Wales sits uneasily with ideals of a democratic learning society by performing a critical analysis of the National Curriculum.
To this end, the paper has highlighted ways in which the National Curriculum threatens or even goes against the principles of democracy.
By restricting students to a rigid curriculum that is prescribed by the government, the National curriculum may be a tool for promoting propaganda. Teachers have also been forced to adopt strategies that they do not necessary agree with and teach children with the sole aim of passing tests.
From this paper, it is evident that the National Curriculum is a tool for the mitigation of democratic ideals in the UK.
The fact that the National Curriculum can be used as a tool for propaganda, and hence authoritarianism, should be cause for concern for all citizens since the school system through the curriculum followed should be a vehicle for promoting democratic values.
For a nation to be a true democracy, it has to be positively disposed to act in manners that are consistent with democratic values. This paper has demonstrated that the National Curriculum and England and Wales effectively undermine most of the democratic values that the UK subscribes to.
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