Rose just requires a prune, not root and branch work

The only certainty about the future of the key stage 2 curriculum is that it is uncertain. Changes are due in September 2011, but with a general election certain to take place before then, any reforms could be postponed or taken in another direction.

Even the scale of the changes is uncertain. Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, promised "root and branch" reform of the primary curriculum in the Children's Plan in December. But Sir Jim Rose, in charge of drawing up the recommendations, said this summer that he interpreted the gardening metaphor as "weed, prune and feed" rather than a "slash and burn".

One reason the changes are needed is the introduction of modern foreign languages. By 2011, it will be compulsory for all primaries to give pupils the opportunity to study them. The Rose review has been charged with finding ways to create room for languages in the curriculum, make the transitions in and out of primary smoother, reduce prescription and enable schools to strengthen their focus on the three Rs. An interim report is due to be published next term and Sir Jim will make his final recommendations in March.

The review is not the first to be carried out on the primary curriculum, nor even the first to be overseen by Sir Jim.

In December 1991, Sir Jim, then chief inspector for primary education, was one of the "three wise men" - with Chris Woodhead, then chief executive of the National Curriculum Council, and Robin Alexander, an education professor - who produced the influential report "Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools", which caused a shift towards subject-based teaching and away from the topic work that had been popular since the 1960s.

When the report came out in February 1992, headlines announced it was a "Call for return to traditional school lessons". But the full document was more measured. It called for a balance between whole-class teaching, group and individual work, and urged higher expectations of pupils. It said resistance to subjects at primary level was "no longer tenable", but suggested there should be a mix of topic work.

Chris Woodhead, now professor of education at Buckingham University and a newspaper columnist, told The TES that his advice for Sir Jim on this inquiry would be to look again at their old report.

"I would do exactly what it says in the three wise men report," he said. "Strengthen traditional subject knowledge. Stop thinking the national curriculum can solve every social and political problem."

Professor Woodhead said that, rather than being too prescriptive, the curriculum for subjects such as history and geography was not prescriptive enough, although there was no place for dictating pedagogy. "The three wise men report had an impact for a while, but I don't think that impact was sustained," he said. "I think it is a pity and I hope Jim will remain firm to the conclusions that we both, he and I - although not so much Robin Alexander - signed up to at the time."

Professor Alexander, now a fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, is currently leading the Primary Review, an independent two-year study investigating all aspects of primary education.

His work, the final findings of which are due to be published next year, has been critical of the amount of assessment the system requires. He recently told the House of Commons' schools select committee, which is also considering the future of the national curriculum, that "curriculum overload has been a problem for primaries since the national curriculum was first introduced in 1988. The problem, though, appears to have been greatly exacerbated by policies and initiatives introduced since 1997."

Asked what impact he felt the Rose review would have, Professor Alexander said the "very firm steer" ministers had given to Sir Jim had created some scepticism about the review's independence and its potential impact on the curriculum.

In 1993, a year after the "three wise men" report, Lord Dearing was appointed to review the curriculum. Teachers' unions were boycotting tests, so the atmosphere was charged. But Dearing's recommendations to lighten the curriculum were generally seen as successful.

Now, he says, he would advise Sir Jim to start by listening to the opinions of teachers and conclude with a moratorium on further change for three years.

"If I was doing the job as I was doing it last time, I would listen to teachers and pupils," he said. "In primary, with teachers teaching several subjects, there is a real opportunity for cross-subject teaching: you could do 20 per cent of English teaching, say, through other subjects such as history or geography. Look to lighten the administrative load on teachers, and particularly heads - their principal job is to manage a school, not their in-tray.

"I said after last time, 'No more changes for three years.' Teachers need time to teach, to embed changes in their practice and talk it through with other teachers."

Teachers have certainly made their views known to Sir Jim. His review has received 569 responses from teachers and others with an interest in KS2. Of these, 427 called for some aspects of the early years curriculum to be extended into primary teaching, 179 called for more cross-curricular work, and 15 said prescription and content did not need to be reduced.

There is no guarantee that Sir Jim's recommendations will be as widely accepted as his last government-sponsored review, on phonics in 2006, which was wholeheartedly backed by the Labour government.

There is even less certainty given the possible change of government. A general election must be held by June 3, 2010, and in the current political climate the Conservatives stand a good chance of winning.

Michael Gove, shadow schools' secretary, said Sir Jim's work would not be scrapped. "We admire the work he's done in the past," he said. "Sir Jim is a respected figure, whose work will undoubtedly yield insights and recommendations of merit."

Mr Gove said that the Conservatives were developing education policy in their own way, and had asked Sir Richard Sykes, former rector of Imperial College, to carry out research for them, but that there would be "an element of overlap" with the Rose review.

"We want an opportunity to digest what he recommends," Mr Gove said. "We won't dismiss the Rose review out of hand, but we don't want to be hog-tied to supporting everything because he is working to a brief set by Ed Balls rather than us."

Responses to the curriculum review

Teachers today want a reduction in the level of prescription and content and more opportunities to bring in themed work, responses to the primary curriculum review indicate.

The review, being carried out by Sir Jim Rose, is due to produce an interim report next term.

It is looking at five broad areas of the primary curriculum: design and content; reading, writing and numeracy; modern foreign languages; personal development and transition and progression.

There were 569 teachers, organisations and others with an interest in primary who responded.

Overall, 179 backed cross-curricular topics with 57 saying that the curriculum should be organised in learning areas. In order to strengthen the focus on reading, writing and numeracy, many suggested that these were integrated throughout the curriculum.

The most pressing issue for foreign languages was training existing staff, which 115 mentioned.

Relationship skills, including dealing with conflict, were the elements of personal development most requested by 246 respondents. Responses to Sir Jim Rose's review of the primary curriculum can be found at:

KS2 timeline

1988: Kenneth Baker introduces the national curriculum, comprising 10 subjects

1992: The Three Wise Men" - Robin Alexander, Chris Woodhead and Jim Rose - publish their report on primary education

1998: National literacy strategy introduced

1999: National Numeracy strategy launched.

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