14th July 1995 at 01:00
Not so long ago, I was at a conference when the speaker, a senior HMI, started talking about "discretionary time". The phrase caught my attention, but not what it meant. Having been momentarily distracted by the thought that if life had been kinder to me I might have been elsewhere, I had missed the important bit. What, I wondered, is "discretionary time?"

I guess the word "discretionary" must have some kind of subliminal appeal. I would probably respond to it even if I was in a deep coma induced by trying to read the national curriculum. "Discretionary" means "optional". "Discretionary" means You Don't Have To Do It. It conjures up happy memories of a time when teachers used to teach rather than deliver the curriculum, when children used to grow up rather than enter the next key stage. I began to perk up. If I could only work out what he was talking about.

It seemed to involve all sorts of calculations about how to slice up the curriculum. Perhaps it was a voguish way of referring to non-contact time, or some new and ingenious timetabling device? Maybe I was in at the beginning of a revival of interest in options. Options have been unfashionable for so long that it's almost impossible to talk about them any more. Nowadays, like cod liver oil in the 1950s, you have to have your curriculum entitlement whether you like it or not. Or could it be a new scheme for time to be added to the end of the school day, a chance to meet Eric Cantona?

Imagine my surprise when I managed to work out that discretionary time was what had become available as a result of the new slim-line, low-calorie national curriculum.

Please tell me if I have missed something, but I don't understand. If you have an overloaded curriculum, and you institute a review in order to make sure it will fit into the timetable, and then, as a result of the review, you cut it by 20 per cent, you are not left with 20 per cent of discretionary time. You are left with nothing. One-hundred-and-twenty per cent minus 20 per cent equals 100 per cent. There isn't a pay-off, it's all one-way traffic.

The problem, I guess, is that this counts as Bad News for the Government because it puts the whole business firmly in the category of running repairs (that is, lacking in glamour and an admission that you got things wrong). It is clearly not the stuff of which election victories are made.

So, they must have thought, let's make the best of a bad job and introduce "discretionary time" and, here's another good idea, let's ask OFSTED to find out what schools are doing with it.

If discretionary time is going to be institutionalised, what should you do about it? Well, it would seem, there are a number of alternatives. One option is to introduce new subjects into the curriculum. Once you've got the hang of it, it's easy. Or you can, if you prefer, devote the time to the teaching of basic skills. Perhaps you feel like building in more work on that old favourite "cross-curricular", or introducing PSE. The possibilities are endless.

There is, of course, one other alternative. Twenty per cent is a useful figure. It gives you just the amount of curriculum time you need to send everybody home and keep your class sizes below 30. Just tell the parents it was discretionary time. They'll understand.

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