When I trained as a teacher in the 1950s we were proudly taught that, whereas on the continent, and in particular France, control freak governments laid down exactly and precisely what was to be taught in their schools, here in the freedom-lovng UK, schools and teachers were trusted to use their expertise, judgement and local knowledge to decide on what the children in their care should be taught.
In actual fact I suspect that it was good text books as much as anything that were the main influence on what was taught, especially in the junior and lower forms of the secondary schools. When I began teaching, in a secondary-modern school, in 1959, one of the first questions I was asked by the head of the history department was what books were the college recommending. I told her and she promptly bought sets. Curriculum instructions rarely amounted to much more than to "get through" as much of the appropriate text books as possible in the year. In English there was the expectation that there would be "some" literature, poetry, comprehension, composition and oral work each week. This left a considerable amount of latitude for the initiatives and enthusiasms of the individual teacher.and was great fun.
If anything, however, there was too much conformity. This was especially true in the last two years before taking the 16+ examinations, which the majority were encouraged to stay on at school and take, although the minimum leaving age was still 15. For these two years the curriculum in each subject was determined by the various examination boards.
English education suffered, and perhaps still suffers, from a "trickle-down effect" in which the universities, by their entrance requirements, dictated what the grammar schools taught, and the secondary-moderns gained prestige my aping the grammar schools. Unfortunately the third leg of what was meant to be a tripartite system, the technical schools, never really took off and technical education has never gained the status which I understand it enjoys on the continent, and in particular, Germany.
A Tory government destroyed this innovative hotchpotch in 1988 and introduced the National Curriculum, though, significantly, it did and does not apply to their own breeding ground the public (ie private, fee paying) schools .To our shame the Liberals leadership of the time accepted, indeed welcomed, it, though surely the concept is antithetical to liberalism.
From a Secretary of State who has presumed to instruct teachers on the method to be used to teach children to read. and has conceived the ridiculously named and restrictive Ebach, Michael Gove's proposals to "slim down" the curriculum come from an unexpected source. Never the less, the proposals, leaked in a document last week, are to be welcomed, Unfortunately but predictably the move has produced a knee-jerk reaction from the Labour party, who bleat that: "there is no mention of the importance of spelling ...for 11 to 14 year olds."
How patronising that our politicians think teachers need to be instructed to teach our children how to spell their own language. Next they'll be telling parents to teach their babies to crawl. Liberal Democrats should welcome these moves to reduce this draconian central direction, call for further moves in eduction and for similar principles to be applied in other areas.