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Going off the gold standard

New responsibilities come thick and fast, but governors must not forget their core responsibilities to the adults of the future, says Colin Richards.

Ten years ago we governors were given a wide-ranging set of responsibilities by the Education Reform Act, including the duty of ensuring that children received a full curricular entitlement comprising the subjects of the national curriculum and religious education. Ten years on, with the School Standards and Framework Bill likely to become law this autumn, we are to be given yet more responsibilities for areas such as target-setting, monitoring and evaluation, development planning and home-school contracts.

There is a danger, not just of overloading us and losing our goodwill (on which the whole system of school governance depends), but of us being forced to renege or cut back on children's curricular entitlement because of Government pressures. If so many children will not have the chance to develop, and celebrate, their talents and interests and the all-round education in which many primary schools (and we as governors) rightly take pride will be put at risk.

A major reason for this is the panic over standards in literacy and numeracy. The Government seems to believe, contrary to the evidence of its inspectors, that schools have not devoted enough time or attention to these areas and that standards are either falling or are nowhere near high enough. In January the Secretary of State announced a relaxation in national curriculum requirements for primary schools to take effect for two years from this autumn onwards.

In line with his penchant for league tables - inherited from his predecessor - he has unofficially reorganised the primary curriculum into a "premier division" consisting only of English and mathematics and a reconstituted "first division" of science, information technology and religious education. All other subjects, including the arts, have been relegated into the lowest division, where children's full entitlement to the curriculum need not apply - unless schools and their governing bodies decide otherwise.

This is where we come in. No one doubts the importance of reading, writing and arithmetic. All children need those essential tools. But there are many other important skills and capabilities that ought to be fostered in children if they are to develop into rounded human beings and have their wide-ranging talents and potentialities recognised. A balance has to be struck between the "premier" subjects and the remainder, yet that balance in our primary schools is threatened by an overemphasis on the so-called "basics" brought on by national strategies, testing, league tables, Office for Standards in Education, inspections and the like.

Our primary schools will be under enormous pressure to devote more and more time to English and mathematics at the expense of other areas of the curriculum. We need to be clear about what constitutes a "broad and balanced curriculum" to develop our pupils' talents and individuality and to see that it is provided, without, of course, neglecting literacy and numeracy. In my view we will be failing in our statutory (and educational) duty if we do not see that enough time is devoted to the arts, humanities, physical education and design technology to enable them to make a meaningful, rather than token, contribution to children's all-round education.

The Government's new literacy and numeracy strategies are very important. We need to support them, but not indiscriminately or uncritically. If we keep a measure of detachment we can help our schools avoid the excesses that officially sanctioned band-wagoning too often involves. It is important that these "excesses" do not involve the virtual abandonment of those areas of the curriculum central to helping children (and future adults, including future governors!) live a full life of mind, body and soul.

There is more to soccer than the Premier Division; there is more to living than schooling; there is more to schooling than the curriculum; and there is more to the curriculum than reading, writing and number.

* Colin Richards is a school governor, professor at the University College of St Martin and a former HMI.

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