Response to the National Curriculum Review - Call for Evidence

Practical Action is an international development charity with a difference, working together with some of the world’s poorest women, men and children, helping to alleviate poverty in the developing world through the innovative use of technology.

Practical Action’s particular strength is its ‘simple’ approach: finding out what people are doing and helping them to do it better. This enables poor communities to build on their own knowledge and skills to produce sustainable and practical solutions: driving their own development. An example of Practical Action’s work is the Zeer Pot – a refrigeration system made from two clay pots and some wet sand – which keeps food fresh for up to ten times as long as it would last unrefrigerated in the heat of Sudan. Simple for local people to produce, this innovative and very simple idea has a huge impact on the lives of poor communities.

In the UK, our work includes significant efforts in education. The resources and challenges we produce are used in more than a quarter of UK secondary schools. Our expertise, and that of our partners, has informed our submission to the Review of the National Curriculum.

2011 is the centenary of Practical Action founder, Fritz Schumacher’s, birth. His most famous literary work, ‘Small is Beautiful’ had the subtitle ‘A Study of Economics as if People Mattered’. Our overriding wish for the outcome of the Review of the National Curriculum is that through all subjects, at all stages, the National Curriculum should be framed as if all people including those in the developing world matter. Studying the effects our actions have had and continue to have on both people and the environment, and investigating how these can be addressed, should have a higher priority than they currently do in the National Curriculum. This might include the causes and effects of rising sea levels, decimation of rainforests and the loss of potential medically active chemicals in species which vanish before they can be investigated. We have been heartened that young people, teachers and parents believe this to be important , . It now falls to those responsible for the Review of the National Curriculum to seize this moment to change the Curriculum. The new National Curriculum must ensure that all students understand the importance of sustainability in shaping their future and become engaged in working towards a sustainable future for all.

In the following sections we have addressed many of the questions posed in the consultation response form. We would be delighted to have further discussions on the basis of our response. Further information and clarification can be obtained from Julie Pollard, Education Manager at Practical Action.

Question Six
(a) What do you think are the key strengths of the current National Curriculum?

We believe the current National Curriculum provides students and parents with some degree of certainty that there is consistency in both the range and depth of content within a defined set of subjects which students are taught in England. The fact that the National Curriculum has been coupled with a high-stakes inspection framework has helped provide students, teachers and parents with an indication of a school’s success in delivering that Curriculum. This has helped parents to make more informed choices about their children’s schooling. The mandatory inclusion of Citizenship in the National Curriculum has given all students a broad learning experience of the societal issues they face, and those faced by people in other societies around the world. The balance of subjects within the National Curriculum has given students a broad and rounded learning experience up to the age of 16.

(b) What do you think are the key things that should be done to improve the current National Curriculum?

The most crucial thing is to increase the focus on global impacts of our actions, across all subjects. The National Curriculum should help schools instil in students a sense of their place, and their country’s place, in the modern, globalised world. It should also help students discover their own ability to change the world, and work towards a just world, free of poverty. Issues that are important in shaping our future as a species, such as energy source availability & security, sustainability and climate change should have a high profile where appropriate – most likely in science, mathematics, design & technology and geography.

Question Seven

(a) What are the ways in which the National Curriculum can be slimmed down?

The current National Curriculum is filled with factual knowledge. Diminishing the sheer number of facts students need to remember to pass examinations, and using the space this creates to develop essential individually and socially valuable skills which can be tested for assessment in each subject area would be a great step forward.

Another way to achieve this might be to merge subjects - we comment on this in the section on Other Subjects in the National Curriculum below.

(b) Do you think that the proportion or amount of lesson time should be specified in any way in the National Curriculum; e.g. for particular subjects and/or within particular key stages?

Yes. At secondary level, we believe it to be important that the core subjects – science, mathematics, English and, should our recommendation be acted on, global citizenship – form the major part of schools’ timetables. Any division of time must recognise cross-curricular teaching and value it highly, but provide appropriate checks and balances. At primary level, regulation of time is less important than ensuring teachers have the confidence to exercise professional freedom, so we do not feel that specifying time would be helpful.


(a) What knowledge do you regard as essential to include in the Programme(s) of Study for science? Please also set out why this is essential and at what age or key stage.

In the science curriculum, we believe two particular sets of concepts are becoming more important by the day. These concepts are outlined below along with supporting evidence.

Organising Concept One – The Nature of Science

Key Concepts:

• The tentative and evolving nature of scientific knowledge (the principle of refutability as a quality of scientific theories, the general nature of scientific theories, and the cycle of theorising, testing and revising theory).

• Science as discourse (the importance of open discussion of theory and findings among peers, publication, peer review and wider debate in moving forward understanding and creating innovation).

• Freedom as an essential context for science. The ‘blue sky’ nature of science research – why science advances most successfully through free inquiry, sometimes within ‘research programmes’ towards an aim, e.g. a cure for cancer.

• Scientific discoveries and their exploitation and application can have unintended social and environmental consequences. Instances such as the Manhattan Project, thalidomide and industrial accidents including Flixborough, Bhopal and more recently Buncefield demonstrate the importance of social and environmental responsibility, and thinking about consequences across the world.

Organising Concept Two – Sustainability

Key Concepts:

• Earth’s resources are finite, and using them creates unforeseen consequences, such as climate change.

• The necessity of using all resources sustainably, and using more sustainable resources as a proportion of all resources used.

• Ways of measuring environmental impact and mitigating it.

Why are these two sets of concepts sufficiently important to be included in the National Curriculum for Science?

The Nature of Science

Understanding of the nature of science, or what science is, must be crucial to the dual aims of teaching science – developing a scientifically literate population and developing a feedstock of enthusiastic, motivated, able scientists and engineers to ensure the UK maintains its world-leading position in research, and that UK business is able to maximise the economic potential of this research. People who understand the democratic nature of science and the collective nature of its conduct should be more likely to play an active part in the discussion of scientific developments and our understanding of the World around us. It can also be argued that all scientific knowledge is only a series of unconnected facts unless the nature of the endeavour by which it was acquired is understood. An understanding of the nature of science as something of a common core across all scientific endeavour develops an awareness of the interdisciplinary nature of science, which helps students to see the connections between the scientific subjects, and external links to mathematics, history and English language. Many key phrases, axioms and indeed whole genres of fiction are founded on science.

The current “How Science Works” and “Scientific Enquiry” sections of the current National Curriculum are important, but ignore the most important and most fundamental elements of the nature of science – perhaps those parts that tell us ‘what science is’ rather than ‘how science works’. It would be possible to get into very involved discussions about schools of thought on the nature of science and the scientific method. The concepts we have included above seem to us to provide an adequate core of understanding without either creating problems if students pursue further study in this area, or missing the crucial essentials of the nature of science.

Tim Oates’ paper “Could Do Better” talks eloquently of the difficulties with parts of the current National Curriculum:

“The 2007 revisions to the National Curriculum statutory content in Chemistry in the secondary phase state that pupils must understand ‘that there are patterns in the reactions between substances’. Seemingly innocuous due to its generic character, this is, in fact, highly problematic. This statement essentially describes all of chemistry. So what should teachers actually teach? What are the key concepts which children should know and apply? The concept of entitlement becomes seriously eroded, if not absent, from a National Curriculum formed of such generic statements. Assessment becomes highly problematic, since a clear specification of what should be assessed becomes impossible.”

We believe it is crucial that, for such an important topic – namely defining what science is – it is necessary that the descriptions of this within the National Curriculum should guide teachers in their teaching, and importantly guide awarding bodies in developing qualification specifications at NQF levels 1-3. This means the guidance, which we believe should form part of the statutory National Curriculum, must be sufficiently detailed and specific that it is unambiguous and clear, and that the sense of the guidance is not corrupted during its manifestation as individual science qualifications. We further believe that testing students’ understanding of the nature of science should be a crucial part of compulsory testing.


Sustainability has until now mostly been considered as a contextual means to teach some aspects of biology and nature. While it is indeed much more than this, it is too wide-ranging and nebulous a field to provide an easy means to include it as a broad concept. For this reason we have thought long and hard about which concepts within the field (a) can be considered scientific concepts and (b) should form an essential part of the National Curriculum as opposed to the school curriculum.

The concepts of sustainability are becoming ever more central to the conduct of science. These concepts act both as a driver for research into new fields and as a stimulus for innovation in well-established fields of research and industry. We believe the concepts we have selected provide teachers with the opportunity to help students gain insight into the link between activity at home, and across the Northern Hemisphere, and the lives of others in the Southern Hemisphere – something young people want, and the country needs them to have.

Think Global, the Development Education Association, found that 93% of young people thought it important to learn about issues affecting people’s lives in different parts of the world (See footnote 2 on page 1). Learning about the essential methods for quantifying the impact of materials and processes on the planet, and the places where these impacts will be felt, should form an essential part of the National Curriculum for science. We suggest that techniques used for life cycle analysis of materials, carbon footprint and energy efficiency calculations, closed loop impact management and cradle-to-cradle process design will open this field to young people. We believe young people need to see the impacts of their daily lives in context. We hope the National Curriculum will ensure teachers show them not only the impacts on their future but on the lives of people in other parts of the world.

We recognise that we have specified a long list of possible techniques. While we would not expect the National Curriculum to include all of these as compulsory, we believe that allowing teachers to select from a wider range of possible techniques would be a sensible way forward to accommodate local circumstance, and draw relevant parallels with impacts elsewhere in the world.

Teachers will require significant support to enable them to do this.  Practical Action stands ready to assist the Review of the National Curriculum with framing this content, and also with providing support to teachers once the new National Curriculum is agreed.

In addition to providing young people with something they clearly want from education, learning about sustainability and global learning has been demonstrated to be something parents want too. A recent YouGov survey of parents found that 84% of 481 parents believe it is important for young people to learn to lead more environmentally sustainable lives, with almost half of questioned parents (42%) believing this to be very important (Think Global, 2011, see footnote on page 1).

Whilst parental support should not be a key driver for curriculum development, such a high proportion of parents recognising the importance of this issue must have some influence on its inclusion. When taken with the societal, economic and scientific considerations, we believe the case is strengthened by the views of parents.

At what age should these topics be included?

We believe these topics should appear in the National Curriculum for students aged seven or eight and older. It may be desirable for basic aspects of the nature of science to appear for younger students, but when compulsory schooling does not begin until age six or seven in the majority of EU countries, starting earlier than seven or eight is not something we would suggest as a priority.

(b) Considering your response to the above, should the Programme(s) of Study for science be set out on a year by year basis or as it currently is, for each key stage?

We have welcomed the Department for Education’s focus on restoring the professional freedom of teachers and head teachers to teach and plan their work in a way that plays to their strengths, and is tailored to the students in their care. We therefore believe that retaining key stages would be sensible, as opposed to a year by year basis which would unnecessarily restrict teachers’ professional freedom. However, key stage two might benefit from splitting into two parts as the four years it covers seem to constitute a crucial phase in children’s development. With a potentially unfamiliar curriculum, teachers may welcome a little further guidance on the order in which to teach concepts. It may well be wise to make this separation non-statutory, to allow those schools that wish to take a different approach to do so.

(c-f) Do you believe that the Programme(s) of Study for science should identify separate requirements for biology, chemistry and physics and at what ages?

We believe that those students who wish to progress to study STEM subjects at higher levels should have the opportunity, at the very least, to select an emphasis on either physical or natural sciences. We use the word emphasis to suggest that it is undesirable that any student should not get at least some of both physical and natural sciences. We feel that as professional practice in academic and industrial science has become more interdisciplinary, a broader mandated science education to a greater age will assist the next generations of students that wish to progress to higher study. The discipline divisions of the three sciences are becoming less and less relevant, whereas a split between the natural and physical sciences remains more relevant. We suggest the current point where the split takes place (at age 14) is correct. For our own work, scientists and engineers with broader training have greater capacity to think creatively about problems, which means the outcomes of our work for the people we want to assist will be better, and the value for money from aid spending for Government will be better.

Other Subjects currently in the National Curriculum

In order to slim down the content of the National Curriculum, we believe there is merit in considering a smaller number of more broadly defined subjects – for instance rather than the current eight subjects, considering core content across:

humanities (history and geography)
arts (art & design and music)
technology (design and technology & information and communications technology)
modern foreign languages
global citizenship (citizenship)

Merging subjects offers an opportunity to provide a radical break from the current National Curriculum. It will also increase the flexibility teachers have to collaborate to deliver more innovative lessons which assist students in seeing the links between every aspect of their learning in school.

If the subjects are retained as separate entities, we believe the following points to be important:

• While we believe a subject like Design and Technology should be a compulsory part of the National Curriculum, we do believe the name and scope of the subject bears some scrutiny. A subject that is more clearly a STEM subject, with the improvement in status that would bring, would be welcome. We believe it should include more abstract concepts and more content related to the practicalities of modern engineering. Perhaps as Sir James Dyson suggests, it should be called ‘Design, Technology and Engineering’ to frame a more modern conception of the subject.

• A strong design and technology / engineering component must still exist in the new National Curriculum at key stages 1-3. This is required to develop the craft skills and awareness of budding engineers and to develop employability skills among all young people. Design and technology develops logical and creative thinking, problem solving and team working skills. The act of designing and making significantly empowers young people to work independently and creatively. From a wider viewpoint, the ability to develop new sustainable technologies, and adapt existing ones, is crucial to our species’ ability to adapt to the challenges raised by climate change. In a recent article in the Times Educational Supplement, Sir James Dyson points out the pivotal role of a comparable subject, ‘general technology; in China’s success at producing a plentiful supply of engineers.

“Design and technology (D&T) is a primary school favourite, and it is the most popular option at GCSE. Nearly 300,000 students study it every year. And it is prestigious; A-level product design is a valid entry qualification for engineering courses at Russell Group universities.

But the subject is being eroded. Numbers passing at GCSE have fallen by 30 per cent since it was made non-statutory from the age of 14. Conversely, in China, where ‘general technology’ is compulsory, engineering graduates are more plentiful than in any other country. It is no accident that they file more patents than America.”

• At key stage four, a range of qualifications which relate closely to the National Curriculum requirements should be available. Without this close link, the beneficial effects of change will be lost as teachers will be forced to teach to the qualification specifications. We recognise that this link or the lack of it is being examined in a separate review, and we look forward to seeing the outcomes of that review.

• Citizenship needs to remain part of the National Curriculum at all four key stages, and to be redefined as global citizenship to recognise the more globalised nature of the world. Students need to understand their place in the world, the historical context in which England operates, and the dynamics which shape the meaning of being British. When students enter the world of work, they are unlikely not to have interactions with the rest of the world in the course of their career, either through having colleagues who come from other parts of the world, or through working in an organisation whose reach extends outside the UK. This means it is more essential than ever that a global understanding of citizenship is required in the National Curriculum.

About Practical Action

Practical Action is an independent charity (no. 247257) and company limited by guarantee (no. 871954) registered in England and Wales. This response is submitted on behalf of the organisation. Further information can be obtained from Julie Pollard, Practical Action’s Education Manager.

Practical Action,
The Schumacher Centre,
Bourton on Dunsmore,
CV23 9QZ.

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