The 1988 Education Reform Act proclaimed that the school curriculum should be "broad and balanced". The national curriculum which followed was forged from the clashing of subject lobbies, and few of these had the interests of primary children in mind.
One result has been the tension between the drive to improve the 3Rs and a desire for a rich and broad curriculum. Too many teachers and heads still feel they have to choose between breadth and the basics.
The Government's own philosophy encourages this tension. While most of the rhetoric has moved on from demands that schools encourage their pupils to ever-higher Sats scores, the pressure is still there.
And not just in teachers' minds. Different government bodies are putting out different messages. The chief inspector and the director of the national primary strategy have been arguing that the 3Rs will improve if children's school days are full of exciting, meaningful experiences and the chance to develop a wide range of abilities.
The Office for Standards in Education has highlighted schools that have improved their Sats results through focusing on music, personal skills such as being able to take risks or cross-curricular projects. And in last year's primary strategy document, Excellence and Enjoyment, Education Secretary Charles Clarke said: "Creativity isn't an add-on. It must form a vital and integral part of every child's experience of school".
But, despite the noises from the top, some of Ofsted's inspectors are wary of anything too different, and some literacy consultants continue to promote formal teaching in reception classes, despite support for a more child-friendly approach from their bosses.
More recently, the Government's five-year plan for education stated: "We face a challenge to make sure that every subject is taught well in primary schools, and that every child gets the benefit of a rich, well-designed and broad curriculum.
"This needs to include a wide range of in-school activities like dance, sport and drama and the chance to study music and a foreign language."
At the same time Michael Barber, chief of the Cabinet Office delivery unit, which makes sure government policies are implemented, has been giving a different message to heads and local authority officials involved in the primary strategy. The real agenda, he has told them, is to make sure the targets are met.
It takes a brave head and a brave teacher to take risks and innovate in such a contradictory climate. So the latest figures on primary teaching time produced for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are worrying but not really surprising.
They show a dramatic rise in the time teachers devoted to English and maths between 1997 and 2004, and a consequent drop in the time for design, history, geography, art, music and RE.
More surprising, the biggest fall was in the time spent on science, while science is tested in the Sats and has been called the national curriculum's big success story.
The tables, produced by the Centre for Formative Assessment Studies (CFAS) at Manchester university, based on questionnaires answered by a representative sample of schools, show that, since 1997, time spent on English has gone up by 3.7 percentage points at key stage 2, to 26.7 per cent of all classroom time, and the proportion of time spent on maths has risen by 2.6 points, to 21.9 per cent.
This means 48.6 per cent of time is now spent on English and maths. The only other subject to rise in the tables is information and communications technology, by 1.6 points, to 5.1 per cent of time.
Every other foundation subject has shown a decrease. The picture is similar at KS1, although PE has increased slightly by 0.1 points. Science time has fallen by 1.6 points, taking up 9.8 per cent of time at KS2.
Bill Boyle, director of the CFAS, is concerned about the growing imbalance, and asks: "Has this year's leap of a few percentage points in English and maths results been worth it?"
One leading chief education officer said: "What has it cost us to have risen so far in international league tables in reading? What has it cost our society?"
The bar chart (below) is particularly shocking after what primary teachers described as their top priorities in the CFAS questionnaire. Physical, social, moral, spiritual and cultural values and development were top in both key stages.
But perhaps the pendulum is beginning to swing back. Slightly less time has been spent on English and maths this year, and slightly more on personal, social and health education in the infants. However, most foundation subjects continue to lose out, with information communication technology taking up the slack.
Meanwhile, let us not forget that the extra time devoted to English and maths was deliberate. The push to focus on the 3Rs in the late 1990s followed concerns in schools and in Whitehall that national curriculum demands were squeezing time for the basics.
But surely balance can be found by teaching literacy and numeracy across the curriculum, and by incorporating learning in foundation subjects into literacy? After all, children need to read and write about something, and too many literacy hours remain depressingly content-free.
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