“Freedom is nothing else but a chance to be better.” Albert Camus

There’s already been some pretty scathing reactions to the master plan to introduce a common curriculum and assessment system into UK schools Dame Sally Coates lays out in Schools Week. Carl Hendrick describes her ideas as a dystopian nightmare and Pedro De Bruyckere sees it as a surefire way to turn education into the caricature that Ken Robinson paints it.

But is there any merit in her ideas? Some gold we can pan for? Well, maybe. Coates says she wants to liberate teachers  “from the pressures of curriculum planning” so they “could focus on perfecting delivery in the classroom”. And let’s face it, the current hodgepodge of schools doing whatever the hell they want (whether they want to or not) is hardly a way of ensuring the best education for our children. As Dame Sally says, “I find it incredible that schools are grappling with their own solutions to recent curriculum and assessment reform. What I see is a patchwork of alternatives, some of which are inferior versions of the previous system.” Anyone who’s seen some of the more outlandish ideas being implemented by some schools will share these concerns.

Most of the critique is focussing on the idea that in schools across the land children will be following exactly the same lessons at exactly the same time from a centrally dictated curriculum organised by a panel of experts. I’m not sure how much of this is what she actually thinks and how much is the product of over-excited reportage. It certainly appears to be true that she wants a new National Curriculum to mandate content but how could that ever result in children learning in identical ways? Even if we did decide to do all she urges the only way we could ever have teachers teaching exactly the same lesson at exactly the same time is if we didn’t give a toss about whether children were learning. It seems unlikely that even the most draconian , the most doctrinaire of policy wonks could ever make such a blunder… Doesn’t it?

But what of her plan for a logical, sequential curriculum where children “would study the same content and their success in grasping this content would be tracked. It would set out the exact content that students would cover in each subject and the exact order in which they would cover it.” This seems more sensible and workable. But why? What are the reasons beyond the ability to track progress?

Coates’ reasons appear to be these:

  1. Social mobility would be improved
  2. Teacher workload would be reduced
  3. Uniformity would unleash creativity

The first is by far the most persuasive. The national agenda for school improvement is currently all about ‘closing the gap’ caused by social and economic disadvantage. The least advantaged children need to be given the opportunities and experiences of the most advantaged and, hey presto, the gap will close. All children will achieve the same high results and all will go on to careers in law, medicine, engineering and museum curation. Except there are a few problems with this narrative, aren’t there? First, if social mobility leads to some people rising through the social strata, others will have to make way as there isn’t an unlimited supply of or demand for top grades, university places or jobs. Some children will have to be downwardly mobile. But which children? Will the sharp-elbowed middle-classes ever allow that we create a meritocracy in which their kids risk being at the bottom of the heap? And, unless we drastically change our views about economic migrants, we will have engineered a utopia with no plumbers, retail assistants, window cleaners or bus drivers. These things have value; we need them. But if everyone is educated into sneering at such worthy work as beneath them, then what? The other unacknowledged problem with the closing the gap narrative, is that there will always be a normal distribution of ability. We can work on moving the bell curve to the right, but we can’t defy it utterly. As long as intelligence and every other human characteristic is normally distributed in a population we have to accept that there will always be a gap. And the unfashionable, inconvenient truth is that these differences are caused as much by genetic heritability as they are by environmental shaping. By having an identical curriculum for all, maybe we could seek to hold back the advantaged and create a system in which merit is recognised, but it won’t be the shiny, comforting Happyland it’s often painted.

Reducing teacher workload is a small, meaner aim in comparison, but all the more achievable for that. If there’s a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention then workload must be tackled – there’s no point sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting, “La la la long summer holidays! I can’t hear you!” This is not an issue that’s going to go away. The expectation that teachers ought to sacrifice every evening and weekend in order to be competent at their job is immoral. I’ve argued before that the role of school leadership is to strip out every extraneous demand on teachers except that they teach as well as they can. The question is, is the demand for planning extraneous? I see lesson planning as a straightjacket leading to more mediocre teaching – understanding how to design sequences of lessons – to have insight into planning a curriculum – is liberating. Yes, it’s hard work, but so is much that is valuable. The may be areas of the curriculum which lend themselves to centrally organised structures: maybe subjects like science, maths and grammar could benefit from being sequenced logically by boffins, but to do the same thing to humanities curricula will never be uncontroversial. The narrowing of choice enforced by examination boards already dictates that only some history and some literature is studied in schools and the pressures of accountability reduce this choice further to the content considered easiest rather than best. If I were in charge, say, of determining which literary texts must be studied I would, of course, be a thoroughly benign dictator. Sadly though, few are as clear-sighted and altruistic as I.

And finally, does uniformity reduce creativity? This is very much an examined assertion within the context of Dame Sally’s think piece, so let’s have a look at it. Superficially, uniformity is the opposite of creativity, but Sally goes on to say, “A common curriculum would encourage teachers, school groups and publishers to generate supplementary resources and expertise, safe in the knowledge that all schools would be following the new curriculum for years to come.” Does she mean that safety unleashes creativity? Or perhaps that comfort and ease unleash creativity? I’m pretty sure they don’t. Our history most often appears to one of innovation through threat which necessity being the mother of invention. We’re driven to create new systems because the old ones aren’t up to snuff. Maybe instead she’s talking about the idea I’ve written about here that creativity is forced through constraints? If you give someone, anyone, a constraint, they are driven to overcome it and fight a way through. Possibly there’s an anarchic heart at the centre of this plan which secretly intends uniformity to be a constraint which teachers will seek to overthrow and subvert? I’d like to believe this, but being the sceptic I am, I doubt that’s the hope.

I completely understand the worries and concerns Dame Sally articulates about the freedoms schools have been given. Freedom always has consequences and some of these can be brutal. When Lincoln emancipated black American slaves many starved and suffered, but no one would now seriously argue that this means slavery was a good thing or that freedom is a curse.Coates says that she takes “the view that government should only do for schools those things that schools can’t do better for themselves, and nothing passes this rule better than the design of curriculum and assessment.” Does it though? We can rail against the bumbling incompetence of the way in which National Curriculum levels were abolished but we must remember that this centrally imposed, common assessment framework was abolished because it had been misused and perverted. Mandating a centrally imposed curriculum still has to run the gauntlet of interpretation and bias which every single teacher in every single school will bring to bear.

Freedom may not turn out to be nearly as much fun as we might want or have expected, but it’s good for us. As Dylan Wiliam has written,

Developing an assessment system will be challenging, to be sure, but … schools now have an opportunity to develop assessment systems that fit their curriculums, rather than trying to shoehorn their curriculum to fit a predetermined assessment system. And because every school’s curriculum is different, the best assessment system for one school may be useless for another. Ultimately, each school will need to find an assessment system that meets its needs.

Teaching will only ever be a mature profession when we stop trying to dumb down the task expected of teachers. Less paperwork and data analysis, more curriculum and assessment design would be a healthy start. The trick, is there is a trick to it, is intelligent accountability: give schools freedom to make whatever decisions they feel fit and then hold them to account for the consequences of those decisions.