Education: Blunkett gives schools more time for 3Rs

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The Independent Online
Big changes to the primary school curriculum to put more emphasis on the 3Rs were announced yesterday. Judith Judd, Education Editor, explains why ministers accepted teachers' complaints that the timetable is overloaded.

Schools will be allowed to spend more time on literacy and numeracy to ensure that they achieve ambitious government targets, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, announced yesterday. From September they will be able to devote more time to English and maths and less to history, geography, design and technology, music, art and physical education.

Ministers have staked their reputation on targets which demand that 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reach the expected literacy standard by 2002, and for 75 per cent in numeracy.

Since the national curriculum was introduced a decade ago, teachers have complained that the curriculum is overcrowded and that its detailed prescription has taken the fun out of teaching.

Mr Blunkett said yesterday that he was loosening the straitjacket. At present, detailed programmes of study for all nine primary national curriculum subjects are prescribed by law. The changes mean that teachers will be required to follow the detailed programmes in only English, maths, science and information technology. They will still have to teach the other subjects but will be free to decide what and how much they teach.

Mr Blunkett said: "For too long, too many primary school teachers have been prevented from giving literacy and numeracy the attention they deserve because the national curriculum has lacked the very clear focus on the basics which is crucial to primary education. As a result literacy and numeracy have been too often subsumed into other subjects."

Schools would still have a statutory duty to provide a "broad and balanced curriculum" so that children understood our history and culture, he said. "This is not a dumbing down of the curriculum."

Estelle Morris, the schools minister, said: "The problem at the moment for too many children is that they don't get a broad curriculum because they cannot read or write."

Inspectors' reports suggest that most schools are spending enough time on the basics but are not teaching them properly. Ministers believe that new guidance on how to teach literacy and numeracy using mainly traditional methods coupled with the curriculum changes will bring big improvements.

Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said: "If schools are already meeting the literacy targets there is no need for them to change."

The reforms are being made in advance of a major curriculum revision scheduled for 2000. After the first slimming down of the national curriculum three years ago, the last government promised a five-year moratorium on change which was accepted by Labour.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, said it was "one of the best decisions the Government has made. About time too".

Sue Bennett, executive member of the Historical Association, said: "We all want to see standards of literacy improved but narrowing the primary curriculum doesn't necessarily achieve that."