Reforms and regrets;Opinion

16th January 1998 at 00:00
It has been said that if a child leaves primary school and can't draw, it's a shame; but if he can't read, it's a tragedy. It is hard to deny the truth of this statement, and so the Government's announcement that it plans a radical lightening of the national curriculum load to free up more time for literacy and numeracy must be welcomed - but with regret. The dream of a cornucopia curriculum, rich with variety, breeding a nation of Renaissance 10-year-olds is hard to give up.

So let us say a requiem for the national curriculum. It caused primary teachers countless hours of anguish, but most would probably not want to turn back the clock to the days before its introduction. Here are some of its accomplishments: whole school planning, better skills for assessing each child's attainments and needs, a specific and wide-ranging entitlement for every child, a vision of high standards and progression in subjects such as art and history. Gone are the days when the Romans would be studied in the same way, at the same level, in the same school, by the same child for three years running, or when art was simply a recreation, with little actually learned.

Now that the Government is proposing to suspend the requirement to teach the detail of the national curriculum in art, music, PE, design technology, history and geography from September, it will be up to teachers themselves to maintain high standards in these subjects, without the fear of the Office for Standards in Education, local authorities or of the law.

At last, the Government appears to be trusting the teachers. An enormous onus has been placed on them to use their professional judgment to meet the needs of their own pupils and communities. The Education Secretary's announcement has been wildly applauded by the unions, whose job it is to look after their members. True professionalism means teachers will put their pupils' entitlement to a broad curriculum before expediency.

Some may have a sneaking suspicion that the Government is trusting teachers only with what it sees as less important, but it seems fair at the start to take David Blunkett's words at face value. "We are determined that if children can read they will read about our history and our culture," he told a press conference this week. "I am determined that children will be able to read and walk and run, and those able to run fast will be able to read fast as well."

The Government is running fast, too. It has set ambitious literacy and numeracy targets for 2002 and taken a popular, but ruthless, decision, to ensure they are met. In his haste, Mr Blunkett has undercut his curriculum advisers' methodical, considered review of the curriculum, and this could lead to more change and chaos in schools than necessary over the next few years, if schools drop elements which become required again in 2000.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is pinpointing a brief, essential core for each foundation subject. This looks likely to form part of its advice, due before the summer term, on how schools should treat those areas. It will not be mandatory, but schools would be wise to pay attention to it, at the very least to help maintain consistency between primary schools and ease transition to the secondary phase.

Nevertheless, if the statutory curriculum is overloaded, as teachers keep insisting, then it should be lightened as soon as possible.

Mr Blunkett has made a popular decision, but still a tough one. He has had to weigh two important goals: the guarantee of breadth, continuity and depth in every subject in every school, balanced against ensuring every child has a solid grasp of the basics. If both cannot be achieved at once - and teachers insist it is impossible in some schools - then literacy must come first, since it is the gateway to so much else.

Unfortunately, the children who need the most help with reading and writing are frequently those who need the greatest amount of enrichment as well since they get less at home. There is evidence from OFSTED's database of a correlation between high standards in the basics and a broad curriculum; this is worth investigating, but it does not necessarily follow that one leads to the other; both may just be easier to achieve in some schools.

Sadly, the school curriculum cannot eradicate the gaps between rich and poor. But helping all children to be confident, enthusiastic readers is a most effective weapon in that battle.

As usual the devil is in the detail. The Government's proposal takes the most simplistic formula: English, maths, science, and IT are kept whole; everything else - do what you like, as long as you "have regard" to the curriculum Orders.

In fact, primary schools could be allowed even more flexibility, and greater continuity could be ensured, by thinking hard about maths, science and IT (RE is, of course, a sacred cow). There could well be parts of these orders which could be made optional, freeing up more time for PE - surely crucial for children's, and therefore the nation's, health and well-being - music or a foreign language, if these are appropriate. After all, we don't know what skills will be needed in the 21st century, but we do know that art and music have nurtured people's spirit since the Stone Age.

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