An analysis of the development of English National Primary Curriculum and the perceptions from the British society from 1988 to present
From the early 1990s, the poor quality of pupils’ primary education drew a lot of attention from the government and the general public. According to some official statistics from Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, as cited in Oakland, 2006), in 2005 more than half of primary students lacked some basic and fundamental skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic after leaving state primary schools. More recently, it aroused a controversial debate among the sociologists towards the issue that limited working conditions, underpaid staff and restricted syllabus in some elementary schools can also lead to low degree standards of primary education (Oakland, 2006). In this case, the British government had to re-specify the National Primary Curriculum (NPC) as efficiently as possible to enhance the pupils’ quality of education as a whole to resolve the problem of low standards of literacy and numeracy in inadequate primary education (ibid). It is very necessary to make the general public recognize the significance of primary education, and how important the NPC is. The focus of this report is on the changes regarding the development of the NPC throughout history, and the viewpoints from the British society towards its changes. In this report, it will firstly illustrate the history of primary curriculum briefly from 1988 to present. Afterwards, it will analyze the changes of the NPC about specific subjects. Then, it will investigate the reasons why it has been changed continuously and the perspectives from different individuals and organizations among the society before generating a conclusion with several usable recommendations.
2. The history of Primary Curriculum from 1988 to present
2.1 The Primary Curriculum 1988-2009
In order to strengthen the educational progression and enhance the improvements of educational standards in 1988, the NPC was implemented by the British government and officers of the National Curriculum Council (Richards, 1999). At the same time, the national literacy and numeracy strategies were introduced. Accordingly, the design of the NPC determined its scale of the exact requirements in terms of breadth, balance and consistency; and standards of arrangement of some specific subjects, especially in science, history and geography (ibid). However, based on the NPC, all primary schools could make their individual decisions towards the content coverage, so the NPC was much more consistent than previously (ibid). It means objects pursued by primary schools are clear to provide schools with targets which are very closely related to the fundamental knowledge, skills and understanding, and pupils should acquire these skills in Key Stage 1 and 2. In 1989, the requirements of the NPC including attainment targets and program of study became statutory only for three core subjects and for one year group ( Amabile, 1996). Nonetheless, it turned out to be that the NPC was still not fully implemented in all year groups but only partly applied in year 1. As for primary schools, in order to meet the curriculum requirements of the Education Reform Act, they have to consider and transact according to its legal specification. For primary teachers, they were also facing the challenge that not all teaching techniques are appropriate and suitable for making the transaction to meet particular requirements of the NPC (Campbell, 1994).
In 1999, the NPC was in a ‘curious, unstable and intermediate’ state, and some of the statutory elements stopped until 2000 according to Richards (1999). At this point, most primary schools were encouraged to pay more attention to an ITEM based curriculum (ibid). That means subjects such as ICT, English, mathematics and science were serving as the core skills for pupils to learn. However, some detailed statutory requirements were abolished, instead, more specific regulations and rules in the case of assessment and reporting requirements were modified significantly when a revised NPC was implemented in 2000 (ibid). Generally, pupils had a wider curriculum, and all subjects were strengthened a lot than before (DCSD,2008).
2.2 The curriculum present
The NPC in 2010 is applied in nearly all community and foundation schools such as government-funded schools, and it contains 10 foundation subjects and 3 core subjects (Alexander, 2010). Nevertheless, not all the courses are statutory. Indeed, religious education illustrates as a good example to prove that unlike sex education, religious education is not statutory and required by law, thereby parents have the right to decide whether their children receive it or not (ibid). Obviously, the NPC is likely to have much more elaborate and ‘expected’ targets and goals for pupils. Meanwhile, it encourages all pupils to achieve these national targets when they graduate from primary schools.
3. Changes to Primary Curriculum
3.1 The changes about specific subjects in 1988 and 2010 (figure 1)
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As can be seen from figure 1 that primary pupils have more required subjects in 2010 than that in 1988.
3.2 The changes of specific primary school targets in 2010 (figure 2)
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Figure 2 illustrates that the required skills and capability of the NPC were strenthened and enhanced more specificly.
4. Why the Primary Curriculum has changed continuously
According to Pollard and Bourne (1994), in order to legislate for a national foundation curriculum for pupils, the British government published an official consultant document to set up study programs for the subjects to enable primary schools have a formal and official syllabus to teach students in 1988. This is due to the fact that the government was facing several tough problems. Firstly, different primary schools adopted their own teaching contents, plans and methods to teach pupils. Besides, teachers in different primary schools took a variety of teaching techniques, and even integrated their own personal experience to teach students. In the final place, pupils still had limited capability to study, and few of them could pass the exams for the secondary education (ibid). Hence, Education Reform Act (1988, as cited in Pollard and Bourne, 1994) stated that by offering all primary schools a balanced and comprehensive based curriculum, pupils could be well-equipped with fundamental and basic knowledge for secondary schools, and even prepare them for their future careers and lives. However, Richards (1999) pointed out that the framework and outline of the NPC in 1999 was still very broad and extensive, and the assessment requirements were so complex and complicated in the early stages. He therefore suggested that the government and some related institutions should clarify and specify the goals for the school curriculum in different stages. Finally, a modified National Curriculum was implemented in 2000 (ibid).
Alexander (2010) stated that so as to make up for some minor adjustment of the NPC, a newly established Qualifications and Curriculum (QCA) was instructed to carry out this task. In fact, the main purpose of QCA was to specify in more details what pupils should be taught with the foundation courses. Apart from that, it enhanced the ‘attainment targets’ for all state primary schools to enable them to know that what kind of abilities and what level of maturities the pupils should have by the end of different key stages in 2009 (ibid).
5 The perspectives of different individuals among the society
5.1 Teachers’ perceptions towards curriculum
A survey conducted in 1992 by Pollard et al (1994) to prove that close to 24% of primary teachers claimed that they must follow the syllabus and all the plans based on the teaching handbooks, thereby the NPC far constrained their capability to teach pupils. They had to follow the syllabus and all the plans based on the teaching handbooks. Approximated 10% of teachers hold the opinion that sometimes it is very difficult for them to find available sources for class, because so many schools are teaching the same topics as well. Besides, 5% of teachers deemed that some subjects such as history and science are much too abstract for pupils especially year 1 and 2 to understand. Croll and Moses (1990) carried out a survey to show that some teachers in 1990 regarded the NPC as a ‘subject-centered’ curriculum, which ignored their professional judgments and the relationship between teachers and pupils.
However, a survey from Pollard et al (1994) confirmed a fact that the majority of teachers kept the positive towards the principle and discipline of the NPC. Indeed, 50% of teachers thought that the NPC provides them with specific syllabus and teaching principle, so that they could easily follow it. Apart from that, around 40% of teachers further emphasized that the change of the NPC is a worthwhile progression, because it has its own elaborate aims and attainment targets. Furthermore, Osborn and Broadfoot (1993) advocated that more than half of teachers in Britain have adapted to the new NPC already.