Six themed areas to streamline curriculum
Proposals to transform the primary curriculum should make cross-curricular teaching easier, but will it soothe the system overload? Helen Ward reports
The primary curriculum is a major step closer to getting the radical overhaul it requires - but it is not yet certain it will go far enough
Sir Jim Rose's interim report from his review this week gave greater detail of how he will propose to slim the curriculum and improve transition in and out of primary education.
But how much it will trim the overload on schools will not be clear until next year when primaries finish trialling materials and the full report is published.
If accepted, the Government will implement the changes from 2011.
The report's most striking recommendation is to rearrange the curriculum around six areas of learning, rather than using the current 11 statutory and three non-statutory subjects.
The six areas cover understanding of English, communication and languages; mathematics; science and technology; human society and the environment; physical health and wellbeing; and arts and design.
The proposal alarmed both press and politicians this week, who feared it would spell the end of subjects such as history or geography.
But it received a warmer welcome from primary teachers. Many said it would make it easier to teach cross-curricular lessons and provide a smoother transition both from early years and into key stage 3.
Huw Thomas, head of Emmaus Catholic and Church of England Primary in Sheffield, said: "The six areas are perfect. They are how primary education works. They ring true.
"Many schools are taking steps in this direction but, because we are so closely watched, we take those steps with nervousness. Having Jim Rose turn round and say, `You lot are doing what should be done' is a liberating thing."
The report stresses that themed, or topic work, is not enough and that discrete subjects should also be taught.
Andrew Clewer, deputy head of Heath Mount Primary in Birmingham, is creating a theme-based curriculum from the subject-based national curriculum.
His school recently held an Africa week that included making shields, singing traditional songs, counting to 10 in different local languages and studying African texts. This theme-based approach covered subjects such as art, music, geography, history, maths and English.
Mr Clewer said: "To me, the current content-heavy subjects are history, geography and RE. It's just too much. By rearranging them in themes, it gives you the opportunity to reinforce what children have learnt."
But the Daily Mail summed up such changes and Sir Jim's proposed reforms as "history and geography axed in primary schools for lessons on healthy living and the environment". David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, disagrees: "I'm quite positive about the way things are shaping up. We can see there's a chance we can strengthen the place of geography in the curriculum.
"The way it has been reported is inaccurate and unhelpful. Over the past 15 years, our association has been coping with regular barrages of hard- hitting criticism about the quality of teaching in primary.
"I see this as an opportunity to rescue it and bring breadth to the curriculum."
Rick Weights, chairman of the Historical Association's primary committee, agreed that the change could also enhance history. The orders being drawn up for the human, social and environmental area of learning, are expected to give children the opportunity to learn about history locally, nationally and globally, and from the recent, distant and ancient past.
Mr Weights said: "In terms of content, we are looking at keeping a lot of what is already there. Jim Rose is very keen not to lose good practice. There will be a national expectation, but also some flexibility."
But the re-arrangement of subjects into themed areas of learning may do nothing to reduce prescription.
One of Sir Jim's aims is that "the total content has to be reduced", but how this will happen remains a closely-guarded secret.
The draft content of the new curriculum has already been drawn up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and is being trialled in 160 primary schools.
John Crookes, of the authority, said: "The schools are looking over our rough drafts on a confidential basis, so we can get feedback and critiques. We hope to write something compelling, attractive, and clear."
Sir Jim's review was announced in December 2007, and the work has been carried out in consultation with heads, teachers and pupils.
Victoria Junior School in Barrow-in-Furness is part of a group of five Cumbrian schools that is piloting the new curriculum.
Caroline Vernon, its head, who has been looking at the proposals for personal development and wellbeing, said: "Some of the tasks, they simply want to know if it looks right; on other things they want a bit more input.
"I think it's really positive that people at the chalkface are being asked what they feel, as I know schools get really frustrated with having things just given to them and being told to get on with it."
But there are fears that the continuation of national tests at 11 may put schools off taking risks with the primary curriculum.
The review was instructed not to look at Sats, but Sir Jim mentions them in his interim report, pointing out that there are serious concerns about their effect upon the curriculum.
But he adds that by 2011 he hopes the Assessing Pupils' Progress scheme, which helps teachers track pupils' progress in English and maths, "should reduce teachers' reliance on testing".
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "To bring about this transformation, as Rose points out, the Government must deal with the elephant in the room - a testing system that narrows the curriculum."
The report acknowledges that, like previous reviews of the curriculum, it is largely reactive, "driven by the need to reduce curriculum overload and over-prescription".
It recommends that reviews of the whole curriculum - from early years to secondary - take place at agreed intervals in future.
So Sir Jim's review will not be the last word on the primary curriculum. But, as it says, it could at least "afford schools a period of stability."
Sir Jim Rose, page 39.
The Big Question: Do the recommendations in the Rose review go far enough?