Yesterday it was observed that the DCSF seems pathologically unable to engage with criticism, even to
rebut it with a sound defence. Largely preoccupied with putting out self-congratulatory missives, the most it will stir itself to are simplistic dismissal's; "..we don't acknowledge there's a problem so this criticism is unfounded".
In this vein, the DCSF was totally dismissive of last week's Commons Committee report into the National Curriculum, refusing to take it findings seriously - although it will have to, as the Government has to respond formally to all such reports. This attitude seems entirely negative, and reflects the fact that DCSF is still governed more by political considerations than educational ones.
As such it is understandable that the DCSF don't want to acknowledge the Committee's report, for the Committee (made up of 8 Labour, 3 Conservative, 2 Lib Dem and 1 Independent) gives a surprisingly strong and plain spoken condemnation of the national curriculum itself, and the Government's management of it.
On the curriculum in general, the Committee noted that it currently "accounts for all available teaching time", leaving teachers with little or no autonomy over what is taught. The MP's would "like to see this changed, and a cap placed on the proportion of the curriculum that is prescribed centrally."
Regarding the proposals laid out by Sir Jim Rose in his review of the primary school curriculum, the MP's echoed concerns from across the education sector that the suggested 'programmes of study' would be "unnecessarily complex". In a similar vein, they called on the Government's 'Early Learning Goals' to be "reassessed" (read 'scrapped') on the grounds that they are mis-focused.
Moving onto school freedom, the Committee noted that Government Academies only had to follow the National Curriculum in English, Maths, Science and ICT, while other state schools were compelled to follow it all. Again voicing a desire widely shared by school leaders, the Committee called for all state schools to be given the freedom enjoyed by Academies: "If these freedoms are thought essential for Academies we believe they should be extended to all schools". (The Conservative MP's on the Committee went further still in a 'minority opinion', suggesting that schools should be able to opt out of the national curriculum entirely if they wanted to.) Even in terms of simple opening hours, the Committee concluded that all schools - being the one's aware of their pupils educational needs - should be able to decide their own closing times, rather than forced to obey an arbitrary diktat handed down from the DCSF.
On inspection and testing, the Committee expressed concern over the "constraining effects" of current accountability arrangements. They are particularly concerned by the pressures placed on schools - largely through inspection - to follow the 'non-statutory' National Strategies guidance maintained by the DCSF, through which they direct to an impressive degree what and how is taught.
Finally, in reference to the opinion that "central prescription and direction through the National Curriculum and National Strategies have de-skilled teachers", the Committee stated that:
"At times schooling has appeared more of a franchise operation, dependent on a recipe handed-down by Government rather than the exercise of professional expertise by teachers. The education system needs confident and well-qualified teachers capable of shaping the best possible education for their pupils. This has implications for the content of teacher training, but also for the role of the Department and its agencies. We want to see the centre to take on a different role to the one it currently has—with much greater emphasis on intelligence gathering and research and development, and less on monitoring and compliance."
It is, no doubt, a fairly bleak assessment of the national curriculum; overly prescriptive, excessively centralised and de-skilling, comments in praise of it - or the DCSF - are few and far between. Whether one believes in a national curriculum or not, the report's implicit conclusion is that our current one is inadequate, and that the Government's running of it is having negative effects on children's education. This is not the first report to conclude this, nor will it be the last.
In response to the report the DCSF "rejected utterly" the notion that schools are run like a franchise by ministers:
"it is frankly disappointing that this report perpetuates the myth that Whitehall is determined to wield an iron grip on every minute, of every day in every classroom."
After a year of investigation, evidence from teachers and educationalists, analysis, on-site inspections and cross-country comparisons, it's unlikely that the MPs on the respected Children, Schools and Families Committee decided to just indulge in a bit of myth making. There is indeed a feeling that education is run excessively from the centre, and that centralised control is having negative rather than positive consequences for children's education. Almost all the evidence, and now a committee of MPs, provides further reason to believe that this 'feeling' is spot on.