Holding the line on a central curriculum

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
More than one local authority is prepared to ditch the recommended time allocations for aspects of the 5-14 curriculum in order to concentrate on basic literacy and numeracy. Glasgow says that Standard grade at Foundation level lacks credibility. There is increasing unease about the science component of 5-14 environmental studies and the relationship between generic teaching in primary and the subject divisions for 12 to 14-year-olds. So is the national curriculum falling apart, or at least being unpicked?

Headteachers and directors of education find it hard to reconcile the demands of a broad 5-14 education with the Government's insistence that literacy must be securely embedded or pupils will be unable to cope with the rest of the curriculum. Leaving aside concern about science, which stems in part from the well-attested worries of many primary teachers about their competence to teach it, there remains widespread support for the 5-14 guidelines. Implicit in that is support for the idea of a curriculum common to all schools. Few primary teachers or managers would want to return to the days when schools more or less taught what they (or specifically the headteacher) wanted.

So the questioning of the balance in the curriculum throughout the compulsory years is not Luddite. It has become louder and sharper since Labour came to power. That is because the Government is not only strong on rhetoric for the basics but has challenged local authorities to come up with projects for early intervention. It is also actively pursuing ways of raising standards. So questions about what is taught are a response to the Government's challenge.

They also show concern for individual children. In both primary and secondary, teachers are expected to recognise the different abilities and speeds of learning of all their pupils. Decisions about classroom organisation are meant to have a strategy for differentiation at their heart. If there is a mismatch between the needs of some pupils and the demands of the national curriculum, teachers are right to raise their concerns in that spirit. There is a fundamental difference between questioning aspects of 5-14 for these reasons and dragging heels on the grounds that lack of money or materials makes innovation impossible.

Douglas Osler, head of the Inspectorate, appears to accept the good intentions of the doubters. Mr Osler emphasised last week the "overarching importance" of core skills without which performance in the broader curriculum would flag. He accepts that environmental studies needs review, that modern languages are a problem and that Standard grade exams may have a limited shelf-life, although they will not disappear until Higher Still is well settled in.

The Government is willing to listen to the concerns of local authorities and schools. In principle ministers want changes that emanate from the grass-roots instead of being imposed from above. But the trick will be to give room for local autonomy and the needs of individual pupils while preserving the structures needed for a coherent learning experience from the early years to Advanced Higher.

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