The facts of the matter: England is shifting to a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’

This blog reflects on the Minister for School Standards' recent speech to the Social Market Foundation on reforms to implement a 'knowledge-rich curriculum' in England. You can watch the full speech below.

“School reform has been central to the Conservative agenda since 2010”, the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister for School Standards, told our virtual audience during a recent speech hosted by the Social Market Foundation. “We have made good progress but there is still more to do, and the challenge has become still more urgent by the days of lost education that have resulted from the pandemic.”

Since the introduction of new GCSEs by the former education secretary Michael Gove in 2014, changes to the English National Curriculum have shifted the emphasis towards ‘knowledge-rich’ learning. With the academic and future success of students seen as tied to the nature and structure of the curriculum, reforms to prioritise ‘knowledge’ have sparked debate over the future direction of the English schooling system.

During his speech, Gibb, a strong proponent of knowledge-based learning, made two arguments about why such an approach should be adopted in England. First, he supports the pedagogical view that emphasising knowledge over general skills will improve pupil outcomes and school standards. Second, he argues that teaching subject-specific knowledge will contribute to the formation of a more cohesive society. The 2019 Ofsted Education Framework mirrors the minister’s sentiments, stressing that schools must offer comprehensive education programmes that provide their students with “the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life”.

So what is a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum? Does it simply mean memorising facts through rote learning? Unsurprisingly, it is more ambiguous than that and is interpreted differently throughout the education sector. Broadly, however, the concept focuses on the role knowledge plays in forming student’s abilities to read and understand as well as on the empowerment of students through teaching what Michael Young coined as ‘powerful knowledge’. Many who support the idea seemingly consider knowledge as a pre-requisite for almost all future studies – a virtuous cycle in which foundational knowledge sows the seeds for future learning – and that when planning curricula, primacy should be given to knowledge-based learning.

A knowledge-rich curriculum, critics have argued, is based on the assumption that “… some knowledge is more powerful than others, that this is knowledge which should be in the curriculum and that all pupils have an entitlement to it”. In a 2018 research paper, Ofsted described a this approach as one in which curriculum leaders have a clear idea of the ‘invaluable knowledge they want pupils to know’. That raises a very fundamental question: what knowledge should be deemed as ‘invaluable’ to a child’s learning, and who should make that decision?

Gibb stressed the need for cultural figures such as Mozart, Shakespeare, and Newton to be included in the national curriculum, stating that “an excellent curriculum in any discipline ought to be a curated tour of the most influential creators of the knowledge that contributes to that particular discipline.” He readily dismissed any criticisms that such knowledge may be outdated: “there is no reason why the work of a ‘dead white man’ is not appropriate for children from ethnic minorities to learn about”. The minister justified his claims by recounting the poet Maya Angelou’s famous words – “Shakespeare must be a black girl”, supposedly because the playwright’s poetic words expressed “so intensely what she, a victim of poverty, racism and childhood sexual abuse, felt inside.”

Following the pandemic, reforms to the national curriculum have been presented as part of the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda. In his speech the minister suggested that introducing a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum is necessary to reduce the gap between children from affluent backgrounds and those families where education can “take a back seat to the trials of day-to-day living”. Gibb argued that by prioritising teaching knowledge, the school system can help spread opportunity across the country, therefore, creating a more “inclusive and cohesive society, a society in which argument and debate is based on evidence rather than emotion.”

The minister’s view on reforming the national curriculum isn’t universally accepted, not even within his own party. The former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, alongside eight former education secretaries, recently called for an overhaul of GCSEs suggesting that the exams placed too much stress on young students. In his speech Gibb rejected this assertion, claiming that the “tried and tested” GCSE model should remain, and that the abolition of standardised exams would not only take the education system back a hundred years but would also “fail the most disadvantaged of children”.

With A-level and GCSE examinations likely to be disrupted for the third year in a row next summer, now is an important time to reflect on the current and future direction of teaching and learning in England’s school system. As my colleague Aveek Bhattacharya writes elsewhere this week, Scotland has taken its curriculum in almost the opposite direction to that which the Minister is suggesting for England. This should leave pause for thought, in both Westminster and Holyrood, as to how reforms can best ensure that the damage of months of learning lost to COVID-19 is mitigated in the best interests of all schoolchildren.

This blog is based on a recent speech from the Minister for School Standards, the Rt Hon Nick Gibb, hosted by the Social Market Foundation. You can watch the event below.


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