The national curriculum: a discriminatory device

  1. ‘Entitlement’

If you have (or have had) a child of school age you will probably know that your child (and every child) is ‘entitled’ to the full national curriculum at school. 

To be entitled is to have a right or a claim to something; an entitlement is basically an opportunity.  But in the case of the national curriculum, there is no scope for the child or their parent / carer to say, ‘Thank you, but actually I don’t wish to take up my claim’ and to opt for something else, even for just part of the child’s education.  

Entitlement, in national-curriculum-speak, actually refers to the compulsion that the child is under to follow the national curriculum, in its entirety.  Once the child reaches secondary school, the national curriculum eats up any hint of flexibility in curriculum time and it doesn’t reappear.

2. ‘Additional to, or different from’

There is a pretence, mainly promoted by Ofsted, that there is time and space for different learning content beyond the required (and misleadingly named) basic curriculum.  At Key Stage 3 this consists of at least 14 compulsory subjects, twelve of them from the national curriculum plus religious education and age-appropriate relationships, health and sex education.  Ask secondary schools – spare curriculum capacity is a myth.  And while parents have a right to take their child out of religious education and sex education doing so does not mean that they have a right, or any access, to different curriculum content.  (Academies have to offer a curriculum that is ‘similar in breadth and ambition to the national curriculum’ and in practice this means….that they teach the full basic curriculum.)

This must be somewhat puzzling if you’re the parent or carer of a child with special educational needs, because your child has an ‘entitlement’ (a real, legal one) to special educational provision (SEP) – which is provision ‘that is additional to, or different from, the provision that is made generally for others of the same age.’ 

It seems self-evident that the scope of ‘educational provision’ must potentially include the content of the curriculum that the child is offered.  But – particularly in secondary schools – where is the time and space for SEP in the form of additional or different learning content if all of it is taken up by the compulsory curriculum?

3. A curriculum for all?

As parents or carers, you should also be aware of the way that the formal exam system works when your child reaches Year 11.  The system is built to ensure that, every year, a significant proportion of children cannot achieve the ‘headline measure’ that government sets for all pupils of achieving a grade 5 (a strong pass) or above in both English and Maths at GCSE.   

In 2022, about 40% of Year 11 children did not achieve these grades.  About a quarter of children did not achieve a grade 4 (a standard pass) in English and Maths.  (Before the change to the grading system, the proportion of children who did not meet the ‘headline measure’ was around a third, every year.)

In fact this applies to all GCSEs, because the exam system uses an approach known as ‘cohort-referencing’, which guarantees that only a set proportion of children can achieve the higher grades.  This proportion can and does change slightly, year on year, which can give the appearance that ‘standards’ are rising, when in fact no ‘standards’ are actually being assessed – all that is happening is that children are being compared against one another rather than against any criteria or standards.

One of two possible defining characteristics of a learning difficulty in legislation is that the child or young person ‘has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age’.

Consider for a moment: how likely is it that children who have ‘a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age’ will fare well in an exam system which simply compares them against all other children, rather than against any specific standards or criteria?

Clearly, children with significantly greater difficulty in learning than other children are not likely to fare well in such a competition.  So if the government knows that a set proportion of children will not be allowed to reach the ‘target’ grades – and hence will finish compulsory education without the particular qualifications that are gateways to so many post-16 paths – why does it insist that every child must follow essentially the same curriculum for eleven years, rather than allowing for curriculum content that might be better tailored to children’s learning and developmental needs and/or is shaped towards vocational pathways?

The simplest explanation seems to be that those children who fall into the ‘unsuccessful’ exam group are there to act as comparative failures in order to illustrate the comparative success of those children who do achieve the headline measure.  The academically less successful children within the education system essentially serve as ‘ballast’ for the benefit of the academically more successful.

This suspicion wasn’t eased when the government further tightened the Key Stage 4 curriculum by restricting what is measured for the purposes of school accountability to just 8 subjects, with English and Maths counting for twice as much as other subjects and with any ‘Tech Awards’ having to be drawn from an approved list.  These Awards (such as BTEC courses) are required to ‘incorporate a significant core of knowledge and theoretical content with broadranging applicability, comparable to the challenge and rigour offered by GCSEs.’[1]

4. Different concepts of SEN

The concept of special educational needs (SEN) has changed significantly over the course of the last 50 years or so.

One of the most significant historical shifts was a move away from thinking about learning difficulties as being in-child deficits, i.e. things that the child could not do or was lacking in, and away from a ‘medical model’ under which these difficulties / deficits could be ‘treated’ and ameliorated or cured. 

As a new school SENCO (a long time ago), I learned that special educational needs could be seen as arising from a ‘mismatch’ between the skills and abilities that the child brought with them to the school curriculum and the skills and abilities that the curriculum demanded of them and expected them to have. But while I understood (a) that it was more straightforward to change the curriculum to fit the child than change the child to fit the curriculum, at the same time I understood (b) that some skills are necessary not just for school years, but for life beyond – and if formal education doesn’t support children to develop those skills, it cannot be an effective education.

However, under the ‘anti-medical model’ of SEN (and the arrival of the national curriculum, to which every child was entitled) if a child’s ‘deficit’ was, let’s say, in literacy skills, there would not be any scope or space in which to ‘address’ the deficit by providing the child with intensive input to develop their literacy skills.  There was an accompanying notion that the child’s literacy skills would improve naturally, simply by being immersed in the full curriculum.

I called this theory ‘curriculum osmosis’.  I also called it ‘complete rubbish’ (or similar) at the same time.

There are reported to be some 9 million adults in the UK who are functionally illiterate – and most of them have journeyed through the state education system.

But the curriculum osmosis myth has persisted and still has a deep impact on the nature of the SEP you can expect your child to receive.

5. The currency of special educational provision

When the new SEN and Disability framework came into being in 2014, it carried across a great deal from the old SEN framework.  This included a key principle, supported by case law, that SEP in Education, Health and Care Plans must not only be specific and detailed but should almost always be quantified in terms of hours (as well as setting out the level of expertise of those providing the support).

In the case of children whose special educational needs call for therapies – physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and so forth – quantifying the input of the therapist (and specifying that the therapist should have a certain level of professional expertise) is eminently sensible. 

But the main consequence of the need to quantify all provision in terms of hours is that the default currency of SEP has become ‘Teaching Assistant hours’.

As a direct result, children’s difficulties have needed to be re-conceptualised from ‘having difficulty in learning’ (the legal foundation of SEN), to ‘having difficulty in accessing the curriculum’, which is not quite the same thing.  The purpose of deploying Teaching Assistant hours – within EHC plans and for all children with SEN – has become the generic, ‘to provide the child with support to access the curriculum’.  

If special educational provision is expressed only in these terms, the child’s special needs are being primarily defined by or against the curriculum, rather than by or against any individual developmental or learning needs. 

Some might say (self included) that SEP should address the child’s individual learning needs, not just their access to the formal curriculum.  Indeed it’s worth noting that the word ‘curriculum’ does not appear within the definitions of SEN and SEP set out in the Children and Families Act 2014. 

If the education system provides children with ‘access to the curriculum’ but does not do its utmost to enable the child to leave school with a range of skills and knowledge that will be needed for life beyond school, and does not regard or count progress towards developing those skills as significant and meaningful, in my view it is a poor education system.  It has sacrificed those children’s learning and developmental needs on the altar of the curriculum, in the full knowledge that the curriculum has been built for the main benefit of the most able learners, rather than for all of them.

To be fair, Ofsted does make clear that among the important factors that inspectors will focus on is the extent to which ‘all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND:

  • acquire the knowledge and cultural capital [don’t ask…] they need to succeed in life and
  • are able to read to an age-appropriate level and fluency (if not, they will be incapable of accessing the rest of the curriculum, and they will fall rapidly behind their peers).’

However Ofsted also expects schools to teach the full ‘basic curriculum’ and makes it explicit that these pupils should not have a reduced curriculum.  Ofsted offers no advice whatsoever as to how and where within the timetable the literacy goal, in particular, is therefore to be achieved. This seems to me to be deeply disingenuous.

6. Towards a fairer system

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I have referred frequently to special educational needs (SEN) when the relevant legal framework of 2014 refers to special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).  Indeed the second possible defining characteristic of a learning difficulty is that the child or young person:

(b) ‘….has a disability which prevents or hinders him or her from making use of facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age….’

In comparison with ‘having significantly greater difficulty in learning’ there is much less reason why having a disability should prevent a child from reaching that government headline measure at GCSE level, if it’s possible to overcome or bypass those hindrances.  So in the case of disability, having the support of key adults whose role it is to enable the child to gain full access to the curriculum makes some sense.  Having said that, depending on the nature of the disability, a wide range of other adjustments may also need to be made that cannot be expressed in the simple standard currency of ‘Teaching Assistant hours’.

The national curriculum treats all children in the same way, based on the commonsense view that in order to treat people equally, we should treat them all the same.  However, within the Equality Act 2010, disability is the only ‘protected characteristic’ for which it may be necessary to treat a person differently to the way a non-disabled person is treated.  Under the Act, to treat a person with a disability in exactly the same way as we treat people who do not have a disability is, potentially, to discriminate against the disabled person.

I cannot see any possible reason – legal, moral or educational – why the sphere of education should be allowed to make itself exempt from this duty by imposing a single national curriculum on all children, regardless of ability or of disability.  Neither can I see how the imposition of a single curriculum in which success will, almost by definition, elude children with significant difficulty in learning (some of whom may also have a disability) is morally or educationally acceptable.

We must find the courage to challenge the notion that children’s and young people’s learning difficulties can somehow all be addressed by a single curriculum – particularly one that is not designed for them all to succeed within.  We must be brave enough to recognise that some learning difficulties, such as those that affect literacy or numeracy development and social communication skills cannot be properly addressed through the ‘curriculum osmosis’ model of SEND – and that special educational provision should not be expressed only in terms of Teaching Assistant hours.

While disability is unique as a ‘protected characteristic’, the principle of treating people differently (in a positive way) in order to ensure that we are treating them equally hasn’t historically been completely confined to disability.

In 1978, the United States Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said,

”In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.” [2]

The commonality is the recognition that in order to acknowledge and accommodate difference and to avoid being discriminatory, it may be necessary to treat different groups differently.  

I propose that in order to treat some persons equally during their formal education, and to avoid discriminating against them, it is necessary to treat them differently in respect of the nature and content of the curricula that they are provided with.  Equality of opportunity must allow for different opportunities, rather than the same single opportunity being offered to all children, particularly when it is not possible for all of them to clear the bar that the government sets.

To object to this proposal on the grounds that it might make accurate assessment of learning more difficult, because more than type of assessment, of more than one type of learning, might be called for, would be to suggest that curriculum should be designed so that it fits with a particular assessment methodology..  It would provide further support for the suspicion that the system is designed primarily to enable the stringent accountability of schools and for the key benefit of a particular group of learners, rather than for all of them.

We need to do much better – and we should challenge the orthodoxy that every child’s educational needs, special or otherwise, can be met by the monolith of the national curriculum.  As the late Rhys Griffith explained, the national curriculum is made up of essentially the same set of subjects that the Taunton Commission set out for Grade Two schools, in 1869. [3]  It really is time for a more considered and intelligent approach to curriculum design.

Biff Crabbe

January 2023



[3] [3] National Curriculum: National Disaster?  Rhys Griffith (2000) Routledge Falmer

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