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Less is more: Why Labour must tread carefully on curriculum


If only. Manifestos always argue for the new. But what if we need less?

Thousands of primary teachers on the survey app Teacher Tapp tell us that the 2014 National Curriculum is far too content-heavy in places. Teachers teach a lot, but it doesn’t mean the students are able to learn it; A student performing at the ‘expected’ level in their SATs often gets almost half the answers wrong.

Mastery and fluency should be the goal in core skills of numeracy, reading, and writing. This is why Dylan Wiliam has called the reduction in the curriculum a moral issue: too much content damages the future learning capabilities of the least able.

The Labour Party’s manifesto has done a good job of talking about more during the election campaign: more oracy, more performing arts, more careers education. All these things sound nice, but what needs to go to make room for them?

It is hard to argue for less. What we suggest should go, somebody will make the case is essential. But what to forgo when we choose to teach something new should be a key consideration.

Let’s take the example of Roman numerals, the topic primary teachers say they would most like to see jettisoned from the national curriculum. We invest a lot of time in teaching them in preparation for SATs questions.

After initial teaching, we work on memorising how they map to the Arabic number system. Then, we practise converting back and forth between the two systems, and we revise the topic in year 6.

And since pupils who struggle in maths find it easier to study this than higher-level mathematical concepts using the Arabic number system, we run interventions to master it.

But to successfully argue against teaching anything (including Roman numerals), we need to do better than ask for less. Here are two ways to do that.

Let’s make the case for better investment of classroom time

First, what is the evidence that we are teaching Roman numerals successfully? Sure, students can read Roman numerals in their SATs test, but can they still do so at the age of 13, 16, 18 or 25? And do we care if they can’t?

Perhaps we think the main purpose of teaching Roman numerals is to develop a comparative understanding of our base 10 system. If this is so, then is memorising them to pass the key stage two SATs tests really the best way?

Perhaps, if this is a goal, Roman numerals would fit better in a series of lessons introducing many number systems, including binary, base 60, base 20 French words and so on. And perhaps we should do this with no expectation that students should memorise L=50 years before it is relevant.

Our second line of attack is to make the opportunity-cost of teaching, memorising and revising Roman numerals explicit by tying it to the neglect another, equally specific topic.

For example, most teachers would probably like eleven-year-olds to have a much stronger understanding and fluency in proportionate reasoning – decimals, fractions, ratios, and so on. This is a conceptually difficult topic that directly competes for time against Roman numerals during key stage two.

To make the case for more time teaching proportionate reasoning, we need evidence for the status quo of performance in this area. We need to make the case for exactly what might be transformed if we created more time for teaching proportionate reasoning.

I like Roman numerals. I stare at them in church on a Sunday when the sermon is a little dull. There’s no point in losing Roman numerals in exchange for nothing. But losing Roman numerals from the curriculum doesn’t give us nothing. It gives us time to achieve greater fluency in proportionate reasoning.

As Labour set out to deliver their policies, including a curriculum review, let’s get past simple calls to reduce the overloaded national curriculum. These have been made multiple times by successive reviews over decades – to no avail.

Instead, let’s make the case for better investment of teachers’ and pupils’ time; when it comes to the national curriculum, less really is more.

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