If David Blunkett wants children to spend more time on maths or English, there is an easy way to do it: he does not have to tell primary schools to spend less time on music, art and PE. He could simply let them drop the daily assembly.
British teachers are often compared unfavourably with teachers in other countries. If you believe the papers, every child in France can write beautifully and reads Victor Hugo in the pram, while toddlers around the globe do quadratic equations in their heads. We are urged to adopt whichever of their practices hits the headlines that week. All except one.We haven't tried leaving parents to arrange their children's worship and letting teachers get on with teaching.
Every day, in primary schools all over Britain, children congregate in the school hall for corporate worship. Some may find it an interesting, educational or even spiritual experience. Many won't. One thing is certain: the whole thing will have used up about 30 minutes.
Some schools have assembly first thing after register, which means they don't get started on other lessons until 9.30am at the earliest. Assemblies take up precious time - and for what?
Educational benefits are rare, although there is value for children in learning to address a large audience. Performing their play or singing their songs to other classes gives an added purpose to some class activities, and it is even more worthwhile if parents are invited too. Assemblies are times when achievement can be celebrated publicly, and children can see their school as a whole, rather than as a collection of individuals.
But it seems strange that, in a country where most adults choose not to take part in corporate worship, we should require our children to do so. Every day, they stop what they are doing, clear up, line up, walk to the hall, listen to Ravel's "Bolero" ("Tune of the week") for the fourth time, then wait while a messenger is dispatched to fetch Miss Loveday's children."So sorry, " she gasps. "We were measuring our footprints."
Of course we want our children to be fluent, intelligent readers and skilful mathematicians, and we may need to spend more time on these subjects. But we must not give our unfit couch potatoes less PE time; we should not give children who get so much of their experience secondhand through electronic media even less experience of real music-making and real art.
We do not need to. All Mr Blunkett needs to do to "free up" some time for basic skills is to remove the compulsory daily act of corporate worship.
Schools could consult parents - they may decide that daily assemblies are too valuable to miss, but I think many would prefer the week to start with an assembly led by the head and end it with one run by the children to which parents are invited. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, children could get on with their literacy and numeracy hours, their PE and art and music-making.
And Miss Loveday's class could carry on measuring their footprints.
Rosemary Chamberlin was a primary teacher for more than 20 years and is now a senior lecturer in primary English at Oxford Brookes University