It all began with Maggie's hairdresser...;Briefing;Curriculum 2000;Baker's legacy;News and opinion

26th November 1999 at 00:00

ACCORDING to Kenneth Baker, the education secretary who introduced it, the national curriculum was inspired by the comments of Margaret Thatcher's hairdresser.

Paul Allen may have been surprised to hear that his cutting comments about the state of education led to the biggest unrest in schools this decade. But he can claim credit for a key part of the recent drive to raise standards.

For a while it was touch and go. When the new national curriculum first arrived in schools teachers got a nasty shock.

They were faced with hundreds of pages of instructions covering each of the core subjects (English, maths, science, technology, history, geography, art, music, a modern language in secondary schools and physical education). Despite the concerns of Lady Thatcher, educationists - and subject specialists - had been given their head and every last detail they thought children should know found its way into the curriculum.

Teachers ended up having to 'tick off' each requirement as they taught it -- whether it was studying a Shakespeare play or teaching kids to catch a ball.

Unsurprisingly, heads and teachers revolted. So incensed were the unions that they took unprecedented joint action in an attempt to force ministers to reduce the burden on teachers. They boycotted the curriculum tests for 7, 11 and 14-year-olds which were intended to measure performance and progress.

The dispute cost John Patten his job as education secretary and lost the Tories a lot of goodwill with parents and teachers.

Although the tests were soon confined to English, maths and science, it was not until ministers retreated and appointed Sir Ron Dearing to slim down the curriculum that opposition dwindled. He slashed the paperwork and set aside a fifth of the timetable for non-national curriculum study.

Two unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Association of SchoolmastersUnion of Women Teachers called off their boycotts, isolating the National Union of Teachers which settled soon after.

It had been a costly exercise. pound;611m of taxpayers' money was spent on developing and reviewing the curriculum and hundreds of thousands of children had their education disrupted.

But after peace broke out the curriculum quickly became part of the education landscape. The Labour party ended its criticism and used the curriculum as the basis for its plans to raise standards.

However, although the principle of the curriculum is now widely accepted the dispute over what should be in it rumbles on.

Labour may have slimmed down the curriculum yet further, but they have surpassed the Tories in exerting central control.

Ministers' literacy and numeracy targets rely on national tests for11-year olds to measure progress and they have extended the testing to five-year-olds.

And although the response from the profession has this time been more muted, under Labour's numeracy and literacy strategies, primary teachers have not only been told what to teach but also how to teach it.

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