A wide-ranging series of progress reports by the QCA has uncovered a serious weakness in teachers' expertise. Graeme Paton and Adi Bloom report
History remains one of the best taught secondary subjects, even though huge chapters of the past are largely ignored. At GCSE and A-level it continues to be "dominated" by the Tudors and 20th-century dictatorships.
The role of black history is often limited to topics about slavery and post-war immigration, undervaluing the contribution of ethnic minorities to Britain's past. Secondary schools were making more effort to cover local history, although more than a third still ignored it.
But the overall quality of the subject in secondary schools remains a "real strength", with Ofsted rating it one of the best-taught subjects at GCSE and A-level. Increasing numbers of pupils took the subject last year, with AS-level entries rising by almost 40 per cent since 2001.
The subject also continues to be one of the most popular subjects among primary teachers, but the QCA said many lacked the expert knowledge to teach it effectively. It said many heads fail to give the subject enough space on the primary timetable, with only 4 per cent of the week allocated to it.
The teaching of geography is trapped in a "vicious circle of decline" as heads fail to take the subject seriously.
The quality of teaching for pupils aged four and 14 was poor compared with other subjects. In too many cases schools lack curriculum time, specialist staff and resources. Geography remained popular among students, but exam entries have dropped significantly.
GCSE entries have fallen by 29.3 percentage points since 1996 and A-levels by 26.8 percentage points by 1998. However, the QCA said a series of initiatives present fresh hope for the subject. These include the launch of the first humanities specialist schools, around 50 of which have geography as the lead subject in 200506.
Language experts are being forced to teach other subjects as pupils abandon French, German and Spanish. The QCA said the decision to make the subjects optional from the age of 14 had forced some highly-trained teachers to cover other classes to "fill their timetables".
In many schools, only the most advanced pupils are now taking languages.
The QCA said: "Large numbers of more average students are possibly reducing their future prospects of job mobility and choice by giving up language learning at the age of 14."
It said some teachers had "risen to the challenge" posed by the decline by using more innovative techniques to make languages more appealing, although it said others had become "understandably downhearted" over the past 12 months.
However, the watchdog reported that the fall in the number of children taking GCSE languages had been partly countered by more teaching of the subjects in primary schools. About 43 per cent of primary schools now offer some teaching of foreign languages.
Record numbers of students are taking GCSE and A-level religious studies.
The number of pupils taking the full GCSE in 200405 rose to 147,500 - up 6,500 on the previous year. The number of candidates for the GCSE short course rose to 247,000, an increase of 4,500 on 2004.
However, the QCA says that although RE is well-taught at GCSE and A-level, the quality of teaching and learning is lower than in nearly all other subjects at key stage 3. Religious education has more non-specialists than any other compulsory subject.
At KS1 and 2, RE is a priority in only 2 per cent of school development plans for 20056 and the demands of literacy and numeracy are reported as having a negative impact on the time given to it.
Nearly all schools now meet legal requirements for the subject, but the curriculum for RE is only good - in terms of breadth and balance - in a third of schools.
This year, the first national framework for RE was published.
A lack of specialist teachers in information and communications technology (ICT) is restricting the subject's growth. Nevertheless, the QCA said progress was being made from the ages of four to 19.
The QCA said foundation stage teachers are using new technology, but there were concerns about the lack of resources, including programmable toys.
More pupils are now studying full and short-course GCSE and GNVQ. The QCA praised the growing numbers of schools providing low-cost laptops for students and the use of ICT, including interactive whiteboards, in the teaching of other subjects.
PE is in an increasingly strong state with good teaching leading to improving standards.
At foundation stage, 90 per cent of schools and nurseries achieve the early years goals. At KS1, there is evidence that the primary strategy has curtailed time for PE and that many teachers are not confident taking it.
But most children enjoy the subject. There has been a significant increase in KS2 pupils doing regular physical activity. In part, this is down to the growth of out-of-hours sport.
At KS3, more pupils are achieving higher standards but the proportion achieving levels 7 and 8 is smaller than in most other subjects. Two hours of PE is provided each week in the majority of schools, and there has been a small rise in the number of pupils taking part in inter-school sport.
In some schools there has been an increase in the time pupils spend doing PE, but most teach only one lesson a week.
Design and technology
A lack of suitable equipment is preventing teachers from meeting GCSE requirements. The number of pupils taking GCSE has gone down in a third of schools.
Teachers cited lack of facilities or poor access to ICT as key reasons why they found it hard to teach the subject. This year has seen changes to the teaching of design in KS3, and assessment in KS4. The subject is no longer compulsory, and this has led to a reduction in the time allocated to it at KS3.
New materials to support foundation-stage teachers were piloted in 40 schools, from 2004, but assessment in primaries was found to be weaker for design and technology than for most other subjects.
Music lessons can increase pupils' concentration, motivation and sensitivity towards others, but the QCA said few schools allocate enough time to the subject to realise its potential benefits.
Research has found that pupils from Years 2 to 9 believe they can be good at some aspects of music, even if they do not have a natural aptitude. Most secondary schools agree that the use of ICT has improved the quality of music lessons. More than half of the schools questioned by the QCA said using ICT at KS3 had increased pupils' interest in studying music at KS4.
Art and design
Students of art and design spend far too much time painting and drawing. In secondaries, inspectors say art is taught better than any other subject, but the curriculum focuses too narrowly on these skills and fails to convey the breadth of the subject.
Craft, design and three-dimensional work tend to be overlooked at all ages and in some cases are targeted at less able pupils.
The QCA said greater understanding was needed of working with new technologies, but many schools are limited by a lack of resources and teachers' inexperience in these areas. It said too few pupils across the age ranges are given the opportunity to work with practising artists and designers, despite the proven benefits of such projects.
This has become one of the fastest-growing subjects at GCSE level, though it is still one of the most neglected in the timetable.
There are about 850 newly-qualified secondary citizenship teachers, and Ofsted said the quality of lessons was improving. Entries to GCSE were up to 38,000 this year, an increase of 11,000 from 2004, and 19 per cent of schools have increased the time given to the subject at secondary level.
However, the QCA said the allocation of space in the timetable remains frustrating for many citizenship teachers, as does the lack of resources.
There remains little or no distinction between citizenship and PSHE in primary schools and many teachers want greater clarity.
Personal, social and health education is given low priority in secondary schools and teaching is often patchy. The subject was often given too little space in the timetable and was poorly assessed. Many teachers still lack confidence in teaching the lessons, particularly sex education lessons.
But aspects of the subject have been high on the national agenda in the past year. The QCA cites the campaign by Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef, to highlight the unhealthy content of school meals.
The lead-up to the London Olympics in 2012 has also focused attention on the benefits of exercise. The QCA has developed materials to support planning and recording of the subject, including assessment guidance for teachers. It hopes that these will help teachers to raise the status of PSHE in the curriculum.
Thousands of business studies students fail to complete any work experience. The QCA said that too much of the teaching in the subject is "dull" and that exams are too overloaded with content, in which case pupils are memorising facts rather than constructing arguments.
The watchdog wants schools to develop better links with local industry, and notes that around 30 per cent of business studies students had not been involved in work experience in 200405. It also wants more on-the-job training opportunities for business teachers.
The QCA said business teaching was generally good at KS4 and post-16 but that it should not be overloaded with content.
It also reported that pupil attainment increased slightly in 200405 but was still lower than the average for all subjects, as it had been for five years. However, it noted that there had been an increase in the number of well-qualified teachers joining the profession, often later in life, with recent business experience.
QCA reports available in the new year at: www.qca.org.uk