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The French know the importance of their national curriculum, an awareness that we are in danger of losing, warns Nicholas Tate. As the Government's chief curriculum adviser, he argues for a common set of experiences and values for future citizens this side of La Manche

A few weeks ago, a leading article in Le Monde announced a public consultation in France on "what ought to be taught in schools, and why". What struck me was not just the prominence given to this item of news - this, after all, is a paper which prints the baccalaureat philosophy questions on its front page every summer - but the way it was taken for granted that this was a matter in which all French men and women would have an interest.

A country which has had a national curriculum since Napoleon's day has long since come to see it for what it is: a statement of what one generation values sufficiently to wish to pass it on to the next.

As such, it is a focus for intense debate about the values and priorities of the society it reflects, as shown in the early 1970s when an attempt to change the role of history in the French curriculum led to the ministry of education being buried under the weight of hostile petitions and protests. The content of the national curriculum may be contested, but the need for it is taken for granted.

I had thought the same was true here until I read some of the comments that followed the announcement of the Government's proposal to suspend some of the requirements of our own primary national curriculum.

It wasn't so much that there was opposition to the idea of a national curriculum - support for this has been fairly consistent - but that we were in danger of forgetting why we had come to decide that it was a good thing.

There are three main reasons for having a national curriculum. First, it involves a guarantee that all children, wherever educated, will be taught certain things, such as music, or swimming, or Shakespeare.

The growth of state education in the20th century has meant the gradual extension to the whole population of a liberal curriculum once reserved for an elite. The national curriculum was the culmination of that trend. It is difficult to conceive of an inclusive society that does not involve an entitlement for all children to the best on offer.

Second, a national curriculum lays down high expectations of what is to be achieved in the different phases of schooling. Individual schools always tried to do their best by their pupils, but often lacked a precise sense of what they were aiming for or how well they were doing by comparison with other schools.

The purpose of the national curriculum was to provide schools with a common set of objectives. Testing, based on these objectives, would provide the information with which schools could come to a judgment about their own performance and set targets for the future.

Third, a national curriculum guarantees continuity: between different phases of schooling and different parts of the country. Children moving from primary to secondary school know that work at their previous school will be built on and not simply repeated. Children moving to another part of the country know that they will be continuing with a curriculum broadly similar to the one they are used to. Parents in a recent MORI survey particularly recognised this purpose of a national curriculum.

All these purposes were commonplace at the time the national curriculum was introduced. A fourth purpose, however, has emerged, and that is to provide a common set of experiences for future citizens.

A core curriculum, especially where it touches on cultural, social and political matters, is part of the common civic domain on which all nation states depend. This is why, in France, debates about the aims of the national curriculum turn up on the front page of Le Monde.

In this country, debates on the national curriculum have tended to focus less on the aims than on the balance between prescription and autonomy. This is because the first version of the national curriculum was so grossly over-loaded.

There is one sense, however, in which the curriculum may not be prescriptive enough. The slimmed-down 1995 version has been criticised for its lack of an explicit rationale. It has been compared unfavourably, for example, with the Norwegian curriculum with its statement of vision, inspiring tone and splendid illustrations.

There may be something in this. Some primary teachers have felt they were being made to jump through hoops without being told why. This has clearly contributed to their sense of overload.

Greater autonomy in some areas may, therefore, need to go hand in hand with a more explicit vision for the curriculum as a whole, for its various elements and for the different phases of schooling.

Where we agree on what we are trying to achieve, and why, it may be easier to leave schools to find the ways that are best for them to meet these objectives, supported by guidance where required.

This is one of the issues on which the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will be seeking views in preparation for a revised curriculum from the year 2000.

We have already consulted on the aims and purposes of the curriculum and are clear that there is strong support for spelling out purposes of the curriculum currently left implicit.

If the curriculum is indeed a statement of what society values, it is obvious that we value more than just the subject disciplines and more than just the basics, vital though these are.

One of the tasks facing any curriculum revision will be to signal the importance of the many aspects of pupils' personal, spiritual, moral, social and cultural development which schools take very seriously but which do not figure prominently in current curriculum documents.

Our initial soundings suggest that there is little support for a national curriculum which does not recognise these elements, alongside a continuing role for the arts and humanities.

The challenge for the national curriculum review will be to find a way of meeting all these requirements, while reinforcing the Government's message about the primacy of literacy and numeracy in key stages 1 and 2.

We must also balance the wish for greater autonomy than the 1995 curriculum has allowed with the need not to lose the benefits of a national curriculum in terms of continuity, progression and a common set of experiences for all children.

If we can achieve all this, while avoiding too much disruption to what teachers actually teach, it will be a prize worth striving for.

We will succeed only on the basis of a broad consensus about what a national curriculum is designed to achieve, or, as Le Monde put it, on the basis of a vision of what constitutes an educated man or woman.

This is why QCA was keen to begin with first principles. The results of our consultation on the aims and purposes of the curriculum, which will be made available later in the spring, will form the starting point for the next stage of the review.

Dr Nicholas Tate is chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

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