When will the national curriculum next be changed? "Well," said a spokeswoman for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, "it's set until the year 5000."
If only. What she meant to say, of course, was that it was set for five years until the year 2000. That five-year moratorium, recommended by Sir Ron Dearing when he proposed his curriculum revisions and endorsed by the Conservative Government, came as heaven-sent relief to a teaching profession battered by several years of constant change. It would be a foolhardy Government that would attempt to go back on it.
There may in any case be no pressure for major changes in the curriculum itself, even when the moratorium is over. During 1995-96, the first year of operation of the new curriculum Orders, SCAA gathered views from schools, teachers and professional bodies. The picture that emerged, summarised in Monitoring the School Curriculum: reporting to schools, was that teachers were broadly happy with the scope and content of the curriculum as amended by Sir Ron. Monitoring during the current school year, the results of which will be reported to the new Education Secretary this summer, is also understood to reveal a fair degree of satisfaction.
Of course things are not perfect. Information technology is underused at all key stages, with many complaints about out-of-date equipment and inadequate teacher training. At key stage 2, the overwhelming pressure created by the demands of the original Orders has been overcome by Sir Ron's slimming-down but schools are still worried that too much time is being taken up by core subjects. And the perennial problem of lack of continuity between primary and secondary school has not been magically solved by calling it a transfer from KS2 to KS3.
In individual subjects, too, there are problems: in science, for instance, where some primary teachers feel they do not know enough to teach children reaching the higher levels.
With the exception of information technology, it seems that pupils are generally receiving their curriculum entitlement. "There is no evidence of people skimping on the core," says Chris Jones, SCAA's head of curriculum development. "If there's a squeeze anywhere, it's on the non-core subjects. "
The national curriculum was the first of the great changes introduced in the past decade to give the Government more influence over what goes on in the classroom. It is beginning to feel bedded down, while the assessment that accompanies it continues to change (will the new Government introduce KS3 tests in non-core subjects, for instance?).
"In the first nine or 10 years, the national curriculum was an engine for change - from now on, it may be an instrument of stability," says Chris Jones.
Clearly, however, the curriculum needs regular review. As well as monitoring its delivery in schools, SCAA staff are using the unprecedented chance provided by the moratorium to stimulate a thorough debate on underlying principles.
Among the areas the authority has identified for debate are ways of raising standards of literacy and numeracy within the current framework and the possibilities for adding a spiritualculturalmoral dimension to the curriculum - the latter a theme especially close to chief executive Nick Tate's heart. Action is also clearly needed on information technology.
Whether such action will mean changes to the curriculum Orders themselves is not yet clear. In information technology, for instance, more would probably be achieved by new hardware and better teacher training. And raising standards of literacy and numeracy in primary schools may not mean spending more time on them. As a SCAA spokeswoman points out: "If the time is being badly used at the moment, spending more time badly may make things worse".
Should the national curriculum enter the jealously guarded terrain of teaching methods? "If you are reasonably satisfied the curriculum represents the sorts of things you want children to be taught, the focus inevitably shifts to how you want it to be taught - to pedagogy," says Chris Jones. "Should you keep the 'what' and the 'how' separate? In some other countries, the national curriculum is more explicit about the 'how'." But he is reluctant to be drawn on the likelihood of such a change here.
Unless an incoming Government wants speedier action, SCAA officials will be submitting proposals for action next April. If the Education Secretary then decides to commission a review of the Orders, advisory groups will draw up and consult on revisions in 1998-99.
That leaves a year for schools to prepare for changes before revisions to key stages 1-3 take effect in 2000. Changes to KS4 would follow a year later.
For the officials at SCAA, even a five-year moratorium leaves little time for rest. Teachers, meanwhile, have at least another three years to work with the present curriculum - and the rest of this year to tell SCAA how they think it could be improved.