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The National Curriculum and the role of the primary teacher in curriculum development
Derek Gillard
March 1988

copyright Derek Gillard 1988
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Gillard D (1988) The National Curriculum and the role of the primary teacher in curriculum development

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ABSTRACT Written just before the introduction of the National Curriculum, this piece attempts to assess the likely impact of an imposed curriculum on the primary teacher's role as curriculum developer.


As the 1967 Plowden Report Children and their Primary Schools noted, teachers had had an increasing measure of control over the curriculum since the ending of the payment by results system in 1898 and the abandonment of the Elementary Code in 1926. This is not to suggest, however, that teachers made use of this new freedom. 'The force of tradition and the inherent conservatism of all teaching professions made for a slow rate of change' (Plowden 1967:189). However, it is clear that teachers did have greater control over what was taught and how it was taught in the middle years of the twentieth century. Indeed, it came to be generally recognised that this was rightly their concern, so that the curriculum became known as 'the secret garden' (the term was first used by Lord Eccles, Minister of Education, in 1960) into which others - even those directly concerned with educational provision - were not expected to stray.

There are four main reasons why this situation was generally approved of.

Firstly, education was increasingly seen as being concerned with the needs and interests of the individual child, and it is clearly only the teacher who is in a position to understand the needs of the individual:

A curriculum consists of experiences developed from learners' needs and characteristics (as opposed to the needs of society), and a large measure of freedom for both teacher and learner is a necessary condition for education of this kind (Kelly 1982:140).
Secondly, teachers have the classroom experience necessary for appropriate curriculum development. 'Curriculum research and development ought to belong to the teacher' (Stenhouse 1975:142).

Thirdly, schools must take their full share of responsibility for curriculum development if they are to be lively educational institutions. 'We cannot expect a school to be a vital centre of education if it is denied a role of self-determination and self-direction' (Skilbeck 1984:14).

And fourthly, schools have been shown to be the most stable institutions to undertake this important work. Many other bodies which over the years have been involved in curriculum initiatives no longer exist or have lost their independence: the Schools Council in the UK, regional laboratories and university research and development centres in the USA and the Australian Curriculum Development Centre are examples.

None of this is to suggest, however, that it was only teachers who had a say in curriculum development. There are many constraints and influences on schools - Skilbeck (1984:9) cites 'the views and preferences of parents, students, the employment market, the state's interest in responsible citizenship and those in higher and further education.' To which could be added the examination system, local education authorities (through resourcing and in-service training provision) and, increasingly now, school governing bodies. So teachers do not - should not - have total control of the curriculum: it would be quite unreasonable to expect either an individual teacher or a single school's staff to have the necessary breadth of expertise and experience to do so effectively.

Some writers have suggested that the teacher's control was never as powerful as has been widely believed. Lawton, for example, asserts that 'one of the myths about secondary education in England is that there is a long tradition of teacher control over the curriculum' (Lawton 1980:13). However, from the mid-forties to the mid-seventies, teachers collectively and individually had an increasingly powerful say in the curriculum and its development - especially in primary schools, where the abolition of the eleven-plus exam gave staff enormous freedom and encouragement to experiment and innovate. Much of the Plowden Committee's report seemed to legitimate this experimentation.

The 'Great Debate'

The picture began to change with Prime Minister Jim Callaghan's Ruskin College speech in 1976. From this moment on, it was clear that central government intended to enter 'the secret garden'. A plethora of official documents from the mandarins of the DES and from HMI followed, all seeking to influence what was being taught. In 1979 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 1981 they seemed to draw back somewhat and suggested that 'neither the government nor the local authorities should specify in detail what the schools should teach' (DES 1981:3). In 1984 the Secretary of State was talking of 'broad agreement about the objectives of the 5-16 curriculum' and by 1987 he was indicating his determination to proceed with a 'national' curriculum.

In all this, the teacher was being pushed back into second (if not third or fourth) place. The White Paper Better Schools (1981) for example, made but the barest mention of the teacher as curriculum developer. The abolition of the Schools Council (which had been teacher dominated) hastened the process. One cannot escape the feeling that central government was becoming increasingly concerned about the ability of professionals to do the job. And now, in 1988, 'schools' independence in curricular matters, which has long bewildered foreigners, is about to disappear' (The Observer 15 March 1987).

The National Curriculum

The National Curriculum: a consultative document, published by the DES and the Welsh Office in July 1987, and reports which have appeared since, indicate a further - and much greater - diminution of the role of the primary teacher in curriculum development.

There is much in the consultative document with which one can agree: 'Pupils should be entitled to the same opportunities wherever they go to school' (DES 1987:3); 'all pupils, regardless of sex, ethnic origin and geographical location, [should] have access to broadly the same good and relevant curriculum' (DES 1987:4); there should be 'relevance to and links with pupils' own experiences' (DES 1987:4).

But there are many contentious statements, too: children should be equipped with 'the knowledge, skills and understanding that they need for adult life and employment' (DES 1987:3). Is this the primary aim of the curriculum?

Then there is much about comparing pupils, classes, schools and LEAs. Schools, for example, would be compared 'against the local and national picture as a whole' (DES 1987:4). This flies in the face of all the efforts which have been made to try to avoid such comparisons which are so often misleading and sometimes just plain odious. As the National Association of Head Teachers has pointed out, schools are being forced more and more 'into unnecessary and unhealthy competition and into defensive postures which do nothing to raise or maintain the morale of the teachers in them' (NAHT 1987).

What will the content of the National Curriculum look like? First, it is clear that it will be subject-based. The government says it wants schools to have 'flexibility about how they organise their teaching' (DES 1987:9) and stresses that 'The description of the national curriculum in terms of foundation subjects is not a description of how the school day should be organised and the curriculum delivered' (DES 1987:9). However, the document goes on to state that 'The clear objectives for what pupils should be able to know, do and understand will be framed in subject terms' (DES 1987:9).

Furthermore, the proportion of each week to be spent on the various subjects will be specified (DES 1987:7). The only concession to primary practice in this area is in paragraph 71 where we read that 'a special group or sub-group to cover integrated studies in the primary phase may be needed' (DES 1987:26). However, by November 1987 Secretary of State Kenneth Baker had softened his line on precise percentages of the week to be spent on each subject, as The Independent reported. The crucial point, though, is that 'politicians in all parties want to get their hands on the content of study' (TES 27 November 1987).

Will it be a framework which leaves the teacher free to choose appropriate work and teaching strategies? The document is ambiguous. It suggests that:

legislation should leave full scope for professional judgement ... There must be space to accommodate the enterprise of teachers, offering them sufficient flexibility in the choice of content to adapt what they teach to the needs of the individual pupil, to try out and develop new approaches, and to develop in pupils those personal qualities which cannot be written into a programme of study or attainment target (DES 1987:11).
(This is the document's one and only allusion to the 'hidden' curriculum).

The document claims that the curriculum will be 'a framework not a straitjacket' (DES 1987:5) but it goes on to talk of 'attainment targets and programmes of work' (DES 1987:6) which will be recommended by subject working groups appointed by the Secretaries of State. We are told that there will be 'non-statutory guidance' on the proportion of time to be devoted to the core subjects (Maths, English and Science) (DES 1987:8); that 'the majority of curriculum time at primary level should be devoted to the core subjects' (DES 1987:6); and that 'the degree of definition will be greatest for the three core subjects' (DES 1987:6).

In other words, primary teachers must spend most of their time on Maths, English and Science, the content of which will be tightly defined. Mr Baker claims that his Bill is all about the pursuit of excellence but it seems to be much more to do with constraints on teachers and pupils.

If learning can be prescribed in this way and teachers and children can be constrained to play the parts assigned to them by Parliament, then it is reasonable to hope for less failure. Whether this is the same as the pursuit of excellence is not clear. (TES 8 January 1988)
There does not seem to be much scope, then, for teacher initiative in terms of curriculum design or content.


It is important to recognise the document's essential link between curriculum content and assessment and the importance it attaches to the latter. The programmes of study 'will reflect the attainment targets' (DES 1987:10). Compare the NAHT's view that 'assessment should develop out of the curriculum and not be used to determine it' (NAHT 1987). Will teachers have some control over the arrangements for assessment? The document suggests otherwise - indeed, it appears that the government is not even happy with present arrangements: 'not all GCSE criteria are sufficiently specific' (DES 1987:10). It would appear, then, that teachers are not to be trusted to devise assessment arrangements.

Assessment 'so that pupils can be stretched further when they are doing well and given more help when they are not' (DES 1987:4) is surely something all would support, but will the testing be of this diagnostic type? There seems to be dispute about this amongst the members of the Task Group on Assessment and Testing, and, perhaps more significantly, between Mrs Thatcher and Mr Baker. Apparently Mrs Thatcher 'is opposed to the proposals of Mr Baker's task group on assessment and testing and favours simpler external tests of children at seven, 11 and 14' (The Guardian 10 March 1988).

But teachers, surely, could be trusted to operate the assessment procedures once they have been devised? This too seems unlikely. The document states that 'at the heart of the assessment process there will be nationally prescribed tests done by all pupils to supplement the individual teacher's assessments' (DES 1987:11). However, 'their marking - and their assessments overall - will be externally moderated' (DES 1987:11).

So it looks as though the government does not trust the teachers. A letter recently leaked to The Guardian (10 March 1988) expressed the government's fear that 'the teachers and local education authorities will have far too big a say in carrying out the proposed new tests'. Once again, central government's lack of confidence in the professionals' ability to do the job is clear.


Two new bodies are to be set up to administer aspects of the National Curriculum - the National Curriculum Council (NCC) and the School Examinations and Assessment Council (SEAC). Both will be statutory and appointed by the Secretary of State. It is not clear whether teachers will be included in their membership. The NCC, for example, 'will include amongst others people with a range of experience about education, appointed in a personal rather than a representative capacity' (DES 1987:16). Whoever its members are, however, it will be the Secretary of State who will have the final say over testing and examinations and power to amend programmes and targets: 'The Bill will give the Secretaries of State power to make Orders establishing or amending the attainment targets and programmes of study for each foundation subject' (DES 1987:17).

(Incidentally, arrangements in Scotland are quite different: 'Their Consultative Council for the Curriculum was set up before the curriculum guidelines were written. The guidelines have not been entrenched in statute, and they focus on areas of experience, not on subjects' (TES 11 December 1987).

What if teachers decide to ignore this legislative monolith? Besides incurring the wrath of HMI, they will have to answer to parents who will be able to pinpoint deficiencies in the delivery of the National Curriculum. Indeed, 'the whole burden of this "reform" is an expression of distrust of teacher and belief that just about every educated person (and all parents) know what teachers should be doing better than the teachers' (TES 31 July 1987).

What's left for the teacher?

The word 'delivery' has entered the educational vocabulary and seems to sum up the role of the teacher in the age of the National Curriculum, but Mr Baker should remember that 'the actual delivery of his curriculum will depend on a complex alchemy over which he has relatively little control' (Anne Sofer TES 1 January 1988).

It would appear, then, that the teacher is to have a very limited say in the design and content of the curriculum and will not be trusted to effect arrangements or procedures for testing and assessment. His/her role will be to deliver what has been handed down from on high. The question which must be asked is, how many teachers will find this a satisfying role?


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

DES (1981) The School Curriculum London: HMSO

DES (1987) The National Curriculum 5-16: a consultation document London: DES/Welsh Office

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

Lawton D (1980) The politics of the school curriculum London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

NAHT (1987) A response to the proposed National Curriculum Haywards Heath: NAHT

Plowden (1967) Children and their Primary Schools Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) London: HMSO

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

Stenhouse (1975) An introduction to curriculum research and development London: Heinemann

This article is a modified version of an essay submitted in March 1988 as part of my Diploma in Education course at the University of London Institute of Education.