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Is the core curriculum ideal valid and feasible?
Derek Gillard
April 1987

copyright Derek Gillard 1987
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Gillard D (1987) Is the core curriculum ideal valid and feasible?

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ABSTRACT Prime Minister Jim Callaghan's speech at Ruskin College on 18 October 1976 had set in motion the 'Great Debate' about the school curriculum which culminated in the imposition of the National Curriculum twelve years later. In this article I present some of the views about the curriculum which were circulating during this period and attempt to analyse the arguments.

Core, common, national, whole, framework: the terminology is almost as wide-ranging as the debate. Let us agree for our purposes here that a 'core' curriculum is that part of a 'whole' curriculum which is 'common' to all students.

Like so much of current educational debate, the discussion about core curriculum seems to date from Prime Minister Jim Callaghan's Ruskin College speech of 18 October 1976, which set the 'Great Debate' in motion. Like the tide, it has ebbed and flowed since, but now seems to be gathering force to send a great wave crashing on to the beach - probably after the general election. How did we get here?

In the Report on the Circular 14/77 Review, Local Education Authority Arrangements for the School Curriculum, the Secretaries of State indicated that they believed that 'they should seek to give a lead in the process of reaching a national consensus on a desirable framework for the curriculum' (DES/Welsh Office 1979:6). In their response to this a year later HMI said that

a common policy for the curriculum ... cannot be a prescription for uniformity. Enabling all pupils to achieve a comparable quality of education and potentially a comparable quality of adult life is a more subtle and skilled task than taking them all through identical syllabuses or teaching them all by the same methods (HMI 1980:2).
They went on to argue for
a substantially larger compulsory element than now in terms of the range of studies pupils carry forward to the end of their fifth year [of secondary education], but with suitable differentiation in detailed content and presentation, and still with some provision for choice, to match different abilities, aspiration and need (HMI 1980:23).
In 1981 the Secretaries of State seemed to draw back from what many saw as an increasing tendency to centralisation by pointing out the importance of the role of the LEAs: 'The Secretaries of State consider that curriculum policies should be developed and implemented on the basis of the existing statutory relationship between the partners' (DES 1981:2). 'Local authorities thus have a responsibility to formulate curricular policies and objectives which meet national policies and objectives' (DES 1981:2). Indeed, schools had a role to play, too: 'Neither the Government nor the Local Authorities should specify in detail what the schools should teach' (DES 1981:3). However, there had to be some sort of uniformity of provision: 'What each school teaches cannot be determined in isolation' (DES 1981:4).

Meanwhile, the Schools Council talked about an 'irreducible minimum to which every pupil should have a right of access' (Schools Council 1981:14).

In a speech in Sheffield in January 1984 the Secretary of State said he intended to seek 'broad agreement about the objectives of the 5-16 curriculum', and the following year HMI spoke of the essential features of such a curriculum as being breadth, balance, relevance, differentiation and continuity (HMI 1985:7).

On 9 January 1987 the Secretary of State reiterated his determination to proceed with a 'national' curriculum and identified these three features of it:

  • it would need frequent revision, and flexibility to leave room for professional initiatives;
  • it would be worked out by a 'national process' - it 'cannot just reflect what the Government thinks best, or what the LEAs or teachers think best, or what the consumers think best'; and
  • it must not extend to the whole of the curriculum (ie it would represent a core curriculum).
The LEAs have already started working out a consultative procedure to put to Secretary of State Kenneth Baker. The wave is about to break, so teachers had better start thinking about the part they can play in the process before it crashes around their heads and sweeps them out to sea.


What, then, of the validity of the core curriculum ideal? Kelly (1982:222) suggests three arguments for it:

  • philosophical/epistomological arguments based on particular views about the nature of knowledge;
  • social/sociological arguments of what society and its culture are or ought to be; and
  • political/economic arguments about meeting the demands of a technological society.
With regard to the first of these arguments, 'since certain kinds of knowledge have a status and value superior to others they have a prior claim for inclusion in any curriculum that is to be regarded as educational in the full sense' (Kelly 1982:222). But which kinds of knowledge, and who is to decide? As Kelly says, it is very difficult to claim any objective status for knowledge and even more difficult 'to demonstrate the superiority of certain kinds of knowledge and human activity over others' (Kelly 1982:226).

Proponents of the second argument would see the job of a schools as being 'to transmit the culture of the society ... to all pupils' (Kelly 1982:223). The problem here again is, who decides on this selection from the culture? The Secretary of State? Further:

to impose one culture, one set of values on all pupils regardless of their origins, their social class, race or creed is to risk at best offering them a curriculum that is irrelevant, meaningless and alienating and at worst using the education system as a means of effecting an inhibiting form of social control (Kelly 1982:228).
Finally, the political/economic argument. To decree that all pupils shall have a larger scientific and/or technological curriculum component than at present is to go down the road followed by the USSR where 'prime consideration in establishing a central core to the curriculum is the economic needs of the society' (Kelly 1982:225). This argument has nothing to do with values or superiority, it is entirely utilitarian. Kelly is particularly opposed to it:
an opportunity to develop an educational provision for each pupil that might be meaningful to him in his own terms will be lost and at the same time his freedom to choose for himself will be infringed beyond any point that can be justified on educational grounds ... it is one thing to attempt to justify requiring pupils to engage in certain kinds of activity on the grounds that we believe this will be good for them, it is quite another to justify it as being good for society (Kelly 1982:229-230).
Skilbeck, on the other hand, suggests that the core curriculum ideal is valid because, to a certain extent, it already exists. Even Kelly agrees with this, suggesting that the 'hidden constraints and influences' mean that the curricula of most schools in the UK demonstrate 'their similarities rather than their differences' (Kelly 1982:221).

Skilbeck further suggests that even the 'deschoolers' have a core curriculum of a sort - even if it is only some vague notion of the skills required for 'basic survival and social participation' (Skilbeck 1984:166).

Other arguments put forward for a core curriculum are

  • continuity for pupils moving from one school to another; and
  • the need for all pupils to study a 'balanced' curriculum.
However, as Kelly points out, 'a balanced curriculum, like a balanced diet, must be suited to the needs of the individual' (Kelly 1982:242). 'We would rightly look with suspicion on a doctor who prescribed the same diet or medicines for all of his patients' (Kelly 1982:243). And again, if balance means balance of 'subjects', we should remember that 'education consists of learning through subjects rather than the learning of subjects' (Kelly 1982:242).

The questions to be addressed, then, are, what kind of core curriculum and who is to decide? Will there be a list of subjects, central syllabuses, laid down methods, hours per week, times of day, permitted text-books? 'To achieve a common curriculum ... it is not enough to specify which subjects it must contain' (Kelly 1982:231).

Kelly argues that a national curriculum should be no more than a framework of principles: 'broad procedural principles, then, are the only basis for curriculum planning' (Kelly 1982:243). There are already great pressures on schools to conform - the organisational structure of secondary schools and universities, the public exam system, the traditional views of parents and pupils, the nature of teacher training courses. Do we need more constraints?

Apart then, from the practical matter of pupils moving from school to school, I am only convinced of the validity of the core curriculum ideal if it is limited to a framework of principles.


What of the feasibility of a core curriculum? We have already noted some of the problems, in particular the questions as to what such a curriculum should include and who should decide.

Skilbeck suggests that decisions could be made in one of three ways: by central diktat, by individual schools autonomously, or by a participatory agreement.

He rightly dismisses the first as being inconsistent with an open, pluralist society. Central diktat would be 'likely to fail ... because of both the ideological resistance it generates and the severe difficulties of diffusion and implementation' (Skilbeck 1984:158). Kelly is even firmer about the consequences of any real attempt to impose a common curriculum:

the teacher's role would be reduced to that of a puppet, operated by remote control and able to exercise professional judgement only in the very limited sphere of immediate methodology, if it is possible even there ... if we do not accept that this is a proper role for teachers, we cannot accept the idea of a common curriculum (Kelly 1982:232-233).
Skilbeck also dismisses the second idea (that schools should autonomously decide on a common curriculum). There would be too much variation between individual schools where lack of particular expertise or resources would limit the range of subjects or themes offered. It would lead to parochialism in an ever-shrinking world. It would exacerbate the problems encountered by pupils moving from school to school. It would make the transition from primary to secondary school more difficult. In essence, it would diminish equality of opportunity.
While it is necessary that schools play a major part in curriculum planning, design and development, their role is not sufficient to meet all the requirements ... the nature and limits of curriculum decisions as between the community and its representative agencies (central and local government, voluntary bodies) and the teachers and schools [needs] to be determined. This is precisely what is at issue in Britain in the 1980s (Skilbeck 1984:153).
He goes on to argue that 'what the teachers have constructed - accepting that their constructions are constrained in many ways - are curricula which have met with well-merited criticism' (Skilbeck 1984:155).

So, having dismissed central diktat and school autonomy, Skilbeck is left with participatory agreement as the only viable way to arrive at a core curriculum. 'Core curriculum is that part of the whole curriculum which, in broad outline, is common to all schools and students, is defined by partnership by both central and local bodies, and is interpreted by schools' (Skilbeck 1984:155).

It is a pity that the Conservative government, having abolished the Schools Council and abandoned the Central Advisory Councils, is now left with no obvious body to coordinate the necessary discussions by the partners in education and has therefore 'moved in to fill a vacuum' (Skilbeck 1984:158).

There is no doubt that something must be done - if only because central government has created a climate in which the public expects something to be done. It is a measure of the manipulation of public opinion which has been going on for ten years now, that something which was once regarded with great suspicion is now accepted by all the major political parties. 'The taboo has been lifted ... present patchiness is now thought worse than the risk of dull uniformity or political manipulation' (Leader TES 27 March 1987).

The big question then, is:

are we to leave everything in the hands of the teachers and risk the occasional disaster when they abuse the freedom this gives them? Or are we to remove this freedom and risk not only inefficiency of teaching and inadequacies of educational provision but also the charge of attempting either to indoctrinate children with a particular system of values or of using them to serve the ends of the state? (Kelly 1982:237).
Somewhere between these two extremes lies a happy medium and only if it can be found will a core curriculum prove valid and feasible.


DES (1981) The School Curriculum London: HMSO

DES/Welsh Office (1979) Local Education Authority Arrangements for the School Curriculum Report on the Circular 14/77 Review London: HMSO

HMI (1980) A View of the Curriculum (Matters for Discussion 11) London: HMSO

HMI (1985) The Curriculum from 5 to 16 (Curriculum Matters 2) London: HMSO

Kelly AV (1982) The curriculum: theory and practice London: Harper and Row

Schools Council (1981) The practical curriculum (Working Paper 70) London: Schools Council/Methuen

Skilbeck M (1984) School-based curriculum development London: Harper and Row

This article is a modified version of an essay submitted in April 1987 as part of my Diploma in Education course at the University of London Institute of Education.