The Control of Policy and Practice: The Case of the Core Curriculum

Article excerpt

Abstract: The idea of a carefully managed curriculum, tightly controlled, has been with us for some time and for all the changes has remained focussed on the 'core curriculum' of English, Maths and Science. Questions remain whether this policy has been successful in terms of pupil performance. At the least, the central tenets of a core curriculum should expect to be understood by the pupils. In order to test this, 195 semi-structured interviews were undertaken with pupils representing the socio-economic differences of the population as a whole. The interviews explored in depth what they understood of the core curriculum, how relevant it was, whether it helped them to develop skills and whether it would support their future aspirations. The results were disturbing.

Introduction

The growing international emphasis on educational policy has created a rhetoric of its own. There is an assumption that the 'reform' of education is vital to economic growth and that a 'learning society' consists of the flexible skills of a new workforce in which the future (and the competition) lies. The notion of 'reform' derives from the constant criticism of the status quo as if all those in education are failing to perform. All aspects of educational system come under scrutiny in a sign of centralisation. The policy makers wish to be in control. They blame the 'status quo' to justify their interference. Whatever their reasons, we see the centralisation of education in nearly all developed countries.

One sign of the desire to control, certainly in the United Kingdom, is the manipulation of educational research. The way this has happened is typical. First there were reports of the low standards of research, how irrelevant it was to practitioners and how badly carried out (Tooley, 1998). This was followed by the demand that in order to raise standards, research needed to be made more instrumental to justify the policy makers and to demonstrate what works best. At the same time, the rhetoric of 'research based policy,' actually nearer policy-led research, was used to justify the proposal of centering all educational research in a few centres of excellence. These were promoted as being independent of government interference but would, in fact, be as independent as other QUANGOs, as independent, that is as the suppliers of goods to Sainsburys or Wal-Mart.

The phenomenon of centralised control is widespread. Whilst research studies have demonstrated that such close interference with practice has the opposite effect to that intended (Dalin et al, 1994) many more have shown at how many different levels the politicians are in control. There are ironies in this. The ideologies of market forces and the independence of management continue to be furthered, but in matters of the curriculum, the outcomes and even styles of teaching, the central government is firmly in command. The United Kingdom might be an extreme case (Alexander, 2000) but it is not alone in seeking to create a uniform system, tightly managed. The justification for such an approach lies in the suspicion of what was called the 'secret garden' of the curriculum. There was suspicion that what was being taught was not in agreement with the agenda of the government.

This centralisation of policy is rarely questioned. The language used to justify it, like 'raising standards,' makes those who have their doubts sound as if they wish to lower them or, equally culpable in the metaphysics of this outlook, return to the past. All in the education system are supposed to be accountable. Not only must they perform better and better, meeting ever more demanding targets but also will they be inspected to make sure they are doing so. In the United Kingdom, it is not only schools that are being held to account in this type of inspection, but they are perhaps most subject to league tables, special measures (which means being taken over by government representatives) and being 'named and shamed'. …