“Do I have to follow the curriculum?”
It’s a common question, especially amongst parents new to the idea of home education. The simple answer is no, there is no legal requirement to follow any curriculum. The question itself though, shows that there is generally a very simplistic view of what curriculum is and who has control of it.
State schools in England and Wales that are run by a local authority have a statutory requirement to deliver a curriculum developed by their respective governments. As education is devolved, each country has its own slightly different curriculum.
So, if you have one foot in England and one in Wales, the words The Curriculum mean different things. You can see for yourself.
Academies (state schools that are run by private Trusts) and Independent Schools do not have to follow either of these curricula. Neither do home educating families. It really is only for places with 100% government control.
Most people forget that the idea of the National Curriculum was only invented in England (Wales was not devolved at this point) in 1988 by politicians, with the sole purpose of standardising educational experience for all pupils- one size fits all. Later, political rhetoric typically reshuffled the words and talked about raising standards.
However, curriculum is not simply a set of subjects to learn, it is much more interesting and involved and is worth ten minutes of your time. You’ll feel better knowing a bit about it, believe me.
What is curriculum?
There is no overall agreed definition in the world of academia. In the halls of universities, there are arguments still ongoing about what it really is, each academic researching their own pet theory to write a thesis or book about the true nature of the beast. Mostly though, you can see four sets of basic ideas.
Curriculum theories can mostly be considered in one of these ways
- as a body of knowledge to be transmitted (nothing more or less than that; a dictionary definition)
- as a product (the idea of achieving certain knowledge and desirable group behaviours)
- as a process (includes focus on the interactions between all of the participants and the materials; dynamic and ongoing)
- as praxis ( similar to process, but with an element of human emancipation beyond the individual; group liberation)
It is not the content of a curriculum, but the ideas that underpin its creation and what happens because of that I will look at here.
How is curriculum formed?
There are similar elements with all of the above curriculum theories. Intention, plans and documents, delivery, and outcomes. Simple. Let’s consider these in both a system setting and the home.
In the beginning, there is the notion of intention, a ‘should’, or a purpose to the education. This could simply be to transmit certain knowledge believed to be of value (transmissive), to mould character and to prove knowledge through exam results (product), to get an enriching experience for the learner (process), or to emancipate the disadvantaged and bring about social justice through mass schooling (praxis).
The decisions made at this point in curriculum development will shape everything else from content and any assessment methods, interactions with materials and ultimately the likely field of outcomes.
A big question here is who gets to dictate this intention?
It is most often governments that control the curriculum for their schools. Decision makers or politicians somewhere sat in an office and decide the point of education is to “….”. They then pass this intention down to schools, through materials and outcome measures such as SATs and GCSEs. In turn, teachers pass the intention on to pupils, and outside of school hours to their parents to continue.
You will notice a lack of asking anyone down the chain what they think or what they want with this hierarchy. It is dictated from the top down.
Through extracurricular activities though, the local communities can have a small influence. Often they are undervalued, underfunded, underappreciated, and dismissed as add ons by politicians and decision makers despite their importance to the participants and their families.
The fact that the term extra is used suggests that they are not part of the consideration; they exist outside intention, to keep people occupied, exercised or content enough not to cause trouble.
With extracurricular activities such as sports, the arts, shared interest clubs, Scouts, Girl Guides, and Cadets to name a few, the wider community can contribute to their collective children’s education in ways that they themselves as individuals and collectives value- without the government controlling the intention.
Those things considered extracurricular to the school setting can be of central importance and very much the core of the home educating family curriculum, and they are often important key components in private schooling too.
Intention in home education
For home educating families, there is already an unconscious understanding of intention, and in reports its conscious manifestation is often called the educational philosophy.
It’s really worth plucking those swirling thoughts out of your head, your why, and organising them on sticky notelets. You can then move them around easily while you unfurl the connection to the other parts of curriculum theories. It will give you a visual to gain a new understanding as to why what you do works, and how to explain confidently and coherently to others.
The next curriculum element for consideration for a system wide education is a plan of some sort. This usually involves the generating of lots of written content in the form of documents for guidance, policy or advisory for various bodies, training materials for professionals, and syllabus from exam boards to measure outcomes.
Sometimes even laws or statutes are crafted to secure a certain view of curriculum, the National Curriculum in England and Curriculum for Wales being a prime example of this. It can only be applied to state schools run by the LA – academies, private schools, and home educators are blissfully outside this statutory requirement.
There is now the lucrative business of content. From approved materials, textbooks and workbooks, to teacher training, student support texts, detailed plans, online content- the money practically prints itself. This occurs before anyone can actually start delivering the intention of a particular curriculum.
Of course, a lot of material is also developed afterward by private parties to serve a particular market, or by those who just want to share knowledge and skills. The advent of the internet has served to explode this element to the great advantage of the home educator who can pick and choose from both the pay for and the free at the source materials available.
There is also a need for locations and people to deliver the content that is deemed important. Often schools, colleges and universities are considered the most important, or even the only places where this can occur.
Museums, galleries, theatres, monuments, parks and gardens, or the great outdoors are again often reduced to being ‘a day out’ and extra not central to any curriculum for school children. Too often these valuable contributions are overlooked because the persons imparting their skills and knowledge are not qualified teachers.
Further, the qualified teacher status that is often spoken of is only those qualified to teach the state mandated English or Welsh National Curriculums in a state school setting. They are not, for example, qualified to teach in a Montessori, Froebel, Steiner Waldorf, or Reggio Emilia setting, all of which have schools throughout the UK, so equal status in law.
As home educators, it is always worth driving the nonsensical nature of that point home, until your audience understands. You will have to do this repeatedly, so take the time to craft your sales pitch.
All of the above curriculum elements are then translated into actions by education providers. Different pedagogies (theories and practice of teaching) will take the same plan and do very different things through teaching, instructing, leading or facilitating within classrooms, gatherings or the home.
These can be by physical presence, or as the pandemic showed, virtual. How they are delivered often depends on the curriculum type and it links back to the intentions, plans and resources available.
Again, home educators are not limited by other-determined ideas but can use structure, semi-structure, free flow, professionals, friends and family for this action. Any location and any resources can be used and adapted to suit the needs of the child; flexibility that few schools can offer.
A curriculum based on the idea that subject knowledge will be tested by exam, for example, will often be delivered almost exclusively through written materials, with teacher input to explain what is written and how to answer questions. This approach is incredibly difficult for those with reading, writing and processing challenges, or those who simply don’t like sitting still doing things that bore them.
If the curriculum has a problem based approach at its heart, with no exams, then those children often excel and achieve amazing things. The problem of a plant that is not thriving in its position, a bridge to build out of lolly sticks that spans the lego world created last week, or how a story character gets from A to B in a believable manner, can all be done through conversation, hands-on experience, critical thinking and a large dollop of tenacity.
Project based approaches, centred around a theme to explore, were common in UK schools before the creation of the National Curriculum. Many schools do still try to bring together the specific subject based requirements of the NC into enjoyable projects, citing cross-curricular activity on plans to explain how this fulfills maths and English. Not something the home educating family has to worry about.
For the home educating parent, no single place or person is needed. The world itself is the classroom and everything in it that can be accessed by the family can be considered their resources. They are free to change materials, locations, and bring in outside providers in a way that is far beyond the flexibility of schooling and schools. Even with the same content, different approaches will produce different outcomes.
Finally, there are the much-prized outcomes, either of the students in terms of exam results (transmitted, product), and sadly less often for the students in terms of life-enhancing experiences (through process and praxis).
How outcomes are measured, and assessments made along the way, are often done through standardised models and comparisons to others, determined at the planning stage. For education in the UK, this has led to the much criticised focus on only teaching materials that can be tested against those pre determined metrics, the SATs and GCSEs.
However, home educating families can, and do, use the metric of engagement and joyful learning. If a topic does not spark engagement, it can be left until it does, or abandoned altogether. There is also the opportunity to opt into the standardised outcomes models as well through IGSCE, GCSE, Btec, Open University degrees and other qualifications if they wish.
Written records, photographs, portfolios, scrapbooks, lapbooks, videos, homemade documentaries, and all manner of creative keep-sakes can be used to record the educational journey. They can also be shown to any prospective employer or place of higher education as evidence of outcome in the same way an exam result can, although it is at their discretion whether or not they accept it.
Covid-19 has made many people, if not the politicians, reconsider the measurement of outcome we have used for a long time. Eleven years of formal schooling cannot be reduced to a piece of paper, or we may end up with the same problems occurring again in our uncertain future.
Consider other elements
To add a little extra sauce to all of the above considerations, some theories have proposed that there are the explicit, implicit, hidden, and excluded curriculum in any setting. They make perfect sense when you know what they mean, so read on.
To be brief, the explicit curriculum is the taught material such as the subjects, disciplines, skills, topics or projects. This sometimes resembles a syllabus or a list of things you will be tested on at the end of your experience in the product model. It can equally be the series of problems to be solved by any means or method in a problem-solving based approach or the areas of chosen study in a student or child-led approach.
The implicit curriculum is more about the values, behaviours, and procedures of the setting, and a person cannot help but be affected by this. A school with a strong academic culture will mould behaviours that work towards that end. One that places great value on kindness to others, will consciously demonstrate and elicit those behaviours from all pupils.
A household with a strong work ethic, no matter the choice they make about the content of what they study or the teaching approach they take, is still likely to produce hard working children.
The hidden curriculum is of great interest, especially to those who have removed their children from school, not because of concerns about the teachers, their child’s achievements or the work being done, but with the sometimes shocking ‘other’ things their child manages to learn. That is the unofficial, unwritten, unintended consequences of the whole set up of the school both positive and negative.
The hidden is outside of the parents’ control in an ‘other’ educational setting. However, within their own home education a parent has the freedom to adjust the situation. If your child is displaying behaviours or knowledge that concern you and you did not intend for that to occur, then consider any hidden elements of your curriculum choices by going back to the beginning, intention, and moving forward from there.
The excluded curriculum is also of great importance. In choosing to have a vision or an intention about education, inevitably something is excluded. Whether it is intentional or accidental, there will be perspectives, viewpoints and specific things that you leave out and this will have a hidden effect.
In the case of the academic heavy and measurable outcomes-driven National Curriculum, physical and creative elements are increasingly squeezed out or diminished in importance in favour of the so-called core subjects. As a parent, you can decide what to cut out, or leave the choice to your child.
The one thing you cannot do in law (set by precedent) is exclude reading, writing or arithmetic indefinitely. You do, however, have a great deal of choice as to how and when to go about those things.
Now you know
Curriculum is not a set of subjects, a list of projects or a to-do list. It is a combination of an intention, a plan for resources and materials to be experienced, found or gathered, in order to achieve action in some form from the educators and the young person. The endpoint, and the ongoing process, will result in outcomes both intended and unintended.
Now, take you sticky notelets, move them around, work towards either choosing, mixing, or even creating a curriculum to follow that suits your family with a new level of understanding.
And the next time someone asks if you have to follow The Curriculum, you can give a very fulsome response.
Can you take a minute?
Thanks for reading this far, I really appreciate your engagement in what is set to become quite a hot topic in the aftermath of the Covid-19 Pandemic, global school shutdown, and in the UK the horrible exam fiascos.
Quite frankly our kids deserve better! Let’s get the discussion about what a curriculum is and isn’t out there into as many decision making arenas as we can.
If you think you want to know more about the theories here is an excellent, more academic article. (https://infed.org/mobi/curriculum-theory-and-practice/)
If you found it helpful then please share it with others.
Comments and questions, or ideas about what you want to know more about, can be sent to