Primary schools are increasingly combining subjects to make sure that the curriculum is covered, say researchers.
Dr Bill Boyle and Joanna Bragg, of Manchester University's centre for formative assessment studies, have collected data for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on timetabling since 1997. They found that junior children spent almost half of their week in English and maths lessons in 2006. Science occupied more than two hours and the remaining subjects have around one hour a week each.
The time given to each subject fits the guidance from the QCA issued in 2002 and has remained steady since then.
But a further detailed survey has found a remarkable shift from English being taught as a separate subject in almost all lessons, to now being combined with other subjects such as history for four-fifths of the time.
Dr Boyle said the traditional cross-curricular approach had returned after a major shift to secondary-style subject teaching created huge pressures on the curriculum.
The centre's data also revealed a massive shift to subject-based teaching in primaries as pressure to hit national targets in 2002 grew.
Kenny Frederick, headteacher of George Green's Secondary School in Tower Hamlets, east London, said: "Primary schools feel pressure to achieve high grades. But children are so drilled and so prepared for those tests that sometimes it is not sustainable."
While topics were popular in the 1970s and 1980s, they fell out of favour after the subject-based national curriculum was introduced in 1988. The 1991 curriculum report, popularly known as the Three Wise Men, said the approach led to superficial learning.
But the researchers found that in 1997, English was taught separately in Year 6 for just 56 per cent of the time and was combined with other subjects for the remainder.
The National Literacy and National Numeracy Strategies were then introduced and by 2001, 96.8 per cent of English, 99.5 per cent of maths and 95 per cent of science lessons in Year 6 were taught as separate subjects. Other subjects also followed the trend with 72 per cent of history and 71 per cent of geography lessons taught as single-subject classes.
In 2002, the English and maths targets for 11-year-olds were missed and a study by the National Union of Teachers discovered that art, music and drama were being squeezed out of the timetable with some schools resorting to providing them in lunchtime clubs.
The Government responded in 2003 with Excellence and Enjoyment, which urged schools to be creative with the curriculum. The Manchester surveys show that in 2003, only 17 per cent of schools felt the guidance would mean a return to cross-curricular teaching. But the most recent data from 2006 reveals that four out of five schools think that Excellence and Enjoyment, had a positive impact on themed work.