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It's good to listen;Opinion

Nicholas Tate explains the aims of the national curriculum review

WHEN David Blunkett earlier this month announced the forthcoming review of the national curriculum, I was asked on Radio 5 Live whether I thought this was something teachers would welcome.

The assumption was that teachers would be groaning at the thought of yet another set of changes looming over the horizon. I pointed out that the Education Secretary's instructions were crystal clear. This was to be a curriculum revision carried out with minimum upheaval. Nothing must hinder primary schools in their task of raising standards of literacy and numeracy: indeed, curriculum changes must assist them in this.

I also stressed that there are aspects of the current curriculum which need to be addressed, and that monitoring by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has shown support for further evolution. The current curriculum is still largely the one introduced 10 years ago, despite being radically overhauled in the 1995 Dearing revisions. In my view it would be unwise to move into the second decade of a national curriculum without at least considering whether all its features are ones we wish to retain. No business, in a rapidly changing society and economy, would think twice about the need for regular reviews.

However, as most countries with a national curriculum have found, the pressure not to change is often overwhelming. The QCA therefore faces a difficult challenge: to make whatever changes are needed in the light of schools' experience of the first version of the national curriculum, but in such a way that the system absorbs these as effortlessly as possible.

There are four main features of the national curriculum we propose to address. First, our study of curriculum frameworks from around the world suggests that we are almost alone in not having a clear and explicit rationale for the curriculum and its different phases and elements. A valid criticism of our national curriculum might be that it tells teachers what to do but not why they have to do it. If we can develop a shared sense of purpose for the different parts of the curriculum, with a strong feel for the outcomes we expect children to achieve, some of the pressures to make the curriculum prescriptive would go away.

Clarifying the purposes of different elements of the curriculum might also strengthen connections between subjects that are currently not being made. How might we strengthen the links between the art curriculum and the design elements of design and technology? Is there any more we can do to encourage other subjects to promote literacy, numeracy and the use of information and communication technology?

Second, the review will look for ways of increasing the flexibility of the national curriculum, enabling teachers to concentrate on their core tasks, without losing the advantages of a curriculum which is genuinely national and which allows each successive phase of schooling to build with confidence on the previous phase. It is the clear intention in primaries, while retaining breadth and balance, to allow much greater flexibility about programmes of study in the non-core subjects than at present.

For 14 to 16-year-olds the issues are more complex. All subjects which are currently compulsory have the potential to make a major contribution to the education of all young people, but would the advantages of greater flexibility outweigh any disadvantages of removing this entitlement?

Third, the review must support the current push to raise standards of literacy and numeracy. Any revisions to the national curriculum must go hand-in-hand with the development of the national literacy and numeracy strategies.

The QCA's advice was that changes to English and mathematics, particularly for five to 11-year-olds, should be kept to the necessary minimum, to provide stability. But it would be a pity to miss the opportunity of clarifying the relationship between national curriculum requirements in these areas and the key skills qualifications being developed post-16.

Finally, the review will tackle a constant criticism of the current curriculum - that it does not sufficiently address citizenship education, personal, social and health education and the spiritual, moral, social and cultural dimension.

This country is unusual in giving so little attention to these elements within the formal curriculum. The Government has set up task forces to look at these elements. All this work will be considered by QCA before making its final recommendations.

We are setting up a group, which will include the chairs of these other groups, to ensure the overall coherence of any provision in these areas. There is clearly strong support for a more explicit recognition of these elements of the curriculum, but an equally strong demand for the overall level of statutory requirement to be reduced. These circles will need to be squared.

In taking forward this agenda, QCA will involve teachers and other partners in the education service. One lesson we learned from the first version of the current curriculum is that unless there is a shared understanding of why changes are being made, and a commitment to them, they are unlikely to succeed. The forthcoming revision is a much more limited exercise, but the principle still applies. The exercise will proceed collaboratively, with full consultation, and on the basis of firm evidence of what works.

Dr Nicholas Tate is chief executive of the QCA

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