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Dawn of the 'enlightened' curriculum

The schools minister has stressed the importance of core skills and a rounded education. Linda Blackburne and Nicholas Pyke report

The Government has moved to reassure primary teachers there will be no back-to-basics crusade in its drive to raise standards.

Although schools minister Estelle Morris this week called for daily literacy and numeracy hours in every classroom, she promised a "broad, enlightened" curriculum and said there would be no return to an elementary school "golden age".

In her first announcement, Ms Morris also ruled out any embargo-busting legislation before the year 2000 - when Sir Ron Dearing's moratorium on change in the curriculum ends. But she left the door open for a wholesale reform of the primary school curriculum in the long term.

"Teachers need to learn a balance of teaching methods, including phonics, in teaching reading - and whole-class interactive methods teaching maths," she told a London conference organised by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

Ms Morris said that in the long-term, teacher training would put more emphasis on core skills.

But this would not be at the expense of a rounded education: "There can be no eitheror in primary education. An emphasis on basic skills need not drive out a broad, enlightened curriculum.

"We have no nostalgia for some mythical elementary school golden age. This is 1997 not 1897. We are not trying to roll back progress to get back to some pre-war paradise."

She told the conference that SCAA had been asked to draw up an interim report on how a sharper focus on literacy and numeracy could be achieved in the next three years without making any statutory changes.

Urgent action was needed, she argued, because international comparisons showed that Britain lagged behind its competitors in the basics.

Speaking to the The TES Ms Morris promised substantial consultation and asked teachers to tell the Government how best to preserve their "individuality" in a prescribed curriculum.

"We are ever so conscious that in some schools the challenge is even greater because of the out-of-school experience of children," said Ms Morris. "We now have children who come from homes where there are three generations of unemployment.

"They have lost faith in the education system's ability to deliver I Schools only have children for 15 per cent of the time. We have to do something about the learning experience outside school."

She knew training teachers to deliver high-quality "literacy and numeracy hours" would cost money but said: "We are going to be very good on switching priorities.

"We will do that all the time so that it meets the main policies of the Labour Government. There are things that can be done without money. I don't believe the only thing we need to raise standards is money. If I did, how could I explain the successes in deprived areas that are flourishing?" The daily literacy hour was recommended by Labour's literacy task force last February.

Ms Morris wants teachers to be equipped with the most effective methods that have been shown to work in the classroom.

The daily programme of reading, writing and maths was given a cautious welcome by academics and union leaders.

Andrew Pollard, director of research at the Graduate School of Education at Bristol University, said: "What I would want to say to Estelle is, 'Be careful. One hour a day might undermine children's eagerness.' "The Government is not thinking about motivation and learning. It has an over-simplified belief that what is taught will be learnt. The Tories saw very simply and it would be a shame if the new Government did."

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, warned against imposition from the centre but said: "If the Government's concentration on the basics signals a serious willingness to consider a reduction in the national curriculum, that is welcome.

"The curriculum is still grossly overloaded, particularly in primary schools, when teachers would prefer more time for the basic skills."

Responding to the Government's announcement, Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of SCAA, was keen to play down suggestions of a "back to basics" drive in primary schools.

He said there would be no need to sacrifice less important but traditional subjects such as geography.

Pointing out that British pupils already spend as much time on maths as children from more successful Pacific Rim countries, he said the main task was to make better use of that time.

"Schools are already giving a substantial amount time to literacy and numeracy both at key stages 1 and 2," he said. "Schools are already giving about 10 hours a week to literacy and numeracy combined - which is about the time being recommended.

"Clearly, that masks enormous variations across schools. An awful lot of schools are doing substantially less.

"It also masks enormous variations in how that time is used. The key task is to use that time more effectively."

Whether or not there should be a dedicated reading hour as recommended by the literacy task force is one of the questions SCAA will have to consider, he said.

Dr Tate said that the authority's tests in English and maths were probably responsible for an increase in the time schools devote to the subjects.

SCAA officials appear optimistic about hints in Ms Morris's speech that she would consider a wholesale reform of the primary curriculum.

There is a private feeling that the primary curriculum is a mini-version of the secondary timetable, full of different compartments and that, as such, it is unmanageable. Substantial changes, though, would involve very considerable amounts of time and consultation.

Dr Tate said: "One of our main problems is that it is difficult for teachers to manage all the elements in the curriculum. That is not the same as saying that the children aren't capable of tackling it."

Robin Alexander on the primary curriculum, TES2, page 11

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