Knowledge, the Curriculum and the Substance of Education


A joint pamphlet has just been published by ASCL and Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PTE)- The Question of Knowledge- practicalities of a knowledge-based curriculum’. It reiterates just  how important the curriculum is , and how it is increasingly  seen as central to education reforms, reinforced by  the backdrop of recent speeches and commentaries from Ofsteds Amanda  Spielman, in  which she has made  it clear how much she rates the importance of  the curriculum –“One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.”(23 June 2017)

There has long been debate about what the curriculum in schools should look like and offer . With Nick Gibb as Schools Minister there is much promotion of the knowledge based curriculum, heavily influenced by the thinking and teachings of ED Hirsch. Gibb firmly believes that the pendulum has now  swung  towards knowledge,  and away from skills .The alternative   ‘progressive’ view of the curriculum  is that it  should be more about skills development and cross cutting thematic approaches, in which core  content is more about  activities and skills,  fitted  specifically to the  needs of the 21st century , rather than relying so much  on traditional,  detailed subject-based content ,and the need for memorisation that goes with it.

Leora Cruddas ,until recently  Director of Policy and Public Relations, ASCL, now Chief Executive of FASNA ,  says of ED Hirsch “The influence of E. D. Hirsch on educational thinking has been profound. At its heart is the idea that returning to a traditional, academic curriculum built on shared knowledge is the best way to achieve social justice in society. His work has also encouraged schools to focus on the concept of building cultural capital as a way to close the attainment gap.”

This booklet arises from a series of lectures, publications and public panels in England over the last two years on the subject of the knowledge curriculum.’ The centre right think tank Policy Exchange for example  published a pamphlet on Hirsch  in 2015 (see link)  When PTE and ASCL decided that they wanted to commission and publish this booklet, their  aim , apparently,  ‘ was to give a voice to the many educators who have attempted to answer these questions in their schools. We hope it is a useful contribution, particularly for those school leaders who are looking to explore the question of knowledge and the practicalities of a knowledge-based curriculum.’

Michaela Katib, Head of Cobham School, articulates the thinking behind the knowledge based curriculum well when she says  “ We believe that students need a knowledge-based curriculum to ensure they have solid foundations across a range of subject areas. We feel that a structured, well-planned curriculum, which offers appropriate progression and builds on prior learning, is the best way to prepare students for success in public examinations and equip them for their future careers.” And she introduces an important caveat “ The focus on imparting knowledge does not mean that we dismiss the value of pupils acquiring skills and, indeed, we feel that schools should offer a balance of approaches. However, we also recognise that pupils cannot be taught skills in a vacuum and benefit from expert, teacher-led instruction in order to acquire secure subject knowledge as a platform for their learning.”

Luke Sparkes and Jenny Thompson, of Dixons MAT say the secret to success isn’t the socio-economic make up of your cohort or the location of your school. For them:

“A knowledge-based curriculum is about harnessing the power of cognitive science, identifying each marginal gain and acting upon it; having the humility to keep refining schemes of work, long term plans and generating better assessments.”


The Question of Knowledge practicalities of a knowledge-based curriculum –Parents and Teachers for Excellence and ASCL  

The Question of Knowledge


See Also

Knowledge and the Curriculum: A collection of essays to accompany E. D. Hirsch’s lecture at Policy Exchange Sep 17, 2015




Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PTE) is a new movement to promote reforms within the education system and to spread good practice to help deliver excellence in schools across the country focused mainly on academy and free schools  as  engines of change

Web Site



According to a Danish psychologist the art of positive thinking is turning us all into depressive psychotics. Professor Svend Brinkmann is the author of Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze’ He suggests that navel gazing and all that positive thinking should stop and life coaches, nice as they may  be, should be sacked.
We should instead focus as much on negative thinking. Appearing on the BBC  Today programme,  on 20 February,  with Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham,  he said “There are negative things in our world and in order to understand them we have to speak concretely about them and not cloud them in positive thoughts or sugar- coating’ He added that there appears to be a new duty of happiness,-we are not allowed to be unhappy, and are constantly required to think positive thoughts because when we are unhappy “we are inefficient as human resources” –but Brinkmann has a problem with this view . We shouldnt change our emotions into positive ones as this distorts our view of reality and puts more pressure on ourselves. .He reminded us  what Nietzsche wrote, in (The Twilight of the Idols), “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.” (Actually now, as it happens, they also strive for happiness in Bhutan, where Gross Domestic Happiness is the overarching political goal!) Nietzsche had in his sights the English utilitarian thinkers.(Bentham etc)-Mind you, I am still struggling to identify anything that Hitlers favourite philosopher Nietzsche got right .
People constantly fail in the quest for self-improvement. Its an ideology around personal choice says Brinkmann and this needs to be resisted.
Sir Anthony, responding, agreed that some approaches to positive thinking serve to infantilise the issue and places us in the realm of La la land. But this has nothing to do with positive psychology or its robust evidence base. The appeal of positive psychology its about building capacity and building on our strengths, so we can better cope with and manage adversity.
Sir Anthony rather likes the analogy of a waterfall to illustrate our current approach. As things stand we wait till some fall over the edge of the waterfall ,and its only when they hit the bottom that we take action. Then everyone rushes in to help. Much better surely to prevent people going over the edge in the first place, which is where positive psychology comes in. He subscribes to the approach “ If you want to feel good, do good”
The University of Buckingham has a long tradition of looking after students, he said, preventing them falling over the edge of the waterfall but its positive programme also, importantly, supports staff.
Brinkmann said his main concern is not positive psychology, as a scientific enterprise but the way its researched, and how this is filtered down and interpreted by its practitioners . When pushed for an example of where things are going wrong due to positive psychology he said that  in employee reviews (in Denmark) for example often you are only allowed to talk about your successes and what’s positive in your life but that is what serves to  in effect infantilise people.
Seldon pointed out that the positive psychology approach when applied at  Wellington College where he was the Master for 8 years, students saw a transformation in their A level results- indeed it was one of the most improved schools in the country . Forget  La La land “Mindfulness embraces the real’ he said . With regard to evidence he mentioned specifically Penn State University and the work of Professors Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth as providing solid evidence as to positive psychology’s impact. Brinkmann claimed though that research on the impact of positive psychology has had very mixed results.


The Government says ‘Good teaching and high academic standards are strongly associated with adequate provision and widespread use of high-quality textbooks.’ And, ‘ a well-designed textbook provides a coherent, structured programme which supports a teacher’s own expertise and knowledge as well as a pupil’s.’ Hard to argue with that.

Lord Nash answering a PQ on 14 April said ‘Cambridge Assessment’s report, ‘Why textbooks count’, analysed the use of high-quality textbooks around the world. The report found that use of textbooks is common in high performing education jurisdictions. In Finland, 95% of maths teachers use a textbook as a basis for instruction. In Singapore, 70% of maths teachers use a textbook. In England, only 10% of maths teachers use a textbook for their core teaching.On 26 March 2016, the Department for Education published a report from a review group looking at teacher workload in relation to planning and resources. The group concluded there is a case for schools to place greater emphasis on quality- assured resources, including textbooks, to reduce the time teachers spend on searching for resources.Good textbooks also have workbooks which support homework in a positive way by providing well-structured practice exercises linked to clear explanations, which parents can understand and use to help their children.We have been working with textbook publishers with the aim of improving the quality of textbooks available to schools, to better support excellent teaching and teacher professional development. Last year, the publishers produced a set of common guidelines for the production of textbooks.’

This is what Nick Gibb MP , the schools Minister, said in the Foreword to the Cambridge Assessment paper:

‘Ideological hostility to the use of textbooks, particularly in primary schools, developed in the 1970s. Their replacement with work sheets and hundreds of thousands of bespoke written lesson plans has added to teacher workload, detracted from coherence and impacted on standards. This seminal paper will, I hope, lead to the renaissance of intellectually demanding and knowledge-rich textbooks in England’s schools.’


Why textbooks count A Policy Paper Tim Oates –Cambridge Assessment -November 2014

TES-Tim Oates 18 April 2016




The Message- EBacc curriculum is not appropriate for all

Following the announcement by Nick Gibb MP ,  the minister of state for school reform, on 11 June, that the government was committed to honouring its manifesto pledge to require pupils to study the EBacc,  SSAT (the Schools, Students and Teachers Network) – the country’s largest schools’ membership network, launched a survey for school leaders. The intention was to build a rapid and representative picture of the positions being adopted by school leaders their responses to the requirement for this academic EBacc curriculum for all.

SSAT’s survey received 1500 responses in the first three days.(unusually high for this type of survey) The total number received when the survey closed, soon after that, was 1664.

The survey found ‘an overwhelming feeling that the EBacc curriculum is not appropriate for all. Pupils with lower prior attainment, those newly arrived to the country, and some with poor literacy, were cited as being ‘set up to fail’ if forced to study a language and a humanity at GCSE. Many practitioners worried that this could distract students from the core curriculum of English, maths and science and limit the opportunity for these students to undertake rigorous vocational and technical courses.’

The arresting headline message is the number of respondents prepared to refuse to teach EBacc for all, even if that meant a ceiling of Ofsted ‘good’ for their schools.

Only 17% of respondents said they would make the EBacc compulsory if that were a requirement for an ‘outstanding’ judgement from Ofsted, while 42% were certain that they would not.

But ,it was also the case, that some respondents felt that the policy would be beneficial for some pupils, especially middle and high attainers who might not otherwise have picked academic subjects.

A number of mainly Arts organisations have expressed the view that a focus on the EBacc will pose a threat to non-EBacc subjects. There is a feeling that in championing a more robust curriculum (a worthy aim) the government could be  in danger of communicating the perception that they don’t value  vocational education, the arts and the technologies.

The SSAT believes that as many pupils as possible, on the basis of aptitude, interest, opportunity and ability, should be encouraged to study the EBacc subjects. But adds that  ‘schools should be empowered to deploy their professional judgement in deciding the nature of their own curriculum requirements and pathways.’  It says that ‘Schools should not be penalised for allowing pupils to follow curriculum pathways other than the EBacc. A school can be ‘outstanding’ without all pupils studying a particular selection of subjects.’

There is also the rather knotty issue of academy freedoms. Wasnt one of the most important defining freedoms given to academies, at the outset, that of opting out of the national curriculum? Being forced to teach the Ebacc is now self-evidently profoundly limiting their freedom and flexibility to decide their own curriculum, which in turn could  negatively impact student outcomes. Or am I missing something?


Link to Survey Results



SSATs  recent pamphlet ‘Building on consensus’ anticipates that  Character education will be  one of the policy themes that will be on the education  agenda,  post May, whichever party or coalition wins power. That must surely be right. Certainly all the major parties have made recent announcements about the importance of character education and the support for the development of non-cognitive skills in young people , much in demand among employers and HE admissions tutors.

This is what SSAT says:

‘The established consensus, across the major parties and society, is that schools must look beyond just exam passes and make it part of their ‘core business’ to nurture broader individual qualities in young people. It is not either academic or character education; it is both. Teachers play an important role in character education and development. Some form of character education takes place in most schools. But it is important that character education is intentional, planned, organised and reflective’.

But what of the role of teachers? Can they teach character?

SSAT says ‘While character cannot be ‘taught’ in an instructional way, schools have an important part to play in the development of character. Specifically, they can systematically plan, deliver and track experiences and opportunities that will allow students to develop resilience, confidence and other character traits’

So its not about sitting  pupils down in a lesson and teaching them about character.  (although a look at the life of the explorer Ernest Shackleton would do no harm in this respect ) Its about ensuring that young people are engaged in activities that allow their own and others’ character traits to be revealed. So teachers can help young people become more reflective and self-aware. Learn about character by doing, and by example. But there is  also  a need  for young people to draw from  their own   knowledge base, for them to have a full understanding of what  good character and virtue look like.

Pupils need to be challenged and supported by not only their teachers but also their parents and peers. And a good education strikes the right balance between academic skills and character development, which are mutually supportive.

More research needs to be done on support for character development and the evaluation of non-cognitive skills. But its worth looking in some detail at the work undertaken in this area by Professor James Arthur at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, University of Birmingham.


Academies can opt out of the national curriculum but few have done so. Heads and governors worry about how inspectors will view changes in their curriculum, and should  their results take a downward dive , they have no place to hide. One of the main criticisms levelled at Ofsted, by Heads ,is that inspectors are not entirely consistent, reliable or predictable, in their judgments, so playing around with the curriculum ,in this context,  becomes something of  a risk management exercise.  In short, is it worth the risk?

DFE online surveys of academies and free schools asked the extent to which (if at all) they intended to follow the new national curriculum in September 2014, for a number of subjects.

Figure 13 of the report called “Do academies make use of their autonomy?” provides the data for academies. The overall conclusion of the research was that the a large majority of academies are planning to follow the national curriculum to some extent or a great extent in all subjects and particularly in English and mathematics where only 1 per cent do not plan to do so. The report is published online at:

Figure 3 of the report called “Are free schools using innovative approaches?” provides the data for free schools. The overall conclusion is similar to that for academies with a large majority of free schools planning to follow the national curriculum in all the subjects that they offer and all planning to do so in English and mathematics. The report is published online at:


 Worries over funding deprived pupils

And what about the so-called  ‘soft’ skills?


Stephen Twigg , the shadow education secretary, says that we  can all agree that raising standards during primary education increases the life chances for young people in later life. The disagreement comes in what we mean by ‘standards’ and how we achieve system wide improvements.

Responding to the 17 July announcement from the Deputy Prime Minister on primary school assessment and accountability, Stephen  Twigg said in the Commons that  he “  wanted assurances that the Government’s changes to the accountability system will promote breadth and depth of learning, as well as literacy and numeracy The new floor target of 85%, is for an assessment that the Government have yet to define.” Surely, Twigg argued,  “that is putting the cart before the horse.”  “Would it not make for better policy to define the learning outcomes first? My worry is that this is another classic case of policy making on the hoof.”

“Similarly,” he continued, “ the plan for ranking 11-year-olds has all the hallmarks of such an approach. To rank 11-year-olds runs the risk of removing year-on-year consistency, because children will be benchmarked against their peers in their current year, rather than against a common standard.”

The Government, according to Twigg, have sent out confused signals about attainment and progress. “On the one hand they are scrapping level descriptors, which heads and teachers tell me are crucial for monitoring progress between assessments, yet on the other hand, the Minister is rightly emphasising progress measures today. That is very confusing.”

“On the baseline measure for five-year-olds, there is sense in developing policy about how best to establish prior attainment to provide both teachers and parents with a clear indicator at the start of primary school. The devil will be in the detail, so it is vital that there is full consultation on that.”

Finally, on the pupil premium, he said that  additional funding to support the progress of disadvantaged children is welcome. ” I have seen many schools that have made excellent use of the pupil premium. In his statement, though, the Minister said, “Early intervention is crucial”, and I agree with him. However, how does that sit with the fact that the biggest cuts in spending in his Department have been in early intervention funding? Can the Minister assure the House that additional funding really does mean additional funding?”

Twigg continued “I worry that the Minister may—to coin a phrase—be robbing Paul to pay Paul. The Chancellor announced in the spending review that the Government are moving to a national funding formula. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that this move could hit schools with large deprived intakes. Can he reassure the House that this really is new money and not simply giving money to schools with a lot of disadvantaged kids today, which is welcome, but taking it away in a couple of years when the national funding formula comes in?”

 In an article on the Spectators blog (18 July) Twigg, interestingly, sided with Anthony Seldons view that the curriculum proposals don’t offer much scope for a rounded education and what has been termed the ‘soft skills’ and too much by rote learning for tests. Twigg is concerned about what this government means by standards. He writes ’‘theirs is a backward looking vision, premised on rote-learning and a failure to value the importance of the skills and aptitudes that young people need to succeed. They portray these skills- such as speaking and listening skills, leadership, citizenship and resilience- as ‘soft’. Try telling that to Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College where the curriculum is tailored to equip young people with a rounded, rigorous education. On standards, Labour’s approach is guided by what I call the ‘rigour of the future’. Rigour in core knowledge and subjects yes. But rigour and emphasis too on what Anthony Seldon calls ‘character education’ and a broad and balanced subject range and content.’Twigg doesn’t believe that this rounded education,  offered by the likes of Wellington College, should be the preserve of private schools.


Twigg suggests muddled thinking at the heart of the reforms. He says ‘David Laws argued for schools to have progress measures between Key Stage assessments so teachers and parents can monitor progress and attainment. This only a week after Michael Gove told MPs that Key Stage level descriptors- used by teachers to monitor performance- will go’… ‘ There might be a case to look at reforming level descriptors to ensure sufficient challenge but scrapping them outright is completely misguided and will undermine standards in primary schools’.


Twigg  also claims that ‘ranking pupils at 11 against others in their cohort will do nothing to raise standards, quite the opposite in fact. This is a classic policy red herring. By ranking pupils against others in their year- rather than against set, year-on-year standards- this will lead to distortions from one year to another. ‘


In short, Twigg believes that this is policy made  on the hoof,  is confused and lacking  in rigour.