Over the past few years we’ve all been putting a lot of thought and energy into trying to improve our specification of what we want students to learn and, whilst there have been some unfortunate consequences (intent statements, cultural capital statements, bizarre arguments about how powerful knowledge is etc.) this has, on balance been a very good thing.

When I began teaching English in the late 90s no one gave a damn what I taught. At my first schools I was told to teach whatever I liked the look of in the stock cupboard. In the mid 2000s, I was told that the content of English was irrelevant; the subject was merely a vehicle for ‘Personal Learning and Thinking Skills’ and so I did that for a while. In about 2012 I came to realise I would be unhappy if my own children were being taught what I was teaching my students. After that, everything changed and I’ve been refining my ideas of what a good English curriculum should be ever since. Then Ofsted got in on the act and, with the 2019 inspection framework, decided to focus on the quality of a school’s curriculum in order to determine the quality of education it might be providing. Immediately, perverse incentives were created and folk started doing daft things, because of course they did.

Now there appears to be something of a backlash. Some people are suggesting that ‘curriculum’ is just the latest in a long line of failed initiatives and that, if we hold our nerve, it’ll go away and be replaced by something else we should try to ignore. Others are saying that although ‘curriculum’ might be important it matters nowhere near as much as ‘learning’ or ‘relationships’ or something else they like.

I find this frustrating. In my experience – and this experience includes visiting and working with hundreds of schools over the past ten years – the focus on improving our understanding of ‘curriculum’ has led to objectively better experiences of education for a great many young people. If ‘curriculum’ really is just the latest in a long line of fads which will soon go the way of all things, this would, in my view, be a lamentably retrograde step.

Here’s the thing: if we fail to carefully specify what students should be learning then we are less likely to teach those things students need to be successful. Then, when students are assessed, we become increasingly likely to test whether they can do things which they’ve never been taught to do. This is a gap-widening situation; more advantaged children from more affluent backgrounds do well despite our lack of specificity but we assume that there success must be due to our efforts and congratulate ourselves on their wonderful results. Less advantaged students from more deprived backgrounds do badly because of our lack of specificity but we shrug and mutter, ‘What else can be expected of kids like these?’

A focus on improving the specificity and sequencing of the curriculum is a social justice issue. If we fail to take this responsibility seriously we will inevitably fail the students who need us most. Of course it’s important that children are learning but learning what precisely? Children learn things all the time that their teacher would much rather they didn’t. Having a curriculum is our only chance of getting students to learn what we want them to learn. And yes, of course, relationships matter in this endeavour but if we can’t see that focussing on relationships is a means to a crucial end we’re guilty of becoming social workers rather than teachers. What differentiates the purpose of school from those of parenting, social care, and other institutions in which children can learn and develop is the curriculum.

For those wanting a glossary of some of the terms in this post, I’ve prepared the following: