When the fledgling national curriculum was up for review just over a decade ago, the focus was on content. What is the canon of great literature that every schoolchild must study? How important is Standard English? When does history end? (Some thought 1939.) Should children learn kings and queens or to "empathise" with those who lived in earlier times?
The hidden agenda to some of these questions was: who owns the curriculum - children, teachers or Ministers? An esoteric debate about the place of "using and applying" mathematics was really a squabble over children's power to discover for themselves versus teacher control.
This hidden agenda was a bridge to the debates of today, which have far less to do with content than with process - how teachers teach and how children learn. From the nursery to the college, the talk is about empowering children and students, helping them gain flexible, future-friendly skills such as team-working and problem- solving, and to become more effective learners. Rows are more likely to be about the efficacy of brain gym, multiple intelligences and mind maps than about what children should read.
Issues that transcend traditional subjects are coming more to the fore. The word "internationalism" is no longer about communism, as it was when the national curriculum was being drafted in 1988; it's about necessary links with and understanding of other countries and cultures. Global warming and other ecological threats demand that Britain can no longer think of itself in isolation, either. As Will Rogowski, of the UN Environment Programme, argues, mankind is at a critical point in its evolution, and if children do not learn that "everything is interlinked", nothing will be done.
Meanwhile, the huge technological advances that have already happened and those that lie ahead will change learning. ICT looks set to transform the way people think and what they learn in ways we can't even imagine. Cary Bazalgette of the British Film Institute points out that although film has been around for over a century, education continues to ignore the way children learn from it. But "by the time they get to school, most children will have been studying moving image media for at least two years", she writes in a paper for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
Four-year-olds have learned, for example,that stories have a structure, and that there are different kinds. They have learned a great deal about narrative and character types.
Launching the QCA's Futures challenge this month, its chief executive, Ken Boston, said: "The five-year-olds who enter school next September will be the first generation (now living) never to have experienced the 20th century... They will be in the workforce, driving this country's economy until 2065. A good many of them will experience the dawn of the 22nd century."
The challenge is a gentle start to a national debate that needs to ask tough questions which lead to very hard decisions about the sort of national curriculum (if any) needed for the 21st century. A range of pundits have prepared papers for the authority.
Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have already begun to design new curricula. Northern Ireland, for instance, is piloting a framework of objectives, supported by themes that can be taught through individual subjects or in a cross-curricular way. Scotland is developing a single 3 to18 curriculum.
In a paper for the QCA , Tim Brighouse, the chief adviser to London schools, suggests alternative ways of looking at curriculum entitlement.
Birmingham in the mid 1990s, introduced "guarantees" for early years, primary and secondary . The primary guarantee included: "take part in a public performance; take part in a residential experience and take part in a survey of an environmental issue of concern to the local community".
Professor Brighouse, one of the pundits writing for the QCA, advocates a return to thinking in terms of broad "areas of experience", as has already happened in the early years curriculum, which, in Wales, is being extended up through key stage 1.
Another contributor, Colleen McLaughlin of Cambridge university, stresses the need to help children achieve social and emotional well-being, so they can create communities and manage conflict.