Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Reclaim Your Classes: A Lesson from Occupy: Comment

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Reclaim Your Classes: A Lesson from Occupy: Comment

Article excerpt

Choosing the curriculum is a democratic right - so exercise it.

Two years ago, outraged by the perverse realities of the economic crisis, demonstrators began to occupy parts of our world cities' financial districts. Although the protests died down without clear political gains, the collective voice of "the 99 per cent" inspired others, from various Arab Spring uprisings to the recent unrest in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

At the same time as state-sponsored "market forces" were gambling with other people's money, triggering the Occupy movement, allied forces were at work on most countries' education systems. Despite the rhetoric around school autonomy, the general thrust of curriculum policy in the developed world has been highly centralising.

This has taken the form of increasingly prescribed content and the tightening of what the chair of the expert panel advising on England's new national curriculum, Tim Oates, ominously described as the "control factors" that, in his words, create curriculum "coherence". These procedures (in particular, accountability regimes) ensure that schools teach what central government has deemed appropriate, by minimising the difference between the curriculum on paper and the "enacted curriculum" shaped by teachers in classrooms.

Analysis by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2012 on curriculum innovation reveals that, despite the decentralising thrust of educational reforms over the past 20 years, in many if not most OECD countries, the influence of central authorities on curriculum has strengthened, both over its content and other control factors. In Australia, a national curriculum is seizing the initiative from separate states. Even in the US, whose constitution forbids the formation of a national curriculum, the "Common Core" national standards are rapidly being implemented by many states.

This is partly driven by the desire for greater equity of provision, to pass on a canon of national "core knowledge", and to ensure that all children learn the content deemed necessary for them to thrive. However, as US educational commentator Diane Ravitch catalogues in her latest book, Reign of Error, federal curricular control has also been lobbied for and welcomed by foundations, private sponsors and multinationals with clear vested interests in removing freedom from individual schools.

Despite the OECD's evidence for the importance of curricular autonomy for schools, and Andreas Schleicher's description of curriculum building as a "grand social project", the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which Schleicher coordinates for the OECD, may also ironically be stimulating an international centralisation of the curriculum, as nations redesign their curricula with global league tables in mind.

When, inspired or battered by Pisa results, countries look to others for curricular inspiration, they tend to seek out what other successful so- called "jurisdictions", from Singapore to Finland, appear to be mandating. This is the wrong starting point. Instead of mere policy-borrowing from other countries, focusing on what their curricula include, our first question should always be, "Who should decide what each school's curriculum includes and why?" This is not just about the evidence of "what works". It's about reclaiming the power to create curricula as a fundamental democratic right of every school.

Throughout the world, many schools are occupying their curricula as a result (or in spite) of government encouragement. …

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