Education: Well-drilled conformists, or rounded individuals?

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The Independent Online
For two years from next October, primary schools will not be obliged to teach the national curriculum programmes of study in history, geography, design and technology, art, music and physical education.

But English, mathematics, science and information technology will be safeguarded.

This new "flexibility" is intended to allow schools time to concentrate on literacy and numeracy and to meet claims that the national curriculum, despite the Dearing slim-down of 1993, remains too heavy a burden.

Sceptics will see yesterday's announcement as capitulation to the view that for the generation of children who have unwittingly acquired the responsibility of delivering the Government's reading and numeracy targets for 2002, a rounded education is a luxury definitely to be postponed.

Though we should keep such concerns in view during the statutory period of consultation, the proposals are in fact somewhat equivocal. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, stresses standards in the basics. He also insists that children's entitlement to the "broad and balanced" curriculum of the 1988 and 1996 Education Acts must not be compromised, and primary schools should continue to "have regard to" the programmes of study in the exempted subjects. Further, this is a two-year interim measure and the promised review of the national curriculum will go ahead as planned.

Yesterday's letter to schools from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) promises guidance on how breadth and balance can be maintained over the next two years, and sets out the timetable for working towards the introduction of the new national curriculum in 2000.

However, the QCA's guidance will need to gloss the injunction to schools to continue to "have regard to" the non-core national curriculum subjects in such a way that it helps those schools that wish to diverge from the existing requirements (and many will not) to steer a path between flexibility and chaos. It is not that long since Her Majesty's Inspectorate was deploring the widespread inconsistency between primary schools in just these subjects. The QCA's guidance will also need to help schools to address two principles not mentioned by Mr Blunkett, but without which "breadth and balance" are pretty meaningless: sustained progression learning within each area of the curriculum; and continuity in the various subjects.

The QCA must also attend to the longer term. How should the familiar version of the primary school "basics" connect with the "basic skills" of information technology, problem-solving and working with others demanded by employers? Or with education and for citizenship (another of David Blunkett's concerns)? Or with the personal values and dispositions identified in 1996 by the Values forum?

What of the arts and the humanities, once again confronting relegation to the status of educational frill? And what of that nettle which few yet dare to grasp, religious education?

In reviewing the National Curriculum, we have a choice between adjustment at the margins and a fundamental rethink. With the emphasis now on opportunity, empowerment and lifelong learning the task of primary schools is rather more ambitious and visionary that providing a minimal education for the urban masses with a view to ensuring social conformity and well-run factories - or is it?

Robin Alexander is Professor of Education at the University of Warwick and a member of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. The views expressed here are his own.