One of Scotland's largest councils has taken a lead in breaking openly with the 5-14 guidelines on environmental studies and says this is the only way to implement ministerial policy on literacy and numeracy in the early years.
North Lanarkshire argues that if time goes on improving the basics something has to give. But the council's decision, applauded by primary heads at a meeting on Monday and reflecting the views of many teachers, will revive fears about narrowing the curriculum.
The proposal, if approved by the education committee on October 21, will mean slashing the guideline time for environmental studies from 25 per cent to 15 per cent in the first three primary years. The subject would take up only 20 per cent of the curriculum in the next three years and not reach its present national minimum allocation until primary 7 or the early secondary years. Michael O'Neill, the council's director of education, suggests time should be redistributed equally to English language and maths, which are officially expected to have only 15 per cent each.
The 20 per cent "flexibility element" in the curriculum would be devoted to these areas in primary 1 to primary 3, which would increase the time spent on basic skills by a third. Schools would have discretion over flexible time from primary 4 on but at least 10 per cent would go to language and number.
The Inspectorate, while emphasising the primacy of literacy and numeracy, is not attracted by a "mechanistic" approach or one that does not take account of differences between individual schools. Environmental studies can also be a vehicle for improving the basics, HMI believes.
The move by North Lanarkshire reflects the reality that the mix of social subjects, science and technology in environmental studies is the biggest single challenge inhibiting the completion of the 5-14 programme, still scheduled for 1999.
Mr O'Neill lists 11 problems facing environmental studies, from the absence of quality materials and a coherent assessment system to lack of teacher confidence in science and technology.
His report states: "It appears reasonable to consider ways in which the authority and schools can continue to operate within the spirit and guidelines of the 5-14 programme but in a manner which simplifies the demands associated with environmental studies, tackles the issue of underachievement in key skills, and reduces the workload demands on teaching staff."
North Lanarkshire also plans to take stock of environmental studies in the first two secondary years. "The interests of coherence in the environmental studies curriculum are not addressed by establishing artificial curriculum structures or forcing uneasy alliances of subject disciplines," Mr O'Neill says.
He stresses that he is not sending out "an invitation to schools to disregard the 5-14 curricular guidelines at will" but to follow an agenda which is "manageable, sustainable, supported and resourced". The effects would be measured by comparing pupil attainment in environmental studies before and after the changes are implemented.