A curriculum for all seasons;Platform;Opinion

26th March 1999 at 00:00
The national curriculum was trimmed, then the basics were highlighted. Now it's time to prepare young people for the next millennium, says Education Secretary David Blunkett

I WANT TO prepare all our young people to meet the challenges of the next millennium. Our common aim is to raise achievement for all, enabling them to fulfil their potential. To do so, the Government will embrace the agreed framework for the curriculum which seeks to provide a basis for young people's spiritual, moral, mental, physical and social development. This is underpinned by a recognition that the curriculum should also support young people's social development and prepare them for the world of work.

We must find ways to give them the confidence and the capacity to be active and enquiring and capable of playing a positive part in our diverse and increasingly technological society.

Stability and consistency in the national curriculum are essential to meeting these goals. The first national curriculum, introduced between 1988 and 1992, was overloaded and too prescriptive. Sir Ron Dearing's 1994 review tackled some problems and created more flexibility for teachers to use professional judgment and develop good practice. There are now stable and appropriate teaching patterns. Primary schools are devoting 40 to 50 per cent of their curriculum time to English and mathematics, 10 per cent to science and other time spread evenly between other subjects.

But I am keenly aware that there are still some significant problems. And we have taken early action to tackle the most pressing of them. Our new focus on literacy and numeracy is addressing the underachievement of more than a third of pupils who leave primary school without reaching the expected level in English and maths while ensuring greater flexibility at key stage 1 and 2 than before. And we have published ready-made schemes of work so teachers do not have to reinvent the wheel. We need to build on this and develop a national curriculum that will support our drive to raise standards for all pupils into the next century.

Providing clarity and stability will help teachers concentrate on raising standards. The curriculum must be manageable and focused in all key stages, particularly in areas where change is proposed.

I believe that teachers should have more scope to use their professional discretion during key stage 3 to teach topics in depth - although it is of course important that youngsters have a grounding in British history and Shakespeare for example. In particular, I want to focus on tackling boys' underachievement, especially in English. We need to identify more ways of interesting them in learning. I want to build on our existing powers to help schools use work-related learning more effectively. And I want to make sure 14 to 16-year-olds are better prepared for working life, including those at risk of disaffection. I do not intend to remove subjects from the statutory curriculum but we will of course continue to consider how technology taught at key stage 4 can best meet the needs of a new century.

The national curriculum should challenge, motivate and set high standards, including for gifted youngsters and those with special needs. It should ensure young people from our ethnic minorities have equal opportunities to succeed.

The curriculum must offer a full and rounded entitlement. The Government has focused its early attention on literacy and numeracy for good reasons; these skills open the door to all other learning. But effective teaching of other subjects is also vital. Science and information technology provide crucial skills for the world of work. Music, art and creativity are central to youngsters' economic future, not merely their social development. Physical education, within the curriculum and outside the teaching day, plays a key role in pupils' physical and social development and history and geography give an essential understanding of our place in the modern world.

It is also vital to do more to help young people develop a full understanding of their role and responsibilities as citizens in a modern democracy. In a changing world, it is more important than ever before to equip them better to deal with the difficult moral and social questions they face. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has been considering the Citizenship Advisory Group report, which found that while there is much good practice in schools, there needs to be a more coherent approach to enhance the teaching of citizenship education.

In moving ahead I would envisage a "light touch" approach to allow scope for schools to develop their own strategies, within a clear framework based on broad learning outcomes, for delivering teaching in citizenship. At key stages 1 and 2 this could be part of a framework which includes personal, social and health education, with a more structured approach at key stages 3 and 4. I want schools to be innovative, for example by drawing on knowledge and understanding gained across other subjects, and encouraging practical activities in the community.

The Lawrence inquiry has placed a particular emphasis on the role of the curriculum in encouraging children to value cultural diversity and in combating the development of racism. Our proposals for education for citizenship, which reflect the best work done by schools, will play a vital role in promoting a greater understanding of the rights and responsibilities that underpin a democratic society.

To allow schools time to build up good practice, and to ensure that the introduction is manageable the study of citizenship will be introduced over time. This would include support for the training of teachers, and provision of guidance and materials.

Above all, I passionately believe the national curriculum should reflect the best practice in our most successful schools and to enable it to be shared by all schools. National curriculum documents going to schools in the autumn include helpful guidance and examples of good practice that will make it easier to implement the statutory requirements. Our schemes of work will also help in this, as will our investment in the National Grid for Learning that will give schools access to a wide range of information and teaching materials. All of these will help schools to deliver an effective and balanced curriculum.

Our proposals add up to a coherent and manageable programme that seeks to build on what works. We are recognising changes that have taken place in the workload of teachers. This is a logical step forward rather than a radical revision, both underpinning the standards agenda and preparing for the world of the new century.

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