With basic skills high on the new Government's agenda for education, the traditionalist and liberal camps are once again poised for a battle over the primary curriculum. As the end to the moratorium on curriculum change, set for the year 2000, draws closer, both sides are marshalling their arguments for battle.
Labour's National Literacy Task Force is calling for a daily literacy hour in primary schools and wants the national curriculum to focus on the 3Rs, while allowing teachers more discretion outside the core subjects.
Martin Turner, head of psychology at the Dyslexia Institute and author of controversial research in the Eighties blaming trendy methods for falling standards, no longer sees himself as a lone voice crying in the wilderness."OFSTED [The Office for Standards in Education], literacy centres and changes in teacher-training have now placed a strong triangular grip on the fundamentals in reading," he said. "People are starting to realise that basic skills are not a boring set of things invented by the Victorians - they are an important tool kit."
Dr Turner says the national curriculum should be slimmed down to allow children to acquire the basics more quickly. "Curriculum starvation is more probable for a pupil who has limited basic skills than for a child who has concentrated on the basics."
But opposition to a curriculum devoted principally to the 3Rs is brewing in unexpected quarters.
"This is political heresy," warns David Hanson, education director of the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, "but we should be questioning the purpose of maths in the future lives and jobs of our children. Should the curriculum be driven by our lack of international competitiveness in algebra compared with the Pacific Rim countries, which have totally different social and cultural aspirations? It is preposterous to try and second-guess the employment skills which today's pupils will need in the 21st century. It's much more important to develop a love of learning itself and the study skills to go with it."
Mr Hanson acknowledges that literacy and numeracy are essential, but he argues that they rank alongside other skills such as adaptability, flexibility and the ability to work in a team, all qualities which are more easily developed through PE and the arts than by maths. His ideal curriculum model, which already exists in many prep schools and state-sector middle schools, means increasing the emphasis on single subjects in the two senior primary years and using specialist staff to teach them.
The importance of learning skills is also emphasised by Chris Pascal, director of the Early Childhood Research Centre at Worcester College of Higher Education. "If we want life-long learners, we can't just focus on content." she says. "Literacy and numeracy are essential, but only alongside the development of positive attitudes to learning, which are crucial in the long term."
Professor Pascal is not being wishy-washy when she talks about positive attitudes. She is part of a research team investigating ways of measuring attitudes to learning, and of improving children'sinclination to learn.
"All the evidence shows that it's much easier for adults to take in facts and figures, whilst the early years are a key time to develop learning skills," she said.
On a broader scale, there is widespread concern that an over-prescriptive curriculum will stifle creativity and produce a monolithic, Gradgrind society. "Over the centuries, this country has been a hotbed of innovation and creativity," says Chris Davis, head of Queniborough Primary School near Leicester. "But if all children have had exactly the same educationa l experiences, there won't be enough diversity to stimulate innovation. Utilitarian answers will win the day and everything will be judged on efficiency, not aesthetics."
There are increasing worries that schools are spending so much time teaching to the national tests in English, maths and science that other areas of the curriculum are being left out. "We need to measure what we value, rather than value what we can measure," says the head of an inner-London school. "We are holding on to our topic-based approach because we think this is a more appropriate way for our children to learn. Introducing single subjects and streaming the juniors to gain a higher place in the league table are not what education is about."
Teachers are impressed with the excellent training on offer from the new literacy and numeracy centres, but another worry is that a centralised curriculum will not be responsive enough to local needs.
"Centralised directives can't make allowance for local diversity," says David Winkley, head of Grove Primary School which is attached to the Birmingham numeracy centre. The school is entering eight pupils for GCSE maths this year. He says that, while the centres are providing useful support for teachers, they are not the panacea for everything that's wrong with the curriculum. He believes there has been a failure to look closely at exciting local initiatives, and to disseminate and generalise positive experiences. Imposing a curriculum from above doesn't work because it tends to de-skill teachers.
"If we reduce the debate to attaining level 4 at 11, that's what teachers will do, and they'll cut back on the rest of the curriculum to achieve it," he said. There is also the danger that the brightest pupils will be left to mark time.
A further dilemma is that, before the general election, teachers felt they were receiving mixed messages from government bodies. While the Department for Education and Employment praised schools with good national test results to the skies, many heads could cite examples of schools high up the tables who received poor reports from the Office for Standards in Education for having a narrow curriculum.
But the good news from the curriculum battle zone is that a partial truce could be possible. There is a growing consensus on some of the issues, particularly the content of key stage 1, for instance, where there is unanimous agreement that the national curriculum leaves too little time for teaching literacy.
"The most effective way to improve standards in literacy and numeracy would be to loosen the statutory requirements for the remaining subjects at key stage 1," insists Sheila Dainton, an assistant secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.
Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, would not go as far as that. His blueprint for key stage 1 would include five curriculum domains with literacy at the centre. The others would be: numeracy; the arts (including music); the world around us, which subsumes local history and geography; and how the world works, including science and technology.
At key stage 2, there is also widespread agreement that the curriculum is unmanageable. "It's poorly structured, " says Sheila Dainton. "The secondary-oriented single subject structure isn't suitable for primary schools. Teaching 10 subject areas up to level 6 would be formidable for any primary teacher."
Ted Wragg's solution would be to introduce specialist teaching, including a modern language, for 40 per cent of the time for nine-year-olds, although it is not clear how this would be funded. The National Union of Teachers suggests reducing the number of foundation subjects and possibly regrouping them into faculty areas such as arts and humanities.
But John Stannard, director of the National Literacy Project, argues that it won't be necessary to slim down the curriculum simply to accommodate the increased emphasis on literacy.
"At the moment, the literacy hour is having a huge impact on teachers' planning - it's taking a lot of effort and organisation," he said. "But as it settles down, it won't place any extra demands on curriculum time. "
Any decisions about the curriculum shouldn't be taken in a panic, says Professor Michael Barber, chair of Labour's literacy task force. However, he is adamant that the focus on literacy must be increased so that the reading standards of 11 year-olds in this country are internationally comparable.
"Although our cultures are different, we are living in a global economy and our children will all be competing in the same jobs market," he says. The task force also believes that an intensive campaign is necessary to reduce the gaps in achievement between pupils, irrespective of wealth or poverty.
"Whether children learn to read well is a lottery in both advantaged and disadvantaged areas," says its preliminary report. But Michael Barber is not underestimating the importance of other, broader learning skills. "We need clarity about the habits of mind which inform good learning, like self-motivation."
As the author of research into the positive effects of extra-curricular provision in schools, he is well aware of the value of a broad educational experience. Rethinking the curriculum could be a chance to rebuild the bridges between the Government and primary teachers, he says, although the first thing the Government must do is to co-ordinate the messages coming from OFSTED and the other agencies.
Many teachers would say that the bridges can't be repaired without proper dialogue. There is widespread support for the idea of a general teaching council which would represent teachers' views on the curriculum to the Government. Above all, teachers are tired of what they see as knee-jerk political reactions to curriculum matters.
"We were caught up in a political freak wave, with both the main parties creating sweeping new policies without pausing to analyse what they were doing," said David Winkley. "Now the new Labour administration will want to deepen their analysis and create a new wave of educational thinking."
* Michael Barber, now appointed special adviser on standards and effectiveness in schools, has extended the deadline for responses to Labour's literacy task force report until the end of May. Write to him at Room 459, DFEE, Sanctuary Buildings, Great Smith Street, London SW1 3BT