Now that the curriculum review has provided room to breathe, says Nicholas Tate, schools are free to set their own long-term agenda's.
Two themes with a utilitarian flavour have dominated recent debates on curriculum and assessment. The first is the need to promote the basics of literacy and numeracy. The second is a preoccupation with targets. Both are crucial to our efforts to raise standards.
Priority for the basics was a key feature of the Dearing review. There has been general support for freeing up time through cuts in non-core subjects, while maintaining the breadth of the national curriculum. In assessment, there is a similar broad acceptance that the focus should be on the basics, with statutory arrangements largely confined to English, mathematics and science.
As for targets, these are now all around us: attainment targets, targets for school performance, personal targets, and, overshadowing them all, the National Targets for Education and Training. Targets have proved their value in raising expectations and in ensuring these are met.
Both developments are now part of the educational bloodstream. But they still leave some teachers cold. There is an intellectual acceptance of the importance of utilitarian purposes and the value of quantitative targets; there is even a willingness to admit that the 1960's and 1970's reaction against the basics swung too far the other way. But some people feel something is missing, that there is no soul or unifying principle. It was this feeling towards the national curriculum which prompted the positive response to NCC's cross-curricular initiatives, which some saw as the holistic vision, the authoritative guide to how it all might be brought together.
There were renewed demands for vision during the recent review. The review was not intended to provide this, or to start afresh, but to slim down an overloaded curriculum. Familiar landmarks were not to be changed unless it was absolutely essential. No new content was to be added. The purpose was to refine the national curriculum to a statement of the minimum which by law must be taught, and to provide a broad statutory framework within which schools could create and pursue their own vision .
Seen in this light, the national curriculum becomes a pile of building blocks which can be assembled in a variety of ways to construct edifices of different kinds. There are now far fewer blocks, they are smaller in size, and there is at last the opportunity to make a recognisable building which does not collapse under its own weight. The flexibility is real: typically 20 per cent of free time in key stages 1-3, rising to 40 per cent at key stage 4. At every key stage, there is far greater freedom within subjects to exemplify broad principles in different ways, and to treat some topics in outline and others in depth.
There is no requirement that schools review their whole curriculum before implementing revised Orders in September 1995. But the new flexibility opens up opportunities they will surely wish to seize. They may also wish to take into account other initiatives: requirements on sex education, the moral, cultural and spiritual dimension of the curriculum, revised syllabuses in religious education, and the implications of the recent White Paper on Competitiveness for careers education and guidance at key stages 3-4.
There are now opportunities for debate which were inhibited by an overloaded national curriculum. The flexibility offered by the revised arrangements, together with the commitment to a five-year period of stability, should usher in a period when a thousand curriculum flowers (of the same genus) can begin to bloom.
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's role is to help clarify the issues as schools prepare to implement a curriculum designed to last into the 21st century.
One of the first tasks schools face is to ensure they have a curriculum which enables them to meet the measurable targets they have set themselves. This will include, in secondary schools, their contribution to meeting the National Targets. Schools will also need to look at how best to secure a grounding in basic literacy and numeracy for all pupils. The key issue is the amount of freed-up time to be devoted to these areas. Given competition for the available time, hard decisions will be needed. The provision that English is taught through every subject will revive debates about how to implement a language across the curriculum policy. This will influence decisions about freed-up time.
For many schools, quantitative targets will not be enough. They will wish to take into account purposes of education which go beyond equipping pupils with survival skills and contributing to economic competitiveness. The problem with modern education, T S Eliot said, was that it was concerned exclusively with "getting on", and that, in the modern world, it was very difficult to define what else education was about because we do not adequately define the values and beliefs we wish to be transmitted to succeeding generations. Defining the fundamental purposes of the curriculum is inseparable from defining our society and its values. Since Western societies have difficulty with this, it is no wonder some schools have problems deciding what is meant by the moral, cultural and spiritual dimension of the curriculum. However, as the educational system leaves much of the responsibility for these matters to schools, it is in schools that the debate must take place.
Moral education is a key part of this debate. A recent MORI poll suggested that 66 per cent of young people feel that "the younger generation is experiencing a moral crisis" and that "they are not sure any more what is right and wrong". Its findings revealed the prevalence of relativism and individualism: 41 per cent, for example, feeling that "morality always depends on the circumstances". Young people have little sense of values as something objective, stable, or continuing from one generation to another. The emphasis is one of autonomy, of each individual and generation creating itself anew through its life choices. This creates immense problems for moral education. However, the good news from the MORI survey is that schools head the list of institutions which young people feel are doing a good job of setting and upholding moral standards. We cannot expect schools single-handed to reverse the trend to moral relativism. But they need not be impassive.
Schools may also wish to look at how the curriculum develops pupils' sense of identity and their involvement in this country's common culture. There has been a renewed interest in ensuring that young people are "culturally literate", that they understand enough about their society and culture to take a full part in it, feel a sense of continuity with its past and a sense of mission in carrying it forward into the future. The revised national curriculum addresses this issue, in laying down a statutory minimum in areas such as British history, the English literary heritage and geographical knowledge, but the new flexibility allows schools to transmit this cultural literacy in a greater variety of ways.
We are not talking here about crude jingoism, but about the need for societies to perpetuate themselves. If the curriculum does not provide pupils with an essential minimum of cultural 'information', other sources are so few, and other influences so strong, that they may not pick it up elsewhere. Recognition of the curriculum as a means of transmitting a common cultural heritage across the generations would help create a new sense of purpose and significance in education.
There is one footnote here: freeing up time at key stages 3 and 4 will allow some schools to think again about provision for Classics.
For the past thousand years and more the study of Greek and Roman civilisations and their languages has been at the core of education. To toss this aside in one generation may not be wholly wise.
At key stage 4, where the national curriculum has never been fully implemented, the key issue - apart from short courses and how they fit into the overall curriculum - is how to achieve breadth and balance outside the extended core. Many schools will wish to ensure that the arts and humanities continue to contribute to the education of most or all pupils. This is not incompatible with the pressure to make provision for vocational courses for those who need them.
This is a long agenda for schools to consider. There is no obligation to tackle all of these issues, or to do so all at once. Many teachers will welcome the opportunity to get to grips with them and to sense that there is space again for their own vision. The national curriculum was not intended to inhibit experimentation and debate. In practice, because of overload, it did so.
The coming of a revised national curriculum marks the beginning of a new era. I hope it marks the beginning of a lively debate about the curriculum, both in its own right and as part of a much-needed national debate about culture, society and identity.
Dr Nicholas Tate is chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority