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Education without frills

Teachers are battling to keep a rich, creative curriculum despite tests and targets relegating non-core subjects. Warwick Mansell reports.

over the past 10 years, school timetables have come to be dominated by the teaching of English, maths, science and information technology, according to secret government surveys of hundreds of headteachers and senior staff.

In primaries, an increase in the amount of teaching time devoted to the core subjects, first noted immediately after 1997, has been maintained in recent years at the expense of foundation subjects.

And in secondaries, a league table of how important staff believe their subject to be in their schools shows English, maths and science coming out on top.

The figures are contained in reports for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which has sent questionnaires to hundreds of schools since 1997.

Never published in full before, these were released to The TES under the Freedom of Information Act.

The figures also show that the key stage 3 strategy has been well-received by the majority of teachers, but that professionals across the secondary sector feel overwhelmed by new initiatives.

Previously released QCA figures showed that from 1997 to 2002, the proportion of KS2 curriculum time devoted to English rose from 23 to 27.2 per cent, while for maths, the rise was from 19.3 to 22.1 per cent. Since 2005, the figures for English and maths have remained static.

By contrast, the proportion of time given to many other non-core subjects fell: history (from 5.7 to 4 per cent); geography (5.6 to 4); design and technology (5.2 to 3.9); art and design (5.5 to 4.2); music (4.8 to 4); religious education (5.1 to 4.6) and personal, social and health education (4.4 to 3.2). Science also registered a fall in teaching hours, from 11.3 per cent of the timetable in 1997 to 9.7 in 2005.

The only subject other than English and maths to register an increase was ICT, rising from 4.1 to 5.4 per cent. Physical education was unchanged at 7.1 per cent, while two subjects not listed in 1997, sex education and modern languages, occupied 1.9 per cent and 2.2 per cent, respectively, of curriculum time in 2005.

The pattern at KS1 was similar, with English and maths increasing their hold on the timetable from a combined 46 per cent in 1997 to 50 per cent in 2005, at the expense of foundation subjects.

Professor Colin Richards, of St Martin's college in Lancaster and a former primary schools chief inspector, said the position was not that different from teaching patterns in the early years of the 20th century.

"This is just what you expect when you have high-stakes tests," he said.

"The higher the stakes, the more teachers are going to concentrate on subjects that are tested. This does contrast rather strongly with the position of 1988, when the national curriculum was introduced and English and maths were supposed to take up 35 per cent of the curriculum."

As The TES reports today, there may be a backlash, as increasingly schools decide to abandon traditional subject lessons in favour of theme-based teaching. The most recently released QCA survey, from 2004-05, found schools were beginning to warm to the idea of cross-curricular work.

Topic teaching was most often offered in history, geography, PSHE and science. At KS1, "ourselves and others" (PSHE), "houses and homes"

(history) and "toys and games" (also history) were the most popular topics, while at KS2, three history subjects ranked highest: "Tudors and Stuarts"; "ancient Egypt" and "Britain since 1930".

There was also evidence of the richness of provision most primary schools still offer pupils. Some 99 per cent said they invited visitors to talk to children, 97 per cent said they arranged visits to museums and galleries, and 69 per cent said they emphasised arts across the curriculum. Some 96 per cent said they planned to make the curriculum more creative.

In secondaries, heads of department were asked how important they believed their subject was seen to be in their school (see box). English came out on top, with about 56 per cent rating it high status and only about 4 per cent saying it was low. Bottom-ranked was citizenship, with only 8 per cent of those who taught it saying that their school rated the subject a top priority, compared with about 48 per cent saying the opposite.

Modern languages also fared poorly, with more teachers believing their schools rated the subject as low priority than high.

In separate questionnaires, secondary heads were asked the amount of curriculum time devoted to each subject at KS3. Comparative figures from 1997 were not produced, but in 2005 English, maths and science dominated, taking 12.8, 12.5 and 12.4 per cent of the time, respectively.

Another indication of the emphasis placed on core subjects was in the provision for pupils who fell behind. About seven out of 10 schools reported that some Year 7s who had underperformed in KS2 tests attended "catch-up" classes in English, maths or science. But four out of 10 schools running these classes said their pupils' access to other areas of the curriculum had been adversely affected as a result.

Such information carries a warning for Gordon Brown, who has promised extra tuition for those pupils struggling in the basics. Some subject associations believe this would be at the expense of a broad curriculum.

The KS3 strategy, introduced in 2001, was revealed as a hit with an majority of the teachers surveyed. For both maths and science, 91 per cent agreed that its approaches had helped teaching and learning. For English, the figure was 84 per cent; for ICT, 83 per cent; and for modern languages, 68 per cent.

Targets and tests were seen by 44 per cent of respondents as the greatest hindrances to providing a broad and balanced KS3 curriculum. Many heads believed these assessments were more about judging staff performance than pupils' strengths and weaknesses, with some 78 per cent agreeing. Only 49 per cent believed it was about pupil target setting.

The biggest issues for secondary teachers appeared to be initiative overload and lack of time. Although the QCA did not ask questions specifically relating to these issues, they arose time and again in written comments made by teachers at the end of the questionnaires.

Some 70 per cent agreed that a "significant number" of KS4 pupils took too many exams, one respondent linking this to league table pressure on schools.

Meanwhile, more than three-quarters described the coursework demands on pupils as excessive. Ministers have since announced plans to scrap conventional coursework in many subjects.

In 2004, following the Government's decision to make modern languages voluntary at KS4, some 17 per cent of schools said they had cut staffing in the subject. In 2005, a further 11 per cent reported a decline.

Some 78 per cent of secondaries said the transfer of pupils from primaries was fraught with problems, the biggest gripe being that data sent from feeder schools was often late or insufficient.


Subject Rank index (%)

English 52.7

Maths 51

Science 40.2

ICT 31.2

History 28.1

PE 25.6

Music 20.9

Art and design 18.3

Geography 14

Business studies 9.7

Design and technology 2.7

RE 0.9

Modern languages - 7.9

PSHE - 24.6

Citizenship - 39.9

Figures show the percentage of secondary teachers rating a subject as high status within their school minus the percentage rating it as low status.

Source: QCA monitoring curriculum and assessment report, 2004-05


"Key stage 3 strategy is putting the fun back into teaching. About time"

Geography teacher

"OUR modern languages curriculum is exciting, with eight different languages being offered."

Modern languages teacher


"Appointed to a department that has I run to seed. No scheme of work at KS3 or ks4, a board for GCSE that is not appropriate or resourced, and demotivated staff."

Geography teacher

"We cannot move forward because of the time and energy wasted dealing with poor pupil behaviour in supply teachers' lessons."

Science teacher

"The life and soul has been taken out of this subject. We have become geared to exam results and statistics. English has, in many instances, been reduced to soundbite literature."

English teacher

"Please give us time to consolidate. It has been one initiative after another and it feels like we are drowning under the weight and expectation."

English teacher

Source: selected quotes from QCA monitoring curriculum and assessment report, 2004-05, individual secondary subject teachers

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