A brave new world - but will standards now rise?

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TODAY'S NATIONAL curriculum places demands on children of which their parents never dreamt. In the Sixties and Seventies, science in primary schools was confined to tadpoles and sticky buds. Now seven-year-olds have to know about magnetism and electricity. In information technology, children as young as five must be taught to operate a CD-Rom, and 11-year- olds to understand website publishing.

Before the national curriculum was introduced just over a decade ago, history teachers could teach what they liked. Primary school children might do the Romans three times, and secondary school children might spend years studying their locality.

Now junior schools must teach about the Tudors, the Victorians, emigration and immigration, and the impact of new technologies. Fourteen-year-olds must do a "world study" of a pre-1900 topic, such as Japan under the Shoguns, or civilisations in Peru. The days when English teachers designed and marked their own exam courses are gone. Classic authors and Shakespeare, as well as contemporary writers such as Seamus Heaney, are a must.

The balancing act that ensures all children receive a common entitlement of knowledge while allowing teachers the freedom to do their creative best is a tricky one. The first national curriculum, devised in 1988 when Kenneth Baker was Secretary of State for Education, was absurdly bloated. Every pressure group in the business threw in everything it could think of and teachers staggered under the load: we have been slimming it down ever since.

Whatever the teacher unions say about an overloaded curriculum, this latest reduction is a sensible advance. Even the list of pre-1914 authors is recommended rather than compulsory, giving teachers more room to tailor their choice of books to their children's needs.

And Mr Blunkett is surely right to insist that we must find room for citizenship, to encourage participation in the community, to bridge the gap between races, classes and creeds and to stem the flight of the young from politics. A study from York University, he said, showed that we were at the bottom of the international league for "citizenship literacy".

But there are worries. Though the prescription for most subjects has been cut, the way schools teach literacy and numeracy is outlined in more detail than ever before. If the Government has found the key to raising standards of reading and maths, few people will complain. The jury is out on whether it would have proved more effective to give teachers more leeway and whether the result will be utilitarian primary schools where art and music go to the wall.

Most controversially, schools may disapply some of the curriculum for children aged over 14 (two subjects out of science, a modern foreign language and design and technology) so that they can follow work-related courses and do more work experience. Mr Blunkett says this is for children who "disapply themselves from the whole curriculum by just truanting from schools altogether".

But truancy rates in similar schools vary hugely. Some schools do teach "difficult" pupils French and physics.

The danger, which Mr Blunkett recognises, is that we shall create pupils destined to be shunted off into low-grade jobs even before they leave school.

Teachers' Choice

Ten recommended authors:

George Orwell

Evelyn Waugh

J G Ballard

Alan Bennett

Aldous Huxley

Sylvia Plath

Stevie Smith

Brian Friel

Willy Russell

Harold Pinter

Ten recommended

history topics:

Space travel

Abolition of slavery

Charles Darwin

Alexander Graham Bell

John Logie Baird

Michael Faraday

Marie Curie

Japan under the Shoguns

India before the Raj

Franklin D Roosevelt