Following this week's announcement of plans for a leaner national curriculum, Diana Hinds asks new teachers if they think schools should make more use of subject specialists
The National Curriculum turned primary teachers into Renaissance men and women, with 10 subjects at their fingertips in enough depth to stretch even the brightest 10-year-old.
No wonder they are tired and flagging, and newly-qualified teachers feel overwhelmed by how much they need to know.
Many will be relieved by the Government's proposals, announced this week, that the national curriculum load should be lightened from September, to clear the way for increased emphasis on the three Rs. Primary teachers will have to cover the full programme of study only for English, maths, science and information technology. Schools will have to teach the remaining subjects, but in less detail if they choose.
Most teachers - and ministers - will want to retain the entitlement to a broad curriculum promised by the 1988 Education Act. So is more specialist teaching the answer?
The Office for Standards in Education believes so. Its report, Using Subject Specialists to Promote High Standards at Key Stage Two, says the traditional "one teacher, one class" structure should be modified in favour of more specialist teaching.
The question of primary specialists is not new. It was broached by Her Majesty's Inspectorate in 1989, when the inspectors began to see the immense difficulties the subject range of the national curriculum placed on teachers. In 1992, the report of the "Three Wise Men" (Robin Alexander, Chris Woodhead and Jim Rose) further stressed the need for specialist teaching to support the work of primary generalists.
But teachers initially resisted the idea, says Colin Richards, former HMI and professor of education at St Martin's College, Cumbria. "They felt they should be able to cope - and believed they would, if only the national curriculum was reduced. But when the curriculum was scaled down in 1994, they were still unable to cope," he says.
OFSTED pushed for specialism again in its 1994 report, Primary Matters, and the subject has been regularly aired by Chris Woodhead since. Some schools are slowly moving in this direction. OFSTED says primaries need a mixture, where specialist support complements the work of the generalist.
Research shows that children tend to get better teaching from a specialist. In recruiting, schools need to aim for staff with a good range of expertise.
But, as OFSTED notes, subject co-ordinators cannot do much to raise standards when they have little or no time in which to discuss teaching with colleagues.
Many newly-qualified teachers will struggle to get the help they need from specialists, and be forced to rely instead on whatever resource packs they get.
To make specialist teaching work, primary schools need more teachers than classes - which is why very small and very large schools fare best in terms of specialists. But more teachers cost money.
"The Government ought to be thinking about this," says Colin Richards. "The risk is that any extra funding will automatically be used to cut class sizes instead."