Think before we wreck our curriculum

I've been a supporter of a national curriculum ever since I chose the fledgling subject of curriculum studies for my MA in 1970. And my belief was reinforced when my son started primary school - in those golden days when teachers controlled the curriculum.

Reception at his tiny four-class school was taught by a lovely woman who had a great rapport with her small charges - but who disliked physical activity. We parents knew that our children would get hardly any PE in the first year because Mrs Crowther "hated going outside". We accepted this - as we did the lack of art in Mr Radcliffe's class because he "wasn't going to spend his time washing paint pots".

At secondary school my son did no history or geography until he was past 14. The humanities department had spent hundreds of hours constructing an integrated curriculum for what is now key stage 3.

We were told that it could be taught by any history, geography or RE teacher. The result was mind-numbingly boring and relentlessly low-level. His first "topic," which lasted a whole term, was the Wild West. His first homework was to "colour in a buffalo". Enthusiasm waned rapidly, fortunately recaptured four years later by a gifted young Marxist history teacher.

So I welcomed the national curriculum when it came. I didn't like the way Kenneth Baker structured it to reflect the subjects he had taken for his School Certificate 30 years before (plus technology because, after all, we're a nation at the cutting edge). But at least every child now had an entitlement to a decent range of intellectual and aesthetic experiences including art, drama, music, PE and swimming, and some understanding of the different modes of thought involved in history, geography and religious studies.

A decade later it all looks in danger of collapse. More quickly than anyone might have thought possible, the broad and balanced curriculum - and it's a legal entitlement, remember - is being jettisoned. Art, drama, sport, music, swimming and modern languages are under siege as never before. And this is because of the Government's obsession with literacy and numeracy, and their associated tests and targets.

As it happens, I'm very much in favour of improving literacy and numeracy, plus raising the levels of achievement at KS3. But what is happening now is a stunning example of unintended consequences. The Conservatives brought in testing to generate information on school performance so that parents could compare schools more effectively. Combined with a punitive inspection regime and vastly increased paperwork, teachers found this threatening and began to teach defensively, focusing more and more on the areas where they are most accountable. Pupils were put under increasing pressure, and parents became more anxious.

Meanwhile, the Labour Government is bound to the wheel of fire represented by tests and targets - which it has made an indicator of political success or failure - and middle-class parents have become so hysterical about league tables that the independent schools are thinking of pulling out entirely.

The solution is not to fly into a panic and throw out random chunks of the curriculum. We all, including Education Secretary Estelle Morris who has admitted that she is temporarily stumped by the problem, need to step back and take a cool look at the purposes of education, and how they might best be achieved.

Let's do this privately over the summer, and publicly during the autumn. Otherwise we're heading for big trouble.

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