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The man who did not want to rush back to basics

Nobody is pretending that Dr Nicholas Tate is much amused by this week's embargo-busting cut-back in the primary-school curriculum, apart that is from Dr Tate.

As the Government's chief curriculum adviser, he is required to be in favour. It is his organisation, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which has to handle the new plans.

He has many reasons to be disgruntled. For some time now, Dr Tate, the chief executive, has been campaigning against any knee-jerk return to "the basics" at the expense of breadth.

Not only that, the announcement jumps the gun on a lengthy and detailed consultation about the shape the curriculum should take from 2000. To make matters worse, a back-to-basics lobby has been putting it about that the Government's decision is a victory for them - and a personal defeat for him.

His response this week was two-fold. In the first place he was vigorously minimising: the proposed cutback is optional; it will only affect a proportion of schools; while, in any case, the current curriculum will remain largely intact.

Then he maximised: the decision is not only a good one, it is bang in line with his own thinking, a "logical next step" in the process of curriculum review.

"My understanding of their purpose is to give schools some flexibility around the margins of the current national curriculum," he said. "In particular, where pupils are a long way off meeting the targets in literacy and numeracy it will enable schools to develop new techniques. The extent to which schools need this flexibility will vary. There are quite a lot of schools which won't find any need to change their curriculum at all.

"One of the dangers of any proposals of this sort is that schools which are doing well across the board will feel compelled to make changes. We want to get the message across loud and clear that schools are not being required to make any changes at all. It's up to them."

In particular, he was keen to emphasise that Mr Blunkett's plans steer well away from the "elementary" approach he fears. Schools must still "have regard to" the full range of subjects.

"It's not a recipe for confining the curriculum to the basics and nothing else. Apart from people who give their views in broadsheets, there are not many people around who seriously want to go back to that.

"When we had an elementary schools system, it failed us. Look at the literacy rates of recruits during the Second World War. That's your golden age of primary schools for you.

"There are lots of ways you can try and improve levels of literacy and numeracy. It would be wrong to suppose that simply increasing the amount of time is going to enable schools to meet their targets. It's more about the way they use that time. The other important factor is that schools that do well in literacy and numeracy tend to be schools that also have a broad and balanced curriculum."

The authority already knows what teachers think about curriculum overload, because it has already asked them during its own consultation. And, while Dr Tate says the message is mixed - teachers hate overload but still love breadth - it appears the QCA was already looking for a reduction in detail.

"We've already done some work on what we think the key features of each subject are. The results take up no more than one side of A4 per subject. We're trying to define what it is that we want to achieve in each of these subjects by the end of primary education. "We would want to argue that these interim measures are a step in that direction."

Nicholas Pyke

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