Curriculum reform: View from the Department


Since the publication of the draft national curriculum, SecEd has hosted a range of debate on its content. Here, education minister Elizabeth Truss argues the government’s case.

Six weeks ago we launched a consultation on the draft national curriculum. And it has, just as we thought and just as it should, prompted debate – be it about the role of cookery and the design process in design and technology or the important figures in history and English literature.

But in debating the content of the national curriculum, we should not neglect the growing importance of the school curriculum. Last month, I spoke with some National Leaders of Education – outstanding headteachers and principals who support schools that face challenging circumstances. They are involved in enabling reform on the ground.

Many of the most exciting things that will happen as a result of our reforms will not appear in the documents we released. That is because one of the most important changes is to give schools and teachers much greater flexibility over how they teach to give maximum opportunity to create exciting, challenging lessons that will inspire the next generation.

Rather than the current detailed specifications for each subject, the new national curriculum is a framework; core content around which schools can build their own school curricula and their ethos for how their pupils are taught. 

We are simply laying the trellises, defining the borders and marking out the footpaths. The way the garden will grow is down to teachers. Because pupils are not inspired by dry statements devised in Whitehall but by living people in their classrooms explaining why things are important or interesting.

We are determined to combine exacting standards about where students should be at key points in their schooling with much greater freedom for schools. We have specified the “what” at a high level, but believe that the “how” is very much the professional responsibility of teachers.

Evidence from the OECD shows very clearly that systems that give greater autonomy to the frontline coupled with strong accountability are the most successful and importantly the most capable of raising their game. The new slimmer, sparser national curriculum marks a culture shift. There will be no new statutory document laying out to teachers how to do their job, no National Strategies telling teachers everything that they have to do, and no national roll-out on how they have to do it.

A greater proportion of education money now goes to the frontline so schools can properly deploy their budgets on developing professional practice in their schools. Responsibility for bringing the curriculum to life lies with headteachers and teachers. 

It is a great opportunity and, yes, responsibility. The reason we are proposing to disapply the curriculum next year is precisely so heads have a full year to decide how they want to apply the new curriculum, so they can maximise its opportunities.

Many brilliant schools already develop their own curriculum and materials – the likes of Pimlico Academy in central London, which has developed an entire new curriculum, or Woodberry Down in Hackney, which has created its own learning materials to enable children to do advanced fractions, multiplication and division in a fun way that will stick with them for life.

We want all schools in England to be examining evidence of effective teaching and developing professionals to deliver the new curriculum. 

To do this, there will be support through subject specialists like the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics or the Institute of Physics, who do such great work in helping schools to teach their subjects in an inspirational way. 

The Prince’s Teaching Institute works in partnership with Cambridge University to develop CPD courses and run a network of schools that participate in a Schools Programme and help organise regional events.

This sort of exchange of information and ideas will be typical of education systems that succeed in the 21st century. Happily, modern technology makes such exchanges simpler and faster.

The flip-side of this is that the advanced nature of technology provides a particularly strong imperative for creating an up-to-date, flexible education system. It is both an opportunity and a challenge: technology can be immensely helpful in delivering the curriculum but it also raises the stakes – we will fall hopelessly behind in the global race if we do not equip successive generations with contemporary skills. 

The world’s best performing jurisdictions have a blend of strong accountability, a world-class curriculum and freedom for heads. They recognise as we do that greater freedom over how to deliver achieves better results.

  • Elizabeth Truss is Parliamentary under secretary of state for education and childcare. Her responsibilities include assessment, qualifications, and curriculum reform and Ofqual.

What do you think?
Do you agree with Elizabeth Truss? What do you think of the government’s new national curriculum? Write to SecEd via
See also SecEd Editorial: Curriculum review is sidelining expert opinion.


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