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A case of Dearing done

Diane Hofkins on the curriculum schools should be teaching into the next century.

This month the final, revised national curriculum will be winging its way to schools. After two Dearing Reports, a draft slimline curriculum published in May, what has been hailed as the largest formal public consultation exercise in education in England and final honing by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the curriculum which schools should be teaching into the 21st century has now been launched.

The review, commissioned by former Education Secretary John Patten in response to the widespread recognition that the curriculum was overloaded, aimed to cut it down to free the equivalent of one day a week in primary schools and lower secondary, and two days a week at key stage 4, to enable students to pursue additional academic or vocational options.

SCAA hopes its curriculum now represents a core entitlement for all pupils, that it is manageable in the classroom, and that it is strong enough to serve into the next decade. Sir Ron Dearing, SCAA chairman, says he strove to achieve three key goals through his review: * stability; * giving teachers much more scope for discretion in what is taught, by removing material from the subject Orders, particularly from the non-core subjects of history, geography, art, music, PE and technology; and by simplifying and alleviating the need for much of the administrative work; * providing schools with the basics for a broad and balanced curriculum by giving them the discretion to provide for their pupils' needs.

Since the draft proposals were published in May, Sir Ron and his team have carefully listened to suggestions and argument and taken much on board. In addition to those who attended consultation conferences, SCAA received more than 58,000 responses. In the politically-charged English curriculum, for example, they have responded to most of teachers' objections over such issues as the emphasis on Standard English, book-lists and phonics. But Sir Ron holds that he has stood fast on the fundamentals.

In his introduction to a report on the consultation responses, he says: "We are all agreed, however, on one thing: the importance of helping all children to master the basics in their early years."

Since May, SCAA has made further reductions in content, revised the content to create greater consistency between subjects, and removed overlap between subjects while trying to retain links. It has refined the level descriptions, and tried to make the content clearer.

Despite all the restructuring, schools should not have to alter their schemes of work very much, although they may slim them down. Only design and technology has undergone major alterations in what is required, and information technology has been set out as a separate subject (which pertains across the curriculum). SCAA will be sending out non-statutory guidance on these subjects next February.

Advice is also being prepared for primary schools on whole-curriculum assessment and planning in response to concerns expressed since the national curriculum was implemented in 1989.

The issue of whole-curriculum planning was also considered significant at key stage 4, where students are to be offered vocational options which must be made to work in conjunction with the academic national curriculum subjects. "Respondents almost universally requested guidance on approaches to progression for pupils of all abilities from 14 to 19, given the new kinds of courses and qualifications that could be available," says the consultation report. SCAA says it is giving thought to ways in which it can best support the new key stage 4 arrangements which take effect from September 1996.

Sir Ron believes the curriculum is now being returned to the schools. "What should be taught is statutorily defined, how it is taught should be decided by individual schools," says the consultation document.

One cause of overload in the past, says SCAA, is that schools were too conscientious. Sir Ron emphasises that they have a right to exercise their judgment on how to use the Orders.

But he admits that it will take two years before the new curriculum can really be judged.

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