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Into the learning breach

Skills could supplant subjects in a radical reshaping of the national curriculum. Karen Thornton reports

The current national curriculum in Wales could be scrapped if proposals to create a more skills-based approach to learning are adopted by politicians.

The proposals were overshadowed this week by the announcement that Wales will no longer formally test 11-year-olds nor, after next summer, 14-year-olds (see page 3). But they offer a blueprint for curriculum and assessment reforms that extend beyond the mere abandonment of Sats.

In a review of curriculum and assessment for five to 16-year-olds, ACCAC, the qualifications, curriculum and assessment agency, proposes a reduction in the amount of subject content covered in primary and secondary schools in core subjects including English, Welsh, maths and science. Instead, there would be a greater focus on skills needed for future learning and the workplace, such as communication, numeracy, problem-solving and teamwork.

In the long term, politicians should consider a more radical goal of abandoning a subject-based national curriculum altogether, recommends ACCAC.

One option discussed by ACCAC would ensure entitlement to "essential areas" of learning but focus on a range of skills rather than subject areas.

"If we take this together with the new foundation stage for under-sevens, work in progress on 14-19, and the Daugherty changes to the assessment regime, in effect we are saying goodbye to the national curriculum," said David Egan, professor of education at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff.

"This is much broader in its conception than the Tomlinson review in England, and it brings together the agendas of education, social inclusion and economic development.

"It shows how distinctly Wales is moving away from what's happening in England, in a progressive and forward-looking way."

Gethin Lewis, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers Cymru, said: "It looks as if the present curriculum is past its sell-by date.

Those of us around when decisions were made on the national curriculum in the late 1980s can recall our concerns then that the primary curriculum was becoming more like the secondary - dominated by subjects.

"Many teachers will be concerned at yet more changes. But following the scrapping of key stage 2 and KS3 tests, this is an opportunity to look at an appropriate curriculum that meets the needs of children in Wales but will not overload teachers."

ACCAC says the aim of its proposed reforms - which, if agreed, would take effect from 2008 - would be to create a more "inclusive" curriculum suitable for a wider range of pupils.

The current offering fails to motivate a "significant minority" of pupils, some of whom become disaffected as a result, while GCSEs are "appropriate and manageable" for only around half the cohort, says the review.

Primary and secondary teachers complain that the curriculum is overloaded.

At KS2, they say, there is too great a focus on what is taught rather than how it is learnt, along with a lack of "excitement, challenge, risk-taking, creativity and enjoyment".

While schools want to retain GCSEs, a wider range of vocational and applied subjects should be developed, and other qualifications recognised in national publications and performance tables, says the review.

But the agency also warns that there could be drawbacks to revising the syllabus for individual subjects such as English in Wales when the syllabus is likely to remain large and detailed in England.

14-19 guidance,2assessment not sats, 3

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