Balancing toy figure

Image credit: s3aphotography. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In our Vision report, we recommended that independent expert bodies should be used to provide stability for curriculum and assessment. At this year’s Association of Science Education (ASE) conference, we took the opportunity to explore this recommendation in detail with a panel of experts and teacher conference attendees.

Our panel included Dame Glenys Stacey (Chief Regulator, Ofqual), Malcolm Trobe (Deputy General Secretary, Association of School and College Leaders, ASCL), Shaun Reason (Chief Executive, ASE) and Dr Elizabeth Swinbank (Honorary Fellow in Science Education, University of York). The discussion was chaired by Professor Julia Buckingham (Vice Chancellor, Brunel University).

Since the UK government introduced the National Curriculum in England in 1989, there have been at least ten reforms to the curriculum and its assessment. Shaun Reason described the current situation as akin to a tennis match, with back and forth amendments in line with government cycles.

The bureaucracy of this process absorbs the time and energy of teachers, both of which could be better spent planning inspiring science and maths lessons or undertaking professional development to improve their teaching.

Ensuring curriculum and assessment are based firmly on independent subject expertise, through cross-party panels at arm’s length from government, would mean fewer wholesale changes in curricula in line with political cycles. This would make curriculum and assessment more stable and lend itself to long term, strategic planning and evolution.

Our Vision report suggests that responsibility for science and mathematics curricula and assessment should be with the STEM community, including academic scientists, industry professionals and politicians of all mainstream parties.

In its blueprint for a self-improving system, ASCL also called for an independent commission to inform and review the curriculum. Malcolm Trobe laid out these ambitions at our ASE event, but there is still work to be done in convincing government that these proposals are viable.

Nicky Morgan stated in response to ASCL’s blueprint last year that control of curriculum and assessment should remain with the government, as the government needs to be able to be held to account by parents. Malcolm agreed that accountability is important, but suggested that the government should perhaps be responsible for the framework, with the detail provided by subject experts.

The framework and content should also have some flexibility, to give teachers the ability to tailor it to local needs and contexts.

Glenys Stacey made a counterbalancing point – it is easy to assume that ministers themselves write curriculum content when we state that the curriculum is ‘government controlled’, but in fact they do consult widely.

The problem is that how well the views of different stakeholders are represented depends entirely upon whether they respond to government consultations. Teachers at the ASE discussion were mostly not aware that this process even existed, let alone aware of curriculum consultation dates.

There is, at a minimum, work to do to make this process more transparent and ensure all key stakeholders are engaged.

Both before and after the panel discussion the Chair, Professor Julia Buckingham, asked audience members to raise a hand if they thought independent expert panels were a good idea. The majority of audience members raised a hand on both occasions.

Clearly there is wide support for independent expert panels within the teaching community. However, careful thought will be needed to develop a rigorous structure and approach that is trusted by all stakeholders.

For more on science education, take a look at our Vision for Science and Mathematics report.