Whole subjects could be stripped out of the national curriculum in the back-to-basics review announced by ministers this week.
English, maths and science will remain compulsory throughout school along with PE, which will have a greater emphasis on competitive sport. But the review will look at whether the eight non-core subjects currently included should continue to be statutory in the new "slimmed down" curriculum.
With ministers keen for pupils to learn "our island story", history is unlikely to disappear. But citizenship could be a casualty.
The Department for Education review - led by a four-strong panel of external experts and guided by an advisory committee of heads and other educationalists (see box) - will emphasise "essential" subject knowledge, look at what is taught when, and try make the curriculum less jargon filled and more parent friendly.
It will also advise on how assessment, accountability and inspection should be changed to support the new curriculum and so could have a huge influence on the whole schools system.
Non-core subjects could be made compulsory in whole or in part, but with programmes of study replaced by local decisions on what is taught. Or they could be given non-statutory programmes of study or left out altogether.
Ministers say the existing national curriculum has replaced content with "vague generic statements". They are "shocked that the secondary geography curriculum doesn't mention a single country other than the UK or any continents, rivers, oceans, mountains, cities" and that secondary music "doesn't mention a single composer, musician, conductor or piece of music".
But they also believe it has been overly prescriptive by specifying cross- curricular teaching methods.
The Government wants the new curriculum, which will be taught from 2013, to give schools "greater freedom to construct their own programmes of study in subjects outside the National Curriculum and develop approaches to learning and study which complement it".
The remit says it should "properly reflect the body of essential knowledge which all children should learn" but not "absorb the overwhelming majority of teaching time".
But Brian Lightman, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, said heads already had enough freedom under the current curriculum. "We are not convinced there needs to be a root and branch review," he said.
Comparison with curricular in systems such as Alberta, Canada; Hong Kong; Singapore and the US state of Massachusetts that have scored highly in international surveys will be a major part of the review. Insiders have already noted that by teaching less basic knowledge at primary level more thoroughly, systems like Singapore are able to teach more at secondary level.
They are also keen to replace jargon like curriculum "levels" with simple parent-friendly statements, inspired by France's curriculum, about what children should have learned by a certain age.
Controversial American educationalist ED Hirsch, author of a series of textbooks promoting core subject knowledge, is also likely to be an influence.
REFORM TIMETABLE: FOUR STEPS TO THE FUTURE
- Phase one, begun yesterday, will decide on the future status of the eight non-core subjects, the support needed by schools, and develop programmes of study in English, maths, science and PE.
- Autumn 2011 Ministers consider recommendations on the above.
- Early 2012 Public consultation on draft programmes of study for core subjects in time for teaching from September 2013.
- Phase two Programmes for other subjects passed to ministers by autumn 2012, with public consultation in early 2013 and teaching from September 2014.
Chair believes national curriculum is overloaded
The expert panel will chaired by Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment's director of research. The former Qualifications and Curriculum Authority head of research and statistics published a paper in November, endorsed by education secretary Michael Gove, which said the current national curriculum had problems with overload, a lack of clarity and overbearing assessment. Its statements of content had become too generic and international comparisons should be used in any reform.
Other panel members are:
Professor Andrew Pollard from London University's Institute of Education and Bristol University. He is perhaps best known for leading the Teaching and Learning Programme, the UK's largest ever educational research programme which co-ordinated 700 researchers with a total budget of pound;43m, began in 2000 and will run to 2012. Professor Pollard had a background in primary education before joining academia.
Professor Mary James from Cambridge University was a deputy director of the TLRP and is an expert in school examinations and assessment. She was also a research consultant on the Cambridge Primary Review, for which she co-authored a report with Andrew Pollard on the insights from the TLRP. She began her career by teaching RE, English and social studies in secondary schools.
Dylan Wiliam, IoE emeritus professor. Best known for his work on formative assessment and a co-author of influential Inside the Black Box report, which made the case for using assessment to support learning. A secondary maths teacher before entering academia, he has previously expressed reservations about transplanting a knowledge-based curriculum typified by ED Hirsch in America, saying it is a powerful idea but that it would be a five to 10-year project.
Advisory committee members:
- Chair, Jon Coles, Department for Education, director general for education standards.
- Tim Oates, chair of expert panel.
- Mike Harris, Institute of Directors, head of education and skills policy.
- Ruth Miskin, phonics guru and former primary head.
- Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor, Warwick University.
- Heads: Sir Michael Wilshaw, Mossbourne Academy, Hackney, east London; Shahed Ahmed, Elmhurst primary, Forest Gate, east London; Peter Barnes, Oakgrove secondary, Milton Keynes; Dame Yasmin Bevan, Denbigh High, Luton; John Martin, Castle Hill junior, Basingstoke; Bernice McCabe, North London Collegiate (ind secondary); Joe Prendergast, Wennington Hall special school, Lancaster
- Retired heads: John McIntosh, London Oratory School, Heather Rockhold, Lauriston Primary School, Hackney, east London
- Patrick Leeson, Ofsted education director, sitting as an observer.
- Original headline: Wipeout? Subjects could disappear in curriculum overhaul