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A Discussion of Political and Social Factors Which Affect the National Curriculum and Consequent Impact on Assessment

This essay will discuss political and social impacts on the National Curriculum and how this effects and drives changes, learning and assessments.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ’learning’ as: knowledge or skills acquired through experience or study or by being taught, and ‘knowledge’ as: information and skills acquired through experience or education (Soanese et al., 2006).

Learning for children begins at birth and they learn faster and more during the early years than at any other stage of their lives. A learning curriculum should therefore be one that achieves the development of social, emotional, cognitive and physical skills to lay foundations for characteristics, abilities and skills for future life, but must be closely related to stages and sequences of development (O’Hagan and Smith,1999).

The foundation for the first ‘national’ state education system in England was the 1870 Foster Education Act. The 1830’s and 1840’s saw policies that were intended to resolve social class conflict, but by the 1870’s a new class of society was emerging and education policies now reflected economic changes. Industrialisation and urbanisation in the nineteenth century led to the government partially financing elementary schools and saw the creation of an Education Office staffed by political officers and civil servants, which is still a government office today (Bates, Lewis and Pickard, 2011).

The twentieth century saw education policy dominated by the effect of two wars, (1914-18 and 1939-45) and the economic depression following the Wall Street Crash (1921-22). The effect of the war meant that the government needed to ensure people’s skills were able to meet the demands of an emerging global economy and a government able to meet the needs of its people. The Labour government elected in 1924 appointed the Hadow Committee to fulfil its commitment to secondary education. The committee recommended all children should attend primary school until the age of eleven or twelve and then move to secondary school. Secondary schools would either be existing grammar schools or new schools would be built called ‘modern’ schools. The committee also wanted to raise the school leaving age to fifteen years (Bates, Lewis and Pickard, 2011).

Unfortunately the Labour government were in power for less than twelve months and the newly elected Conservative government rejected the recommendations. The Conservatives government had its focal point on the economy and appeared to see secondary education as a luxury, not a given. It is unlikely this view would have been shared by the Hadow Committee, but they could have agreed that different levels of intelligence in children require different levels of schooling. A view that would shape secondary education and its format over the next twenty years (Bates, Lewis and Pickard, 2011).

From 1944 onwards as governments became more interested in controlling the education system as Fisher, points out there was ‘unprecedented political centralisation of education’ (Fisher,2008).

When Margaret Thatcher’s government were elected in 1979 their objective was to change the whole education system. The Conservative agenda promoted a more ‘market economy’ ideology with focus on improving standards driven by centralised government control of the education curriculum, more parental choice of where to educate their children, plus more national testing and assessments and school inspections. New Labour, elected in 1997 had education at the forefront of their policies and aimed to raise standards by a partnership with parents, teachers and the local authorities. Labours aim was to eradicate child poverty, raise education standards and improve skills to enable more people to gain employment. Critics may argue that rather than the education policies benefitting children they were more a move to encourage women to return to the workforce, thus benefitting the economy and making families less reliant on state benefits (Bates, Lewis and Pickard, 2011).

In order to introduce a more consistent approach to education, the government introduced, the 1998 Education Act. The Act saw the introduction of a National Curriculum for England and Wales. The curriculum now set out guidelines on what subjects children should study and be taught in order to prepare them for adult life, and how testing and standards would be monitored. It could be argued that by introducing a set National curriculum for all to follow there isn’t any scope for teachers / practitioners to adjust to the different levels of children’s learning as the agenda was too rigid.(O’Hagan and Smith, 1999) .

A learning curriculum should be closely related to the different stages of a child’s development, but allow the development of children’s emotional, social and physical skills and supply them with the tools and resources necessary to support their learning. Many theorist have influenced the curriculum and the way children should learn and be educated including, Montessori and Piaget. (MacLeod – Brudenell et al.,2004).

Marie Montessori (1869-1952) was trained as a doctor and working in a psychiatric clinic led her to be interested in children’s development. Due to her medical background her approach to child development was more of a biological programme than an educational one, and as such she used her classroom more as a laboratory environment than an educational setting (Devereux,2003).

Montessori’s view was children had an inner and outer self and if children were given guidance by adults for their outer self, their inner self could take care of its self (Montessori et al., 2003). Children in her settings were divided into mixed age groups ranging from nought to eighteen years as this was seen as important for stages of learning, but also so they could learn from children around them. Montessori provided the children with a series of activities and materials, graded from easy to intricate in order to develop skills and knowledge.

Although a planned environment, children were allowed to work at their own pace as Montessori believed children learned more from spontaneous activity rather than repeating tasks, and teachers and adults were there for guidance only (O’Hagan and Smith,1999).

‘First the education of the senses, then the education of the intellect’. The essential thing is for the task to arouse such an interest that it engages the child’s whole personality’ (Montessori et al., 2003).

There is criticism of Montessori ‘s methods as the emphasis on the child taking responsibility for their own learning means less interaction with the teacher or other adults, which may have a negative effect on their social and language skills (O’Hagan and Smith,1999).Teachers roles are one of a guide and observer rather than a leader, and are not encouraged to intervene unless necessary which leads to a ‘de-centring’ of their role ( MacLeod – Brudenell et al.,2004).

The theorist Jean Piaget (1886-1980) suggested that children’s brains can adapt to their environment through experiences surrounding them and rather than learning by being given or told information, they learn by doing (MacLeod – Brudenell et al.,2004). Piaget believed children had four stages of development and each stage of development reflected their capability and that each stage had to be in place before they passed onto the next stage (O’Hagan and Smith,1999). Piaget developed the concept of schemas to understand how the ways in which knowledge is stored and developed in children. Somewhat like folders or files on a computer where information is stored, they are frequently enlarged or organised as children absorb and develop more knowledge from the world around them. Using Piaget’s theories in an educational setting, the teacher’s role would be to provide a stimulating and learning environment so children are able to explore for themselves and construct their own knowledge (schemas) based on their own experience, rather than being told by the teacher (MacLeod – Brudenell et al.,2004).

Piaget’s theories on development and learning was recognised in a report by the Plowden Committee (Central Advisory Council for Education 1967) which suggested:

‘Piaget’s explanation appears to fit the observed fact of children’s learning more satisfactorily than any other. It is in accord with what is generally regarded as the most effective primary school practice, as it has been worked empirically ‘ (Pollard and Pollard,2000). The Plowden report looked at the case for nursery education and reported that policies should prioritise the most disadvantaged children and those most in need, but also argued for more parental involvement in children’s education ( Bates, Lewis and Pickard,2011).

As the nation began to see the benefits of early years education, this encouraged the demand for more pre -school education. The government’s longing to make young children ‘school ready’ was driven by the need to improve education standards, particularly at primary level Sylva et al., 2007).

‘We are persuaded that the gains made by children who receive high quality pre school education will reduce the need for remedial education at a later stage, help to ensure we do not waste talent and perhaps also reduce the social costs which arise from youth unemployment and juvenile crime’ (Education and the Paul Foundation National Commission, 1993).

By the 1970’s the education system was seen to be in decline and the Conservative government policies aimed to improve this ‘failing system’ by introducing quality, choice, diversity and accountability and the National Curriculum , part of the Education Reform Act 1988, introduced a clear structure for the educational system in England and Wales ( Pollard A book). Interference in the delivery an details of the curriculum by the conservative government was suggested by Broadfoot to ‘move teachers away from the needs of children and child centred pedagogy towards a pre-occupation with delivery of standardised curriculum content in an increasingly prescribed way’ (Broadfoot, 2002).

The first National Curriculum was for children from five to sixteen years and was split into four key stages: Key Stage One -from five to seven years, Key Stage Two-from seven to eleven years, Key Stage Three- from eleven to fourteen years and Key Stage Four- from fourteen to sixteen years and identified requirements for the core subjects, English, Maths and Science to be taught at all levels and nine non-core subjects, with flexibility for schools to teach additional subjects. There was a set agenda for what children should be taught at each Key Stage, and assessment in the form of Standard Assessment Tasks (SAT’s) (O’Hagan and Smith,1999).

Whilst the National Curriculum clarifies the roles and aims of teachers, they are required to have in depth knowledge of subjects to be taught in order to deliver the curriculum successfully (Pollard and Pollard, 2000). Teaching children doesn’t mean they will learn. The psychologist Bruner (1966) points out ‘children of most ages can learn most things if they are taught in an appropriate way. They may be interested in the subjects the National Curriculum does not anticipate and teachers may not be able to follow that interest (Bruner, Haste and Weinreich-Haste, 1987).

Compulsory testing at seven, eleven, fourteen and sixteen years now dominates the education system in Britain, but as Kelly (2009) suggests ‘standardised forms of assessment have exerted and maintained control over teachers and their practice (Kelly, Kelly and Kelly (2009). Assessments also generate data which is passed onto parents, the government and school governors and teachers have a statutory duty to report on children’s progress by annual reports. Parents need to be informed of their child’s progress at the end of each Key Stage attainment level set by the National Curriculum. Critiscm of this method of assessment is that it only encourages comparison of ‘child to child’ at each Key stage (Hyland and Jacques, 2000).

Pressure to deliver the curriculum in early years settings means children are often placed in groups based on ability which restricts their ability to mix and learn from other children around them. Carr (2001) suggests that ‘practitioners need to be careful their work is not compromised by formal and summative assessment’ (Miller, Cable and Devereux, 2005).

Assessment is of course necessary in some format to ensure children are making progress and methods of teaching are effective and appropriate. The burden of attainment targets and performance levels means teachers are continually measured and judged on their teaching methods and as yet more changes are set to be introduced to the curriculum it raises questions on how teachers will incorporate these changes in their weekly schedule ( Bates, Lewis and pickard,2011).

The purpose of the National Curriculum was to promote all aspects of children’s development and learning and provide them with the skills and knowledge to succeed in adult life. Successive governments however have created a curriculum driven by assessments and targets in order to improve standards and it would seem that there are still flaws in the system and children are still underachieving. As Le Metais (1997 p4) states, ‘education is a long term project and any educational system should be a combination of the past, present and the future’ (Metais,2003) what it shouldn’t be is as Kelly (2009) suggests ‘a school system as primarily a ‘national investment’ rather than the ‘right of every child’ (Kelly,2009).


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Bruner, J.S., Haste, H. and Weinreich-Haste, H. (1987) Making sense: The child’s construction of the world. New York: Law Book Co of Australasia.

Devereux, J. (2003) Working with children in the early years. Edited by Linda Miller,

Carrie Cable, and Gill Goodliff. London: David Fulton in association with the Open University.

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Hyl, R. (2000) Professional studies: Primary phase. Edited by Kate Jacques and Rob Hyland. Exeter: Learning Matters.

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