The announcement of the Government's curriculum review offers a rare opportunity for those who have children's interests at heart to engage in a serious debate about what they should learn during their years of compulsory schooling. The prospect of a slimmer national curriculum promised in last week's white paper also creates space for schools to plan what they want to do. Ministers lead us to believe that there will be plenty of gaps to allow teachers to use their creativity in their pupils' interests.
Of course, ministers still make pronouncements about what history they think should be taught or how young children should learn to read, but politicians have never been able to resist the temptation to indulge their preferences and share their views on what should be in the curriculum.
Notwithstanding these flights of ministerial fancy, however, after 20 years of a top-down detailed national curriculum, we can surely look forward to becoming curriculum planners again. It is a role that older teachers will remember with a rosy glow: the CSE mode 3 syllabuses that they designed, set and marked themselves, awarding certificated grades after due external moderation.
Some of these syllabuses were the highly original products of a single school or individual, but many were constructed after consulting colleagues in other schools. Few people may think of themselves as true innovators, but innovation may simply be taking the best ideas from elsewhere and adapting them to fit the people in your school.
These are the kind of innovations that Whole Education is encouraging schools to take up as we embark on our own contribution to the national curriculum review, starting with a conference on Monday 6 December entitled 'What Are Schools For?' A group of about 20 organisations will offer curriculum projects to schools, colleges and other learning sites, based on the principle that young people need a balance of knowledge, skills and attributes to prepare them for life and work.
We do not yet know whether the curriculum review will produce only lists of chunks of knowledge or whether it will analyse what should be taught and learnt. A core curriculum should include some of this, but much should be left to local discretion. Schools know their pupils, their parents and their local communities, and it is to be hoped that the review will allow them to use that experience to construct an appropriate curriculum that engages their pupils. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation's Learning Futures project - one of those within Whole Education - aims to do just that.
Then there is the RSA's Opening Minds, which focuses not only on a core of knowledge, but on developing the ability to understand and work through five areas of competence: learning, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information. The Speakers Trust supports schools and other young people's organisations in developing communication and public speaking - just some of the important skills that young people need to gain employment and maintain successful relationships, but too often do not acquire during their school years.
In the spirit of greater curriculum freedom, school decision- makers should test whether education secretary Michael Gove means it when he says that he wants to set them free from bureaucracy and central control. They should stop looking up for national guidance on everything they do and start looking out to what is available from colleagues in other schools and educational organisations. Here they will find a wealth of innovative material to broaden the education of their students.
The curriculum is not only about content. Assessment has a big influence on what is taught in schools. Changes the Government makes to tests and exams will play a big part in what happens in the classroom. Mr Gove's proposal for an English Baccalaureate of GCSEs comprising English, maths, science, humanities and a modern foreign language is a commendable attempt to broaden the curriculum at key stage 4, but it may turn out to be little more than another column on the performance tables.
Accreditation can be much more than a list of subject grades at C or above. If, for example, the English Bac were to be linked to ASDAN (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) - another Whole Education partner, which accredits a wide range of skills and activities - the Bac could do so much more, giving greater credence to learning that takes place well beyond the school, in youth groups, through volunteering, at home and online.
Employers want to take on intelligent young people with qualifications, but they more often cite skills such as team-working and communication and qualities such as resilience and dependability. Young people cannot develop these skills and qualities in vacuo, so it is important that the knowledge set out in the new national curriculum is taken by individual institutions - or groups of schools working together - to produce a coherent curriculum of knowledge and skills that combines to give local communities and their young people what they need. Whether the context of that learning is described as academic or vocational, or preferably a combination of the theoretical and practical, young people of all abilities will benefit from a curriculum planned in this way.
Perhaps that starts to answer the question of what schools are for. But the essence of that question in the next few years must be that its answer can be planned and provided at school level by professionals who have recaptured the joy of curriculum planning. Then greater joy for young people in their learning will surely follow.
Dr John Dunford is chairman of Whole Education.