A question of balance

13th February 1998 at 00:00
David Blunkett's plans for a slimmer primary curriculum must not be allowed to kill art and music, says Aelwyn Pugh

The national curriculum has been blamed for creating stress and anxiety, but for those in arts education, it had the opposite effect. It gave us renewed confidence. For the first time since the 1870 Education Act, art and music became a legal entitlement for all five to 14-year-olds.

Free from the need to justify our existence, we looked forward to consulting with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on ways to improve our practice in the run-up to 2000. Then the whole process was thrown into turmoil on January 13 by the Secretary of State's proposal to slim down the primary curriculum.

There are two points that Mr Blunkett has emphasised. First, schools are not required to change the range of their curricula if they are already meeting numeracy and literacy targets. Second, all will still be required to have "due regard" for all subjects in the national curriculum and will not be allowed to drop any - at least not before 2000.

Some heads have claimed that the literacy and numeracy hours will leave no time for other subjects. This argument needs to be challenged before it gains any further ground.

A junior school devoting 23.5 hours a week to teaching can deliver 16. 5 hours of English (including the literacy hour), maths (including the numeracy hour), science, technology and IT and still have an average of one hour a week for each of geography, history, art, music, PE and RE. This still leaves another hour each week for personal and social education, or for enhancement in any subject. An infant school with 21 hours of weekly teaching time could spend 45 minutes each week on science, IT, drama and theatre, history, geography, art, music, PE and RE as well as maths and English. Again, 45 minutes would be "spare".

But even if schools devote adequate time to non-core subjects, they need no longer follow the national curriculum. This poses a potential threat. Art education could revert to lessons where children make their own artefacts without appraising or putting them in cultural and historical contexts. In music, a school might focus on listening, at the expense of performing and composing. Even if schools do include all three aspects of music, there will be no pressure to ensure a balance between activities.

The national curriculum has made teachers aware of the underlying concepts in arts subjects and of the need to develop in pupils an awareness and understanding of rhythm, timbre, form, line, tone and colour in musical and visual creations. There is now no guarantee that this will continue.

The problem, however, is not simply one of balance within and between subjects. The proposed arrangements could also erode continuity and progression, two of the basic tenets of the national curriculum. In music, a child could move from an infant school where the emphasis is on performing to a junior school where the focus is on listening.

Experiences at successive key stages would be unrelated, with little opportunity for building on earlier experiences. This would affect work at key stage 3, where pupils might arrive with varying patterns of delivery, making it almost impossible for a music department to create a coherent programme for everyone.

The new requirements come into force in September. In May, the QCA will publish guidance on how to implement them. It is essential that such guidance spells out how time might be distributed to ensure coverage of subjects, what broad areas and basic concepts should be addressed within each subject, and what the common outcomes should be at the end of each key stage. Without this, January 13, 1998 will stand as one of the bleakest days inBritish education.

Aelwyn Pugh is an LEA inspector


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