Curriculum aims should take precedence over traditional subjects

14 February 2013

The National Curriculum should not be built around a well-worn list of separate subjects, say two leading academics in a book published today. Instead, educators and policy-makers should begin by asking what schools are for.

Professor Michael Reiss and Emeritus Professor John White, both from the Institute of Education, London, say a politically neutral National Commission should be established to work out a set of aims before any new National Curriculum is imposed.

As the Government consults on its new draft curriculum, built around traditional subject knowledge, Professors Reiss and White spell out a ground-breaking alternative.

An Aims-based Curriculum, from IOE Press, argues that aims are not to be seen as high-sounding principles that can be easily ignored. Instead they are the lifeblood of everything a school does. Reiss and White begin with overarching aims designed to equip every child to lead a fulfilling life and help others to do so too. From these, they derive increasingly specific aims covering personal qualities, skills, knowledge and understanding needed for a life of personal, civic and vocational well-being. Together, these aims cover some of the familiar content of the curriculum, and much else besides.

Keenly aware of political realities, the authors also provide a list of 20 practical suggestions to help pave the way for the radical changes they propose. These include:

• Establish a non-political National Commission to work out a "unified set of aims befitting our liberal democracy";
• End "ministerial meddling" in classroom specifics, such as the teaching of reading;
• Encourage schools to find ways of making subject offerings less discrete;
• Extend the National Curriculum to age 18 with the raising of the leaving age;
• Make the National Curriculum a matter of non-statutory guidance;
• Extend the National Curriculum to all schools, including private ones;
• Encourage the use of cumulative "records of achievement" and abolish National Curriculum tests (SATs).

As well as making these suggestions, the second half of the book, on implementing an aims-based curriculum, looks at the role of the state in curriculum decisions, as well as the implications for student choice, school ethos, assessment, inspection and teacher education.

An aims-based curriculum will be a step towards social equality, Reiss and White argue. "Both the present National Curriculum and the latest proposals for its reform fail too many learners. By starting from first principles as to the aims of education and trusting teachers to work out more of the specifics for all their students, we can have curricula that are more suitable for all learners."

Read more about this subject on the IOE blog at:
Editors' notes

An Aims-based Curriculum: The significance of human flourishing for schools by Michael J. Reiss and John White is published by IOE Press, £14.99, 15th February 2013, ISBN 978-0-85473-998-1. It can be ordered from all good bookshops and online  retailers.

For more information, to interview the authors or for a review copy, please contact the IOE press office:
James Russell:, 020 7911 5556 or Diane Hofkins:


Sally Sigmund, IOE Press:, 020 7612 6388

The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute's research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be "world leading". The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its "high quality" initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students "to want to be outstanding teachers". The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 12 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.