Core Curriculum/National Curriculum—Detailed Toil and Loss of Liberty?

I am not sure if brevity is the soul of wit or the sister of talent, but I think most of us like it and know what it is when we see it.

I remember when the new national curriculum for English arrived on my desk at work.

My sense of excitement and joy, however, was quickly dispelled when I lifted the weighty package.

I put it back down on my desk and looked at it. I considered putting it in the bin.

Instead, I decided to tear the large brown envelope open. Prising the document from it was not an easy task. Then, there it was before me. The New Zealand English Curriculum—109 pages of it.

For those used to reading thick novels that might not sound like many pages, but for a teacher and a policy analyst it represented 109 pages of detailed toil, and a loss of liberty. From that day forward what was to be taught was overtly prescribed.

Going from section to section my heart sank. What was intended to help actually raised a large number of new challenges.

A decade later, the Department of Education released slimmed down curricula in all subject areas. It also became more efficient at describing the ‘levels’ of expectation for each steppingstone for a particular educational ‘pathway’.

I still found, however, its bulky offerings slightly offensive, and in my darker moods even sinister. My gut instinct was more aligned with an outcome-based curriculum that described an education destination—i.e., what students needed to know, be able to do, and value when they leave school—without all the clutter. A sort of ‘keep it simple stupid’ and go for brevity in curriculum form.

As a result, I wrote and circulated a two-page English curriculum called ‘Not the New Zealand English Curriculum’.

The word curriculum has its origins in the notion of a vehicle or a chariot. The idea is a curriculum carries someone from one point to another. And I felt my two-page document was entirely sufficient for such a journey. It was brief and explicit about the destination.

I forwarded it to three of New Zealand’s most highly respected principals and asked them to red pen it. Each did so and agreed it was better than the 109-page document their staff was working from. Two of the three who peer reviewed the work had been heads of English.

Looking back on the document now I see its limitations. And I admit it doesn’t provide a roadmap outlining how students and teachers should ‘staircase learning’. I can see it is of limited use.

I also know from experience how contested any study of literature becomes. Readers who look at the reading recommendations will be quick to pick away at its authors holding others should be included and that some should be excised. Fair call.

The point I want to make is that while my alternative curriculum is far from perfect it represents an expression of outcome-based education. It is an example of the type of writing that originally characterised core or national curricula. For many teachers, who are overwhelmed with standards, continual assessment and what has been described as tick box testing and teaching, it is a breath of fresh air. It is premised on professional trust; a trust, unfortunately, that might be misplaced.

Anyway, here it is:

“Not the New Zealand English Curriculum”


When students leave school they should write well and when not using electronic media legibly.

They should write for pleasure as well as from necessity. They should:

  • Structure their writing
    • using paragraphs, introductions and conclusions as necessary;
  • Use simple, complex, compound and compound-complex sentence forms;
  • Capitalise;
  • Spell correctly;
  • Punctuate, using the full range of punctuation marks to delimit sentence structure and assist a reader.

Students should be able to identify parts of speech and explain their function. They should understand syntax and grammar.

Students should be:

  • Skilled in précis(summary);
  • Able to define a thesis and advance it in a structured manner;
    • explaining a proposition and exemplifying it with primary and secondary source material as necessary;
  • Practised in writing aesthetic literature—in scriptwriting, poetry, narrative etc;
    • And sensitive to style, literary devices and conventions.

Students should write for every day: for email, memos, letters, articles, reports etc.

Students should be able to plan, draft, redraft, write and proofread their material.

Students should be able to recognise their audience and, if necessary, adapt their writing to it.

Students should draw on an expansive vocabulary.

They should understand basic relationships between English and its dialects, related languages, and between English and other languages in use in New Zealand.


Students who leave school should enjoy reading.

They should read well, both silently and out loud. They should be able to:

  • Extract meaning;
  • Identify an author’s intention;
    • Distinguish between the assumptions and attitudes of authors and those of their characters;
  • Trace narratives, including multiple narratives within a story;
  • Identify themes;
  • Appreciate aesthetic detail;
    • Understanding genre, style, conventions, melody and presentational devices;
    • Valuing irony;
    • Recognising ambiguity.

Students should be able to describe the biographical, religious, philosophical, historical and political circumstances that affect authorship.

Students should learn from, and delight in, literature. This might include the study of literature in its abridged forms.

  • Students should be familiar with literature which has influenced western civilisation. This should include some works from the following:
    • Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Virgil, Augustine, Dante, the Bible.
  • Students should profit from English literature. They should read:
    • Shakespeare;
    • Works from among: Anjana Appachana, Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, J G Ballard, Beale, B O’Brian, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, John Bunyan, Joseph Conrad, Roald Dahl, Daniel Defoe, Dan Davin, Don DeLillo, Charles Dickens, Berlie Doherty, Maurice Duggan, Alan Duff, George Eliot, Anne Fine, Henry Fielding, F Scott Fitzgerald, E M Forster, Janet Frame, Elizabeth Gaskell, Maurice Gee, William Golding, Patricia Grace, Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy, F M Hendry, Susan Hill, Aldous Huxley, Witi Ihimaera, Henry James, James Joyce, D H Lawrence, Laurie Lee, C S Lewis, Joan Lingard, Katherine Mansfield, Andrew Melville, Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Michael Morrissey, V S Naipaul, Bill Naughton, Flannery O’Connor, George Orwell, Salman Rushdie, Vincent O’Sullivan, Frank Sargeson, Maurice Shadbolt, Mary Shelley, Muriel Spark, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Steinbeck, Jonathan Swift, Alan Sillitoe, Mildred Taylor, William Trevor, Anthony Trollope, J R R Tolkien, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, H G Wells, Robert Westall, Patrick White;
    • Poetry from: Fleur Adcock, Matthew Arnold, W H Auden, James K Baxter, James Berry, Charles Brasch, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Blake, Emily Bronte, Robert Browning, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Clare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alan Curnow, Ruth Dallas, John Donne, Basil Dowling, John Dryden, Eileen Duggan, Douglas Dunn, Lauris Edmond, T S Eliot, A R D Fairburn, Robert Frost, Thomas Gray, Denis Glover, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sam Hunt, Robin Hyde, M K Joseph, John Keats, Philip Larkin, Andrew Marvell, Roger McGough, John Milton, Adrian Mitchell, Edwin Muir, Edgar Alan Poe, Vincent O’Sullivan, Wilfred Owen, Alexander Pope, Christina Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Elizabeth Smither, Kendrick Smithyman, Edmund Spenser, C K Stead, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry Vaughan, William Wordsworth, Sir Thomas Wyatt, William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats;
    • Plays from: Rob Bolt, William Congreve, Oliver Goldsmith, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Sean O’Casey, Roger Hall, Arthur Millar, Harold Pinter, J B Priestley, Peter Shaffer, G B Shaw, R B Sheridan, Tom Stoppard, Oscar Wilde.
    • Other authors.

Speaking and Listening:

Students leaving school should speak well in any context. They should:

  • Be practised in description, narration, storytelling, explanation, interview, public speaking, debate, anecdote and entertainment;
  • Use an expansive vocabulary;
    • be sensitive to register;
  • Bring into play volume, intonation and emphasis;
    • gesture, movement, facial expression and eye contact.

Students should be able to recite poetry and quote from memory.

Students leaving school should be able to listen patiently to others. They should:

  • Be able to make sense of what they hear, determine a speaker’s attitude towards the subject and, when necessary, respond to it critically;
  • Understand the impact of diction and syntax upon a listener together with
    • The use of rhetorical questions, parallelism, concrete images, figurative language and other stylistic devices;
    • And the use of logical, ethical, and/or emotional appeals.

Take away points: Core curricula and/or national curricula have been around for more than two decades. During that period they have become more prescriptive. Originally they adopted an outcome-based educational model that simply described what it was governments wanted students to know, be able to do and value at the end of K-12. The weakness of an outcome-based education model is its failure to provide scaffolding. For creative and able teachers, however, this weakness is a strength. There remains moral and political questions over who chooses what goes into a curriculum and what degree of say parents, communities, teachers and groups within civil society have on the matter.

Research: Current New Zealand Curricula—The Foreword:

A painting concerned with boundaries, duties and creative genius—Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas. (1656. Oil on canvas. 125.2 in x 108.7 in, Museo del Prado, Madrid):ÁZQUEZ,%20Diego%20Rodriguez%20de%20Silva%20y/0801vela.big.jpg



  1. I love the curriculum you wrote. It’s teachers like you that restore my faith that one day all the beaurocratic nonsense will be wiped out by teachers who still have enough passion left to challenge it!


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