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Prescription pruned back;Briefing;Document of the week

The Government's curriculum review was formalised last week and children's moral and physical health are central themes. Nicholas Pyke reports

Last week's announcement that there is to be an official review of the national curriculum may have come as a surprise. Many people thought there was already a review going on, with a view to making changes from 2000 onwards. And there was.

But last week the Government finally formalised its position, which is to say it has ordered its quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, to carry out the sort of review that it was already conducting.

With that confusion safely out of the way, it is fair to say that there is, actually, rather more to the decision. While accepting most of the groundwork undertaken by the QCA, the Government has taken the opportunity to inject a few additional points of its own.

The future curriculum, we are told, is likely to include large amounts of "preparation for adult life". This is code for a tangled web of interests including citizenship, personal, social and health education, and moral and spiritual education. And the future curriculum will also include large amounts of the 3Rs, to nobody's great astonishment.

The QCA's cogitations on the matter were actually pretty well advanced by the time of last week's interruption. To recap, it had been carrying out a nationwide consultation on the aims and objectives of the curriculum. It had also been telling anyone prepared to listen that an evolutionary approach is likely and that this evolution would be in the direction of less prescription. The detailed "programmes of study" for individual subjects have been widely blamed by teachers for generating unnecessary work.

Last week's advisory paper from the QCA to ministers sets out this thinking, which, says the quango, is supported by its monitoring of teachers' views.

The main conclusions are:

* Few schools want root and branch reform of the curriculum: "the clear message is that any future review must not result in disruption and upheaval". Instead the QCA recommends a "more limited range of revisions".

* Personal and social skills need to be developed at every key stage.

* The curriculum needs a clearer and more explicit rationale with more specific aims and priorities for each key stage. Next term the QCA will publish a document setting out the aims and priorities. It will also establish an "appropriate level of entitlement" in the non-core subjects at primary school to help schools maintain a broad and balanced curriculum.

* The curriculum needs enough flexibility to cope with additional work on literacy and numeracy.

* IT skills need better recognition, although this will not necessarily lead to changes in the curriculum.

* There is a strong case for giving a formal place to citizenship, personal, social and health education and spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

* The curriculum needs to recognise a greater range of achievement than at present * The eight-level scale of achievement remains an area of outstanding concern, in particular the question of how far a common standard (eg level 4) can be applied consistently across different key stages. "We would suggest that consideration is given to developing a key stage specific grading system."

* Priority should be given to developing a more flexible and less prescriptive approach to specifying some subjects in the national curriculum. The QCA cautions against major changes to the core subjects. "It is clear that many schools consider that the current arrangements are too prescriptive both in terms of the number of curriculum components and the amount of prescribed content. The very positive response to the Secretary of State's proposal at key stages 1 and 2 emphasises a strong desire for flexibility."

* The QCA will review the nature of the statutory curriculum at key stage 4. This needs to develop a distinctive rationale to take account of the diverged interests of pupils by the age of 15.

* The QCA will carry out a consultation on under-fives education next term. This will cover three broad areas: p what the aims and priorities should be; p whether the education of three to five-year-olds should be considered as a separate phase; p whether curriculum guidance should be published.

The presentation of all this has been low key. Ministers have no intention of distracting attention from the primary standards drive by launching a major debate on how the curriculum should be shaped. The suggestion has been, then, that the review is a fairly straightforward matter.

This is probably a dangerous assumption, as many within the QCA well understand. The question of what should be done at KS4, for example, is a serious one: it is far from clear what, if anything, can be devised to cater for the complex span of vocational and academic interests among 15 and 16-year-olds.

At the other end of the curriculum meanwhile, ministers have already indicated that they favour a much less detailed approach with prescription limited to literacy and numeracy. And if at KS1 and 4 we end up with a curriculum concentrating on key aims and objectives, how - it might be asked - is that to fit in with KS2 and 3, which will remain dominated by individual subjects?

There also remains a faintly absurd contradiction: the QCA is busy liberating space in the curriculum only for the Government to commandeer it for the purposes of citizenship, moral education, the 3Rs and so forth. How this will be resolved is not clear, although the rumbling discontent on teacher workload is bound to flavour the outcome.

The QCA's document "Developing the School curriculum" is not available to the public.

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