The facts behind the gloss;Curriculum 2000;Briefing;News and opinion

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Designed by focus groups, the new, user-friendly national curriculum has arrived in schools. Sarah Cassidy introduces a six-page special report which looks at the major changes to expect as well as the controversies that shaped the curriculum. The details of what has happened to each subject are summarised "at a glance" on pages 24 and 25.

AFTER nearly five years in the pipeline, new national curriculum documents finally arrived in schools this week.

The long-awaited package may be lighter than Sir Ron Dearing's 1995 version but at 700 pages, it will still be a weighty addition to schools' bookshelves.

As might be expected from New Labour, the new curriculum for the 21st century comes in glossy full-colour handbooks created by a design agency and focus groups.

However, teachers will find much of the content reassuringly familiar - despite the addition of a new secondary subject (citizenship) plus suggested guidelines on personal, social and health education and introducing modern languages to primaries.

The radical slim-down originally promised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has not materialised. Although the non-core curriculum has been cut by around a third, teachers will not gain much room for manoeuvre because of Government initiatives such as the literacy and numeracy strategies and citizenship lessons.

However, there is some new flexibility and an attempt to provide a clear rationale for the curriculum.

Most of the controversy during the 15-month development process centred on lists of recommended and compulsory topics to be taught - initially dropped by the QCA to increase teacher autonomy but then re-instated by Education Secretary David Blunkett.

For primaries, the main change is that the English and maths curriculums have been rewritten to be consistent with the literacy and numeracy strategies, while non-core subjects have had more than a third of content cut. A new "non-statutory" or optional section is also included to encourage primaries to introduce modern foreign languages to juniors.

Secondaries will have to provide citizenship lessons from 2002 while plans for a more flexible timetable for 14- to 16-year-olds will allow many more of them to opt out of the full national curriculum by dropping languages andor design and technology (see below).

However, many teachers will not see the full text of the changes - a primary handbook, a secondary book plus 12 subject booklets - until much later than originally promised.

A total of 25,000 headteachers received one complete set of documents this week but classroom teachers will have to wait until the end of February for their hard copies.

Meanwhile, much time and money has been spent trying to get the design of the documents right.

The QCA aimed to create curriculum documents designed by teachers for teachers. Focus groups of 45 teachers from six schools thrashed out how the new documents would look. They were unanimous in their criticism of previous curriculum documents, which they said were difficult to use and impossible to bend flat and photocopy.

As a result the QCA has produced two large wire-bound books - one primary, one secondary - plus separate subject booklets.

The focus groups also recommended that every teacher should have their own copy of the documents they need. Schools will need to decide how many of each they want and can order extra copies from the QCA free of charge. These should be in school by the end of February. The full text is already available on a new website at

More than a million booklets will be printed for teachers as officials are keen to avoid the problems of the numeracy strategy, where materials were out-of-stock before every school had received them.

The focus groups also insisted that the text be clearer and easier to use than the previous version. Teachers wanted the curriculum to be written in simple language and ordered more logically, preferably in bullet points. Cross-curricular links were a low priority, as was space in the document for their own notes which they said "would get filled up too quickly".

Non-teachers can get copies of the curriculum from the Stationery Office. See advertisement on page 25.

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