The primary curriculum must be rebuilt bearing in mind the lessons of the past, says Noel Kershaw
David Blunkett's recent sad announcement which casually dismembered the national curriculum in primary schools - taken together with the previous Government's rat-like gnawing away at key stage 4 - displays the whole political establishment as unfit to be the guardians of our country's education.
One can understand the Tory motive in wanting to restrict the benefits of a broad-and-balanced curriculum to those whose parents could afford to pay for it. It beggars belief, however, that a Labour administration can so cheerfully dilute the educational diet of the majority of our children.
Our rulers have panicked and betrayed us. In part they seem to have caught their fear from the teaching unions which have emphasised professional responsibility and the right of teachers to choose how it is exercised. In reality, this has too often appeared as a wish to make their members' lives easier without necessarily considering the pupils' best interests.
The country first went down the national curriculum road for good reasons. These included the need to give a clear structure to what was taught, to enable children to transfer relatively easily from a school in one local authority to one in another and to ensure a reasonable similarity of outcome when young people moved from mainstream schools to the post-compulsory phase at 16-plus.
At key stage 4, the intention was to prevent the lop-sided GCSE programmes which condemned too many candidates to abandon even core subjects such as science at 14. All these things were well-documented and prompted cries for reform.
Unfortunately, these vital changes to the way in which we think about what our children should learn were undermined from the start by three major elements. First -and most damaging - was the endemic short-termism of our political system. This demanded that something as fundamental as the first attempt to establish a curriculum baseline should be delivered in less than the life of a single parliament.
Second, the difficulties of producing an effective answer right first time were exacerbated by a significant part of the method chosen. To set up panels of subject experts virtually unleavened by lay people meant that the initial drafts of the curriculum for each subject were produced by groups with a vested interest in cramming in as much detail as possible.
The final straw was the developing relationship with the assessment framework. Over time, this has changed from proposals which showed a measure of proper trust in the teaching profession to a bureaucratic strait-jacket which, among under things, has taken too much time away from the delivery of the curriculum. Also, under Lord Griffiths' chairmanship of the School Examinations and Assessment Council in particular, the demands of assessment increasingly defined what the curriculum was allowed to include - most blatantly in the revision of the English syllabus. It is not surprising that schools were landed with something which was untried, often overcrowded and unduly restricted by what was susceptible to formal testing.
In these circumstances it is perhaps understandable that my former colleagues on the council seem to have kept their heads down as though we had been involved in a shameful exercise. This is simply not the case. Not only did we need a national curriculum, we can point to early successes in spite of all the difficulties. The original English curriculum with its proper emphasis on the life skills of speaking and listening was one and the decision to adopt double science, which has ensured a much greater spread of involvement with the subject, is another. The inspectorate itself accepts that the curriculum in history and geography has improved the teaching of these subjects in many schools. Even if far from a perfect answer, technology has forced the education system to grapple with a question vital for success in the 21st century.
So far, responses from teachers to the primary changes paradoxically welcome the reduction in overall requirements while expressing general concern for the potential loss of breadth and balance. It is useless for Blunkett and Woodhead to protest that "having regard to" six out of 10 subjects is anything other than a licence to ignore them. A core curriculum with minor subjects bolted on will soon lead to individual schools unbolting some or all of them. We shall then be back to a combination of anarchy and boring minimalism in the curriculum, to an unholy marriage of the 1880s and the 1980s.
The only answer is to go for both breadth and quality. This can be achieved by an inter-weaving of three strands. In the first place we should learn from our first attempt at a national curriculum and engage in genuine consultation on the whole process of change now, without muddying the waters by panicky and ill-conceived meddling with only parts of the system.
Second, we must make use of the messages given us by research from Fifteen Thousand Hours onward, namely that good teaching is a combination of different methods with fitness for purpose being the guiding criterion. There is a place for top-down instruction, but there must also be room for learning from enquiry, activity and experience. It is vital to be able to read to make progress in the humanities, for instance. However, to develop most effectively, pupils must also begin to understand the context of history, geography and literature which gives their reading purpose.
To allow the new curriculum a better chance we need to look at the way we organise our learning. No class larger than 30 is acceptable at either primary or secondary stage - unless of course during the latter pupils are brought together for some form of lecture.
At the same time the attack on bureaucracy must go for the jugular - a decision on how much good teaching an individual can undertake in a week. Schools must then be staffed to ensure that they have enough hours to teach up to that maximum and to complete an agreed minimum of administration.
Finally, all schools should be staffed so as to allow for an additional half hour's teaching per day - something that merely legitimises what already happens in good schools. If education is our priority these things are worth spending money on. It is not so much a matter of paying more to existing teachers but of ensuring resources for more new ones.
I want real progress across the whole field of education based on considered learning from the experience of the past decade. This will mean requirements for all subjects pitched sensibly between that current length and Nick Tate's sheets of A4. If we can achieve it, we will at last have a national curriculum which no one need fear.
Noel Kershaw is an honorary research fellow at Exeter University and was a member of the National Curriculum Council from 1989 to 1992.