School Leaders Summit 2014

The Future of Education

October 16th 2014 | London

The last ever national curriculum?

Pupils reading

According to James O’Shaughnessy, the end could be nigh for centrally-devised education edicts. David Cameron’s former Director of Policy speaks to Westminster Briefing ahead of his appearance at the School Leaders Summit.

Another week, another set of headline education reforms to digest. The pace of policy-making may not be universally welcomed by the schools that restructured GCSEs and Ofsted recommendations are meant to support, but you suspect it might receive wholehearted backing from a former Tory strategist. Fortunately, James O'Shaughnessy doesn't deal in platitudes.

The ex-SPAD, who co-authored the Coalition’s Programme for Government , supports the sentiment behind Michael Gove's overhaul of the national curriculum and pre-18 qualifications and understands why, for the time being, the Education Secretary has refused requests for more radical reform (such as O'Shaugnessy's call to open the door to 'for-profit' academies).

"It's an outmoded concept."

Despite fierce opposition to the government's plans though, he believes that the present package of proposals does not go far enough. The former Downing Street adviser is adamant that if schools are to correct the type of failings identified by Ofsted's study of pupil attainment, ideological concerns about the marketisation of education must be swept away. It's a conviction that leads him to a prediction worth examining: the end of the national curriculum.

"I believe that we may well be seeing the last ever national curriculum," he says.

"It's an outmoded concept."

O’Shaughnessy’s prophecy may stem partly from his economic liberalism, but the vision is also rooted in the very real efforts made by private companies to instigate a step-change in curriculum provision.

For instance, American firm Mosaica has created a curriculum which is being used by Auruora Academies Trust, the owner of four primary schools in Sussex. The arrangement has been criticised in some quarters for channeling public funds away from the classroom (it’s alleged that Aurora is paying around £100,000 per year to Mosaica, Aurora’s parent company) but there is no denying its existence. Nor is there any doubt over the ‘lead sponsor’ status awarded to Aurora by the DfE, which means the academy trust is consulted on policy decisions and is well-placed to run more schools in the future.    

The Aurora example shines a light on the debate over academy ownership and the expansion of the coalition’s flagship education programme. O’Shaughnessy is a prominent proponent of academy chains and remains philosophical about the role of ‘for profit’ private providers, which he earmarked in last year’s widely-trailed Policy Exchange paper.

“If we only care about outcomes, we should be ambivalent about how we achieve this,” he says.

O’Shaughnessy is also clear that entry to a “more mature (education) system”, comprised of public and private sector organisations, should be subject to rigorous checks.    

“We should find the most urgent areas where others have failed and ask organisations to prove themselves,” he says.      

The words right ring hollow for some, but given O'Shaughnessy's previous proximity to the Prime Minister and the current direction of travel, they might be worth remembering.

James O’Shaughnessy is Director of Mayforth Consulting