SECONDARIES WERE yesterday given permission to drastically prune their timetables to make room for extra lessons in English and maths for struggling pupils.
Changes to the secondary curriculum announced by Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, will mean a quarter of the school day is freed up for a "relentless focus on the basics", the Government said.
The revisions, which represent ministers' final stamp on proposals first put forward six months ago by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, will take effect from September next year.
They include lessons on economic wellbeing and financial capability, introduced alongside personal, social and health education and a new focus on climate change and sustainable development in geography.
The review's overall aim is to give schools more freedom to tailor the curriculum to their pupils' needs. It has been broadly welcomed by the profession, as a QCA consultation answered by more than 3,000 people indicated.
The freeing up of extra time for more English and maths, however, is likely to provoke most debate. It did not receive much emphasis in the QCA's initial consultation. The DCSF said that the QCA's review had helped to create timetable space by removing overlap between the subjects.
This would help ensure that all pupils mastered the three Rs, they said. The move would be welcomed by employers, who have complained that many school leavers lack basic skills.
The extra time could also be used to give more academic students "extra challenges to motivate and enthuse them", while cross-curricular teaching is also encouraged.
Subject associations, however, are concerned. History and design and technology teachers fear that pupils struggling in the basics will spend less time on their subjects, particularly as GCSE league tables now hinge on English and maths.
Richard Green, chief executive of the Design and Technology Association, said: "We have always argued that if you need to develop skills in maths and English, you should do so in a realistic context.
"Design and Technology reinforces maths and some pupils will learn better through more practical activities."
Heather Scott, chair of the Historical Association's secondary committee, said: "My worry would be that the Government is giving the green light to schools to top-slice the amount of history teaching that many pupils receive."
Doug French, former president of the Mathematical Association, said he would question giving struggling pupils extra time.
He said the current amount of timetabled maths, between 10 and 12 per cent of the school week, was probably adequate for all pupils.
In fact, official figures from an unpublished QCA annual survey conducted in 2005 show that schools already devote a quarter of their timetable to teaching English and maths at key stage 3. If schools took full advantage of their extra freedoms to spend a further quarter of the week offering catch-up lessons in these subjects, some pupils could be looking at spending half their time on them.
It is not clear whether the Government believes the 25 per cent extra time to be devoted to English and maths should be on top of existing allocations for these subjects.
When pressed, a DCSF spokes-man said it was up to schools to decide for themselves.
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said he hoped teachers were not being asked to accept a narrower curriculum.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the curriculum's new flexibility.
But he said that extra lessons in English and maths would inevitably lead to cutbacks in other subject areas for some pupils.
Outsiders might note that primary education has already changed significantly to become more narrowly focused on core subjects.
The proportion of time spent on English and maths at key stage 2 rose from 42 to 49 per cent between 1997 and 2004 and has not fallen since.
It would appear schools already focus heavily on the basics. Ministers' further emphasis on these subjects may play well with employers, and is likely to win headlines suggesting they take complaints over poor literacy and numeracy seriously.
But there will remain serious questions over whether this is the right approach. Perhaps the best that can be hoped will be that secondaries reject a simple "back to basics" drive, as primaries appear to have done after similar freedoms were offered in the late 1990s.
Ed Balls, page 27