Testing patience

Think tank: Social Market Foundation

Author(s): John Asthana Gibson

May 7, 2024

This report from UK think tank the Social Market Foundation looks at reducing the burden of the English school curriculum.

Nearly a decade on from the last major reforms, politicians are again turning their attention to the national curriculum.

This Social Market Foundation briefing assesses claims that the curriculum is ‘too packed with content’ and sets out how curriculum and assessment reform can improve secondary level education in England. There is an excessive amount of content in the national curriculum, leading to rote learning and teachers skipping through content too quickly.

This issue isn’t caused by the curriculum, but is due to the GCSE assessment regime. The importance of GCSEs for schools leads them to spend a large amount of time preparing for exams to maximise results rather than teaching new concepts or developing students’ understanding. There is scope to slim down the curriculum, but this will have minimal effect without significantly reducing the extent and importance of assessment at 16.

To address this, reforms should seek a modest, not drastic, reduction in the level of curriculum content, prioritising subjects like History where there is greatest dissatisfaction. GCSEs should be slimmed down to involve less assessment and their stakes for schools should be lowered, for example by using annual testing of randomly selected students to measure performance.

Implementation of reform matters as much as what it involves. Changes should be led by an independent curriculum review group of experts, with its terms of reference set by the government. Reforms should be carried out on a cyclical periodic basis as in Finland and Japan, divorcing them from the political cycle.