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Primary review to ease 3Rs pressure

As teachers complain of lack of time for non-core subjects, ministers consider an overhaul. Helen Ward reports

MINISTERS are preparing to overhaul the primary national curriculum amid growing evidence that the emphasis on the 3Rs is driving out other subjects.

A 30-member committee under the chairmanship of Baroness Ashton, the schools minister, has been examining the curriculum as teachers complain that the pressure to meet targets in maths and English has led to a restricted diet for 3.6 million primary pupils.

The most recent changes occurred in 2000 when primaries were told they could cut back on subjects such as art, PE and music to concentrate on literacy and numeracy.

A curriculum review is being considered as ministers switch their focus to secondary schools after their success in raising primary standards. For any changes to be in place by 2005 consultation would need to begin next year.

The board, set up by the Department for Education and Skills, includes civil servants, and representatives from the Office for Standards in Education and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, but no teachers.

Ministers are determined that the new powers allowing schools to innovate outlined in the education Bill currently going through Parliament will be used widely in primaries as well as secondaries. Primaries will also be able to opt out of the curriculum under plans for "earned autonomy".

Evidence that the curriculum is too restrictive is mounting. An OFSTED report warned recently of "a serious narrowing of the primary curriculum" in most schools. It pointed out that those schools which do use "imaginative" ways to timetable the nine-subject curriculum are having growing success.

In 300 primary schools questioned in a QCA study, teachers claimed the dominance of the 3Rs had increased since the introduction of the literacy and numeracy hours.

The amount of time for foundation subjects, geography, history, design and technology, art, music and physical education, at key stage 2 has been cut by about 10 per cent in the past five years. In 2001, half of the timetable was given over to English and maths. In two-thirds of schools, they accounted for the whole morning session.

More than a quarter of schools said they were unable to maintain a balanced curriculum because of over-emphasis on the 3Rs. The Government's own evaluation of the strategies found foundation subjects were being squeezed out.

In his first week as schools minister David Miliband told the National Association of Head Teachers' conference that the next stage of reform would "release innovation and creativity at local level".

The current system allows schools to disapply the national curriculum to allow experimentation, but changes can already be brought in without the bureaucracy of disapplication.

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