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No quick fix for national inquiry

SCAA has an open mind on the future of the national curriculum in primary schools, says Chris Jones

Next week, about 100 policy-makers, practitioners and academics will gather in London to discuss the future of the curriculum in primary schools. The new schools minister, Estelle Morris, will set out for the first time the Government's thinking on the subject. Other contributors to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority conference will include Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University; Michael Barber, head of the Education Department's new standards unit; and Kathy Sylva, reader in educational studies at Oxford University.

It promises to be a significant event in shaping Qualifications and Curriculum Authority policy on the primary curriculum, and is the latest in a series of conferences designed to stimulate debate about the nature and structure of the school curriculum.

Five key questions are likely to dominate the debate: u How do we build on the stability achieved through the five-year "moratorium" on change - which runs out in 2000 - while recognising the need for the curriculum to evolve over time. But how much change, and over what period of time?

u Is the current balance between central prescription and local determination of the curriculum right?

u How do we achieve the necessary focus on raising standards in literacy and numeracy, while retaining a broad, balanced and manageable curriculum?

u Does the curriculum need to give greater emphasis to the spiritual, moral, personal and social dimensions of teaching and learning, and, if so, how?

u Is the structure of the national curriculum, and, in particular, its division into 10 discrete subjects, the most appropriate and effective way of setting out our expectations of primary schools?

Since the introduction of the national curriculum in 1989, many primary teachers and other educationists have argued that the subject-model curriculum is inappropriate for primary schools. The evidence suggests that the arguments for and against the current model are finely balanced.

On the one hand, it is clear that the current arrangements have encouraged a more rigorous and purposeful approach to planning and teaching in many schools. The curriculum orders have established clear lines of progression within each subject, enabling a more systematic and progressive approach to curriculum planning to be adopted in many schools. On the other hand, many schools - although fewer since the Dearing Review - have experienced difficulty in the overall management of a curriculum comprising 10 discrete components.

The debate about the appropriateness of the current model for the primary curriculum will continue, and will certainly feature in next week's conference. One thing is certain, however. As SCAA (and then QCA) offers its advice on these matters to the Secretary of State next spring, it will need to be satisfied that any proposed changes to the statutory curriculum fulfil four important criteria:

* The advantages of any proposed changes outweigh any potential disruption to the work of schools.

* Priority is given to raising standards in the basics of literacy and numeracy.

* Breadth and balance are protected.

* Any changes are informed by a genuine and inclusive consultative process.

In looking at the ways in which the statutory curriculum itself might be developed, it will also be important to consider the broader context of other measures which influence the work of schools, such as the school inspection system, teacher training arrangements, and school effectiveness initiatives. Changing the national curriculum may not be the most effective way of achieving some of our objectives.

It is important to stress that SCAA has an open mind on the future shape of the national curriculum and is determined to fashion its advice on the basis of hard evidence, rather than hunches or superficially attractive remedies. Hence our current programme of work to gather evidence about what is happening in schools and to discuss and debate the pros and cons of alternative approaches.

We have already received a very positive response to our invitation for individuals, associations and other interested groups to let us know their views on the future of the national curriculum. We will continue to welcome such contributions as we develop our thinking over the coming year.

Chris Jones is assistant chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority

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