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Back with the teachers

The key message from Sir Ron Dearing as he launches the revised national curriculum is that he is handing professional responsibility back to the teachers. It is a theme which he has repeated constantly throughout the Herculean exercise he has conducted over the past 18 months.

It is not a message that teachers find easy to believe or accept, let alone act on. Not because most of them do not also believe that the original national curriculum trampled over professional territory, but rather because six years of top-down prescription has sapped will and self-confidence.

It will take time to get back into curriculum planning and the use of professional discretion without searching through the handbooks and directives for the right answer. More immediately important, many teachers will not believe in the new freedom until they can feel it.

They have remained sceptical about the Dearing promise that the equivalent of one day a week has been freed up during the first three key stages, and two days for l4 to l6 year-olds; but the proof can only come when they start teaching to the revised curriculum in September of next year - and it is certainly understandable if confusion has persisted about which of the many recent versions was to be the real thing.

This week it all starts to become much clearer. Now that the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, has given the Government's seal of approval to the final, revised version of the national curriculum (with its guaranteed life of five years) the work of dissemination also begins - and The TES this week offers a special eight-page guide to the changes.

There can be little argument now that the consultation exercise has been remarkably effective. It has met its decreed objective of cutting back on the clutter, it has done it on schedule, and produced a model that is now recognisable as professionally rather than politically-driven. Teachers played a full part in the working groups carrying out the revisions, and many thousands more took part in the subsequent consultations. This week's report makes it clear how seriously their comments were considered, and acted upon.

This is most apparent in the English Order, where the abhorrent emphasis on Standard English and book lists has been modified (though without dethroning spelling and grammar), but it is also amply evident in the detail of other subjects. The total confusion over Design and Technology and Information Technology has been ruthlessly dealt with.

It is worth noting that the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority also went to some pains to consult parents and employers about their views, backing up opinion polls with small group meetings. The results from these largely supported SCAA's own order of priorities, although there was some divergence on vocational studies pre-l6 and a strong feeling that modern languages should be given more priority, and start earlier.

It is clear that Sir Ron Dearing will not be budged on the vocational front, but many professionals would agree that modern languages have become more vulnerable as a results of the slimming exercise. Though the requirement for languages at key stage 4 has now been cut back to a short course, this is a prime example of the discretion now handed back to teachers. It will be up to the schools to offer full GCSE modern languages courses to all pupils, if they choose to do so.

By the same token, the schools may if they wish insist on full technology courses for all l4 to l6 year-olds, constrain options at that age so that everyone takes history or geography and an expressive arts subject, or offer classics. It will be up to the teachers. It will also be the teachers' choice if they want to put back into lessons some of the items that have been cut from the compulsory lists. There is no ban on King Charles I just because he is no longer obligatory at key stage 2 history. You can introduce Oscar Wilde even though he is not on the recommended list of playwrights. Too much of the controversy over the cuts has arisen because loss of obligatory status has been interpreted as a ban, rather than presenting more choice to the teacher.

The essential truth is that overload could not be removed from the curriculum without making hard choices. What we now have is a basic framework which can be added to at the teacher's discretion. That offers schools more freedom again, but also returns to them more responsibility.

Once teachers have got used to the idea, they will be free to start thinking again about curriculum philosophy, and to introduce their own ideas within the framework. But it will also be up to them to make sure that those subjects which have been pared down beyond the professionals' better judgment are fleshed out to suit pupils' needs and that they have a broad and balanced curriculum at key stage 4.

There won't be much help through non-statutory guidance because, again in response to popular demand, that particular cart-load of paper has been strictly rationed - but The TES would welcome a new curriculum debate in these pages. Sir Ron Dearing has done everything that was required of him. The Government has made major concessions. The national curriculum is back with the teachers.

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