Is Curriculum Content?

This piece is intended as a research-based reaction to Professor Stephen Heppell’s opinion piece in the Financial Times, first published in July 2013 and available to read here.


Heppell’s article states his opinion on the economic impact of traditional vs a more creative system of education, and argues for the empowerment of institutions, teachers and communities over a one-size-fits-all government-issued national curriculum.

Learning to Learn

The first assertion made in the article is that independent learning, or ‘learning to learn’, is a more effective and beneficial method than the traditional rote learning methods employed throughout recent history.

If the benefits of independent learning aren’t immediately apparent, then they are empirically shown in research by the Higher Education Academy and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).

Anthony McClaran, Chief Executive of the QAA states:

” Independent learning is critical to students achieving at the level demanded by higher education, and developing the skills and mind set employers value.”

Moreover, the study showed the benefits of technology and data-rich analytics within an independent learning context:

” The increasing use of website analytics and monitoring of student interactions allows us to identify patterns of behaviour and intervene when students are perceived to be at risk of failing or withdrawing.” (Open University)

The success of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) over the last decade or so is another illustration of the benefits of technology in education on a worldwide scale.

Economic Impact

But what effect does investment in education have at a national level? Professor Heppell claims that although “much else contributed too,” Hong Kong and Singapore’s shift to viewing education spending as an “investment” rather than a “cost” had a positive effect on their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

This is a somewhat tenuous claim, as there is no strong evidence to suggest that an increased investment in education overall has a positive effect on GDP. Harvard research describes the evidence of a link as ‘fragile at best.’

This is partly because more wealthy nations can afford to invest more in education and continue to see their GDP rise, so this correlation is a “false causality” (Bills and Klenow, 2000).

The research concludes that some kinds of educational spending tend to positively affect a country’s wealth, namely investment in technological research and innovation.

Traditional vs New Schools

The next part of the article praises the UK Government’s proliferation of diverse schools, such as Free Schools and Academies. These schools have much more freedom to teach as they wish in many subjects. Heppell describes them as:

“…precisely what is needed for the kind of vibrant learning communities where exploration and experimentation are integral.”

This may be so, and I am inclined to agree from subjective experience, but the data we have does not show a significant improvement in performance of these schools as opposed to local authority schools (who must adhere rigidly to a content-based curriculum).

In fact, given the freedom to stray from much of the curriculum, research shows that many Academies are reticent to take advantage of the apparent benefits:

” A 2014 survey of academies by DfE found that 87% say they are now buying in services previously provided by the Local Authority from elsewhere, 55% have changed their curriculum, 8% have changed the length of their school day and 4% have changed their school terms.”

While the majority of services have been found elsewhere, only half the schools have changed their curriculum. It is unclear if these schools are ‘testing the waters’ – perhaps they will become more bold in their choices in the future.

As far as results go, there is no statistical difference either:

” The analysis found that the differences in school GCSE performance between sponsored academies that have been open for between 2 and 4 years and a group of similar maintained schools were generally small and mostly not statistically significant.” (National Foundation for Educational Research)


There’s no question that acquiring the skill of independent learning is of paramount importance for anyone; formal student or otherwise.

In my opinion, examining the education sector purely through an economic lens is reductive – and it remains a slippery question even for economic researchers. Educational institutions benefit societies and individuals in boundless different ways, not only by generating wealth.

Educators should be given freedom to teach creatively and passionately, but the evidence above from Academies and Free Schools shows that, in the UK at least, society is currently unwilling or unable to run with that freedom.

Heppell argues that more freedom should be given to “the schools, the teachers, the parents and the children” but how would that look in practise?

Free Schools have existed for 8 years, and still there is no clear evidence of their superiority. Either we need to enhance the way we measure success, or wait to see the evidence over forthcoming years. Granting further freedoms at this point could be ineffective, or worse; detrimental.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.