David Leat considers a recent study comparing nine countries which shows that policy on teaching and curriculum tends to swing between centralization and decentralization

In September I was at the European Conference on Educational Research in Belgium. I heard a presentation from Dutch researchers from Twente University on ‘Balancing Prescription and Professionalism in Curriculum Policy and Practices’. It was fascinating. They had conducted case studies in nine countries: England, Belgium, Finland, Germany (two states), Hungary, Poland, Sweden, the USA (California) and the Netherlands. They had assessed their recent history and emerging policies in terms of centralization or decentralization of curriculum, testing and teaching. In the last 25 years and more, California and England had been shifting rapidly along the path of centralization of both curriculum and pedagogy. Meanwhile, the other seven had been going in the opposite direction, admittedly from different starting points and at different rates. So, for example, Portugal had started from a highly centralized position and had moved only slightly in the direction of liberalization, while Finland had moved from a midway point to outstrip most other countries. The researchers have also used document analysis and interviews to predict future trends. While they admit uncertainty, they detect signs that three of the seven decentralizers (the Netherlands, one German state and Sweden) are headed back in the centralizing direction, and three more (Finland, Hungary and the other German state) have the potential for doing so. Meanwhile, California and England are moving back in the other direction, showing some slight signs of freeing up. Hence they describe the pattern as an (almost) inevitable swing of the pendulum. Centralized control is characterized by a very detailed curriculum, more particularly national testing of standards and the detailing of teaching methods. I give some of the reasons advanced for shifts to centralization in my own words in the box below. On the other side there are a couple of strong arguments for decentralization. The first comes from conservative free-market disciples who encourage diversity, autonomy and choice in an educational market. Parents will send their children to those schools which deliver the goods and offer what parents want. The second relies on a view of teachers as consummate professionals who can only carry through change if they are given responsibility and freedom, freed from the shackles of prescription. Finland stands out both for its outstanding performance in international league tables and for its decentralized policies but it seems that even in Finland there is a desire to introduce some homogeneity. On the other hand, Portugal does not emerge as a fun place to teach despite some limited freeing up.

The conclusions about the situation in Holland are worthy of attention as there are some strong similarities between the Dutch system and that in England. It is described as having the most decentralized policy in Europe, but their problems are:

  • The freedoms offered are seen as most real in primary and lower secondary education and disappear as students approach higher stakes assessment in upper secondary school.
  • Many teachers in primary and lower secondary still stick to textbooks despite encouragement to be more creative.
  • There is a big gap between innovation rhetoric and reality and between the perceptions of principals and ordinary teachers.
  • There are 58 attainment targets for lower secondary education and teachers do not find them very useful, they do not inform assessment as they are too general, and they don’t inspire.
  • The decentralization is counteracted by the inspectorate and the equivalent of the local authority who institute and reinforce their own guidelines.

This all sounds depressingly familiar. The authors conclude that it does not make sense to have a major swing to centralization through setting standards and stringent testing. They suggest that bottom-up change and appealing to teacher professionalism is the right route, reinforced by descriptions of good performance and practical examples of how to redesign curriculum. A swinging pendulum – freeing up schools and then prescribing content methods, then back to freeing up the system seems to stand for a failure of policy and practice. It represents failing to learn. The sign of a country learning to improve its educational outcomes would be less dramatic swings, as one learns which aspects of the extremes work and can be married together. The Dutch conclusions are broadly sound. But they highlight a problem that is evident in England. Teachers and schools have too little knowledge and experience of curriculum design and implementation, which is of course very different from delivering National Curriculum subjects and constructing a timetable.

Reasons for shifts to centralization

  • Not looking bad compared to your peers – countries become very conscious of poor performance in the international league tables, eg TIMMS and PISA. The US comes out very low on such tables and England has had limited successes, which induces a moral and political panic – ‘what are these other guys doing?’
  • A desire for greater uniformity – parents, employers and universities/colleges want to know what students have studied if they leave, change school or go on to HE or FE, as it is awkward for everyone if there is no conformity.
  • Battling economic decline – there is a rhetoric and a theory (largely discredited) that economic performance reflects educational performance, so the fear spreads that we will be overtaken in the hi-tech and knowledge economy if we cannot match our competitors.