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Lifting of primary 'burden' welcomed

Nicholas Pyke opens a two-page report on this week's decision to stress the basics in primary schools - a move that, as Nadene Ghouri discovered, pleased Chris Woodhead perhaps more than it did Nick Tate, the chief curriculum adviser

The Government is planning to relax the primary curriculum so that schools can spend more time on maths and reading.

Under proposals announced this week, primary teachers will be free to ignore the national syllabuses for geography, history, design and technology, music, art and physical education.

They must however "have regard to" these subjects and should maintain a broad and balanced curriculum. No subjects would be dumped, Education Secretary David Blunkett said .

This breadth of study is included only thanks to frantic lobbying by board members of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, it has emerged. Privately, they say they were gravely concerned by initial plans to ditch subjects wholesale.

The announcement has delighted the teaching unions who have long said that the primary curriculum is overloaded.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers described it as "the best news that primary schoolteachers have had since the new Government came to power".

The Government hopes the decision will make room for the daily literacy and numeracy hours it has recommended and which it sees as central to raising standards.

Schools could also broaden the curriculum in other directions and might, for example, introduce foreign language teaching.

The scheme breaks Sir Ron Dearing's ban on curriculum change. But it will be optional and schools may choose not to alter their teaching.

Announcing the plans, Mr Blunkett said the current curriculum was hampering progress. "Many primary teachers have been prevented from giving literacy and numeracy the attention they deserve," he said, "because the national curriculum has lacked the very clear focus on the basics which is crucial".

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will seek the views of schools and local authorities on the changes until March.

If, as seems probable, the plans are formally adopted, it will publish advice on what "having regard to" means in practice: the essential points of each primary subject.

Chief executive Dr Nicholas Tate said this week that the QCA has already devised lists of core elements which take up no more than one page of A4 per subject.

In fact, he said, the planned relaxation pointed towards the changes he is likely to introduce as part of the QCA's major curriculum overhaul in 2000.

The Government's proposals follow a model backed by the National Union of Teachers. This also won the support of heads and governors .

In a letter to Mr Blunkett, chief inspector Chris Woodhead gave the initiative a "whole-hearted welcome" although it is far from the basics-only curriculum he has been advocating.

But the news has also caused some alarm.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster said: "The Government has announced an overhasty, unplanned retreat which could create chaos in our classrooms with teachers and teacher-trainers uncertain about what they should now do."

Subject groups such as the Historical Association are also concerned. Sue Bennett, an executive member, said she feared a narrowing of the curriculum.

The Geographical Association received the news "with a sense of incredulity and outrage".

* The Welsh Office is considering alternative proposals for a slimmed-down curriculum.

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