Curriculum reforms show how the UK is drifting apart

Much was familiar in the argument of Nick Gibb’s speech last week, hosted by the SMF. Extolling the value of a “knowledge-rich” school curriculum that seeks to familiarise children with the “best that has been thought and said”, rather than an approach that emphasises the development of more general skills and aptitudes, it largely echoed the themes of a speech Michael Gove made to us as education secretary in 2013 – as well as Gibb’s own words in the past. By this point, it is probably fair to say that the knowledge-based approach is the orthodoxy in England, following reforms introduced by Gibb and his Conservative colleagues.

What is less discussed is the way that this marks England out from its neighbours – an example of how the United Kingdom is moving in different directions in terms of policy as well as politics. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, implemented over the last decade, takes quite a different tack, prioritising the development of ‘four capacities’ (the ability to be a successful learner, confident individual, responsible citizen and effective contributor) over instilling knowledge of facts. The Welsh Government’s curriculum reforms have largely been modelled on the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, similarly focusing on ‘generic skills’ – which Gibb described as “one of the most damaging myths in education today” – over subject-specific knowledge, aiming to develop ‘four purposes’ that broadly mirror the four capacities.

If we compare it to the wider world, England appears even further out on a limb. Wales isn’t alone in following Scotland’s lead – school systems in Australia, Estonia, Finland, Japan, New Zealand, Ontario and British Columbia have taken a similar path in recent years. The Scottish approach has received significant support from the OECD, which recently described it as “an inspiring example equated with good curriculum practice internationally”.

That isn’t necessarily to say that the English knowledge-focused approach is wrong. In education – as much if not more than other areas of policy – policy trends come and go. While there is a strong consensus in Scotland behind the principles of the Curriculum for Excellence, there are some prominent dissenting voices that believe it to be fundamentally misguided. But England is, in significant ways, swimming against the tide by rejecting what OECD’s Education Director calls “the 21st Century learning movement”.

At the same time, we should be wary of overstating the knowledge vs skills dichotomy. In reality, it is very difficult to teach skills in the abstract without also imparting knowledge – indeed, advocates of a skills-based approach often bristle at the suggestion that they are somehow ‘anti-knowledge’. Conversely, we might hope that in the process of acquiring specific knowledge, students develop more general skills (like improving their memory or ability to make connections across different areas) – indeed, some argue that it is the best way to develop such skills.

In practice, there appears to be something of a divide between different stages of the Scottish school system in terms of their relative focus on skills and knowledge. Whereas the skills-oriented philosophy of the Curriculum for Excellence has been relatively well absorbed into the Broad General Curriculum that students experience to the age of 15, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect to the Senior Phase which runs from 15-18, where approaches to assessment still place significant emphasis on subject-based knowledge. The OECD’s recent review of the Curriculum for Excellence called for the Senior Phase to be brought more into line with earlier stages, for example, using different assessment techniques to test different capacities and limit rote learning. However, it also suggested there is a risk of knowledge being under-emphasised for younger pupils: “It may be that the place given to knowledge in the CfE is too implicit and that overall representation of capacities creates the misleading impression that a strong knowledge base is no longer a priority”.

Nor is the English system homogenous. Research conducted by Ofsted in 2018 in a small sample of English schools found that around a third followed a ‘knowledge-led’ approach to their curriculum and a small minority pursued a ‘skills-led’ approach. The largest group, however, comprising around half the schools, took a ‘knowledge-engaged’ approach – rejecting the notion that skills and knowledge are in tension, and instead trying to develop both (albeit with different emphases).

It’s not clear how coherent or effective these efforts to synthesise knowledge and skills are. Yet while the OECD’s report will put pressure on the Scottish Government and education system (and by extension their counterparts in Wales) to bring the two into harmony, Nick Gibb’s speech indicates that the Government in England is doubling down. Whether you see that as admirable commitment to principle or wilful dogmatism, England is continuing its drift away from the other UK nations.


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