Curriculum is a question of balance
Under the new secondary curriculum, schools will be able to free up a quarter of their timetable to allow teachers to focus on pupils' individual needs. Mr Balls has made clear he wants this flexibility used to ensure pupils who are struggling with basic English and maths are given extra help.
All this is sensible. He is right to expect high standards, beginning with the basics. Every teacher expects the same of their pupils. The tricky bit is to turn expectations into practice, and that can only happen if pupils want to learn. This means offering every child an engaging curriculum.
The proposed functional literacy tests (see page 1), which could account for 50 per cent of GCSE English marks from 2010, show the dangers of a utilitarian approach. English teachers rightly warn that their subject would become "pretty boring" if the current proposals were implemented.
The experience of primaries is instructive. Standards of English and maths at key stage 2 rose sharply in the early days of the literacy and numeracy strategies, before stalling in the early 2000s. Primary staff now have more flexibility and can be more creative. And there are signs that test scores are rising again (see page 3).
Secondaries should offer additional teaching in English and maths where it will be effective, but focus on providing good-quality vocational options for pupils who have become disillusioned with an overly academic curriculum. These should form part of an integrated diploma that allows pupils over 14 to mix and match courses and develop personal skills, as proposed by Sir Mike Tomlinson.
Mr Balls acknowledges that standards of behaviour are a concern, particularly in secondaries. Providing lessons that are seen as boring and irrelevant will not help.
Schools must remember that the new curriculum is there to guide them, not to dictate everything they do. Its greater flexibility should enable traditional subjects such as history to flourish, as well as offering lessons in essential life skills. It is all a question of balance.