Professional Development Platform

May 7, 2020 Reading Time: 15 Minutes Contributor: Helen Angell

The Politics of Curriculum

“Rightly or wrongly, and whatever your personal political persuasion, we know that education is often a political football, weaponised for political gain”

For this think piece, we are interested in the experiences people bring to curriculum, the choices that are made and the processes and thoughts behind them.

Politics and Education – is this a new phenomenon?

In 1976, James Callaghan, Prime Minister, delivered what was considered to be a ground breaking speech at Ruskin College Oxford.  He talked about education in a different manner to his predecessors:

“The goals of our education, from nursery school through to adult education, are clear enough.  They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work.  Not one or the other but both.”

This moment is often cited as the precursor of the 1988 Education Reform Act, what we know as the National Curriculum in our schools today with its implications for leadership, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

What is interesting is Callaghan’s use of the word “society.”

He was not the first to link education with social reform: the Victorian reformer Matthew Arnold wrote passionately about the links between education and power and how many of the processes he witnessed were morally and practically not right.

On the right you can see an extract from Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold, – a series of periodical essays first published in Cornhill Magazine 1867-68 and collected as a book in 1869. The preface was added in 1875

Notice his interest in both social equality and equity and the relationship he sees between ideas (gained from an education) and the freedom and power granted to be able to use them, living in “an atmosphere of sweetness and light.”  This resonates with our Trust position:

Who makes the decisions about what is in a curriculum and where do choices in the system lie?

As part of the national education system, our choices are often defined by the official layers above: we have to teach an exam board specification to KS4 and KS5 students and the new Ofsted framework places renewed emphasis upon the National Curriculum.

There are some choices that we can make though.  For example, how do you construct your whole academy timetable?  Which subjects are offered?  Which awards are students able to access?  Which exam board specification do you choose for your students?  How do you structure a course of study for this specialism to ensure success?  Encompassing these choices, how do we prepare our children and students as Callaghan and Arnold describe? 

How do we make these choices?  How do we decide?  What impact do our choices have?  What are we trying to achieve?

In our Trust, we frequently return to our HEART values:

How far do the words of both Callaghan and Arnold resonate here?

Curriculum, Community, Curation

If our HEART values underpin everything we do as a Trust, collaboration is the lever for this.  We bring colleagues together at all levels in the manner described by Etienne Wenger when he defined communities of practice:

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

The concepts of community and collaboration reflect our ideas about empowerment too:

We want to ensure that the choices we make are secure, thoughtful and in line with our Trust values: guaranteed to ensure the best possible chances for all students.  Once these communities have chosen, for example, the exam board specification to be followed for GCSE, we want teachers to be able to develop and share the best possible approaches to teaching specialism: applying the specification and illustrating it for others as well as assessing its success. 

But these communities have their own politics too:

  • Who leads the community of practice?  Who is empowered to set direction?
  • How are they trained and developed for this role?
  • How do they use the community and collaboration to develop curriculum?
  • Who knows what works best?
  • What should a subject specific curriculum contain and how should it be structured?

So, ideas of choice, direction and the politics around them are important to acknowledge when we think about curriculum at all.  We know that at all levels, the discussion of curriculum inspires passion and debate and it is helpful to consider why this is and how it manifests itself before we even begin the work.

Consider the following three mini extracts

Extract 1

Curriculum planning is fundamentally a political process.  Different people will have different views about what should be taught (or, indeed, omitted), and disagreement is to be expected.  Mark Priestley, Professor of Education, University of Sterling

Extract 2

The choices made about what children learn and why, are often driven by ideological assumptions about a particular subject.  These are impossible to avoid.  The important thing is that we reflect on these and are able to take into account other practitioners’ viewpoints and – where necessary – justify our own ideologies…  Interrelated are broader questions of our moral and ethical responsibilities towards students…  It is important to reflect critically on whose voices and viewpoints are taken into consideration in the process of planning…  Crucial decisions, therefore, need to be carefully justified and interrogated before they are implemented.  Megan Mansworth, Nova Education Trust

Extract 3

All curricula should be reviewed by a community of stakeholders (i.e. teachers, students, school leaders and parents) to ensure that it meets the individual needs of students.  Edmund Adjapong, Columbia University

Reflective Questions – Click to open

(These might be considered from the position of teacher, subject or phase leader or senior leader)

  1. In your experience, what role do politics play in curriculum design?
  2. Why do leaders and teachers have different views about the curriculum? 
  3. How do politics, choice and direction manifest themselves at department, academy and trust level?
  4. When are we ready and prepared to set final direction?  How do we know?
  5. For you, what are the key criteria for a cohesive and collaborative curriculum which empowers all children for success?