Reforms of the 11 to 14 curriculum are about to be finalised. After years of complaining about too much prescription, will teachers struggle if they are now given too much freedom? Warwick Mansell reports
Could it be the most enlightened and far-sighted move ever to emerge from the offices of the oft-criticised Qualifications and Curriculum Authority? Or will it provoke acts of "curriculum vandalism" in schools, as heads pare timetables back to the basics and children are given an even more restricted diet of exam preparation in English, maths and science?
The revised key stage 3 curriculum, put forward in draft form earlier this year and about to be finalised by ministers, has achieved the rare feat of winning broadly positive reviews from across the education community.
But, standing back from the rave notices, a host of concerns are being raised - sotto voce at present - about the direction the reforms could take if handled without care.
Few teachers would quibble with the review's central, underlying concern: the curriculum for 11 to 14s has become unwieldy, repetitive, over-detailed and needs some drastic pruning.
Accordingly, the QCA proposed a reduction in prescribed content, freeing teachers to develop their own approaches to what is taught. The curriculum should be centred on pupils' needs rather than foundering on subject boundaries. It will have, for the first time, a mission statement to make pupils "successful learners", "confident individuals" and "responsible citizens". And schools are being given guidance on building their own curriculums, with cross-curricular themes, including building pupils'
creativity, lateral thinking, sense of self-worth and values, to the fore.
The changes seem to have been helped by being sponsored by Mick Waters, the QCA's charismatic and teacher-friendly head of curriculum. He toured England for several months, speaking to teachers about the reforms.
Teaching should be inspiring and relevant to pupils, he said, and his organisation should guide professionals, rather than dictate to them.
"Hallelujah!" seems to be the general response from the profession after nearly 20 years of centrally-driven directives that, for many, stripped much of the creativity out of teaching.
In the preface to a new book on the curriculum by Martin Johnson, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Mr Waters writes: "There should be a local emphasis within curriculum design but within national parameters."
Mr Johnson, who has bemoaned the overload of Whitehall directives, said that Mr Waters' statement "would have been extraordinary until recently".
The National Union of Teachers has described the review as "long overdue", a view shared by England's General Teaching Council and subject assocations.
The Association of School and College Leaders congratulated the QCA on "designing a curriculum which will enable teachers and school leaders to use their professional judgment in ways that have not been possible in recent years".
But here, it seems, is the rub. Running through responses to consultation on the changes is a concern that some teachers will struggle when confronted with more freedom to decide for themselves what to teach. They have been told what to do in ever-greater detail since the national curriculum's advent in 1988.
The association says: "Many younger teachers, and indeed school leaders, have not had the opportunity to use their professional judgment in curriculum planning and may therefore be fearful or reluctant to take advantage of these opportunities."
Simon Gibbons, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, argued that many teachers are suffering from Stockholm syndrome, referring to the Swedish bank robbery where the hostages ended up identifying emotionally with their captors.
The Association for Science Education is also worried that stripping the curriculum back - the programme of study in science is being cut from 18 pages to five - will put pressure on staff, who must quickly devise their own approaches to fill in the gaps.
The key stage 3 changes are to be staggered, introduced first for Year 7 in 2008 and for all years by 2010, but they coincide with the start of the 14-19 diplomas and new A-levels, while new GCSEs in maths and science will be bedding in. With all this on the horizon, various science organisations have warned that the key stage 3 changes are happening too fast.
A bigger issue concerns how the new curriculum flexibilities could be used.
Subject associations fear that in some schools a reduced statutory programme of study could be an excuse for school leaders to cut the amount of time given to foundation subjects.
With league tables now focusing on the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths, and the Government promising more emphasis on "catch-up" lessons for pupils falling behind in these subjects, a broad and balanced curriculum could be sacrificed.
Historians and geographers also worry that key stage 3 could be cut to two years in many schools, to leave more time for GCSE work, meaning most pupils would have only two years of those subjects in secondary school.
A recent report by the Subject Association Working Group said: "The reduced prescription could encourage curriculum vandalism by being used as an argument for reducing the time given to subjects." However, John Dunford, general secretary of the ASCL, said heads had to be left to make the right decisions for their pupils.
He said: "This is not the Soviet eastern bloc where everything has to be laid down by the Government. It's perfectly proper for ministers to set the curriculum framework. But let's have the professional courage to do what we believe to be right for children." He added that most schools would retain three years of key stage 3.
Alf Wilkinson, of the Historical Association, said cross-curricular work, which is supported in principle by the review, could be a mixed blessing.
The idea of training pupils in all the skills they needed to be a good historian, say, or a good geographer - from statistical analysis to how to treat sources sceptically - was excellent, he said. But this teaching should remain subject-centred.
The elephant in the room is assessment. The National Association for the Teaching of English holds a position shared by many subject experts who argue that all the freedoms will count for little, at least in the core subjects, while teachers feel the need to devote most of a year to test preparation.
Daniel Sandford-Smith, of the Institute of Physics, said: "Reducing the constraints of the curriculum without providing proper guidance for teachers runs the risk that some will become more reliant on the content of the tests to direct their teaching."
Training for teachers in developing new approaches, all agree, is crucial.
The Government is due to make an announcement on this, so help could be on the way.
Will teachers leap at the opportunities or feel so ground down by initiatives and testing that they will not have the energy to come up with much that is creative?
It is a commentary on the state of the profession that a reform which seems so welcome in concept might yet prove tricky to implement.
* 'Subject to Change: new thinking on the currciculum' by Martin Johnson, published by the ATL
HOW THE CHANGES WILL AFFECT SUBJECTS
English The list of recommended texts has been enlarged and updated, with a greater emphasis on contemporary authors, including Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen, and ethnic minority writers, including Meera Syal and Benjamin Zephaniah.
Maths The curriculum has been cut, with pupils expected to learn applied maths in areas including plumbing, engineering and new technology.
Science The curriculum content has been slimmed down. For example, on electricity and magnetism, six detailed points on what to cover have been cut to nine words: "Electricity in circuits can produce a variety of effects."
History The world wars and the Holocaust are still covered. Changes will not be huge but the chronological approach of the current curriculum is being replaced by a thematic one.
Geography Climate change will be on the topic list for the first time.
Citizenship Young people will learn about "identities and diversity: living together in the UK", while also being encouraged to take part in school elections, charity and voluntary work.
PSHE The subject will be renamed personal, social, health and economic education (PSHEE), as pupils are taught about money and careers as well as sex and drugs.
Languages Mandarin and Urdu can be offered instead of European Union tongues.
Full details on individual subjects at www.qca.org.uksecondarycurriculumreview