At the heart of the debate is a disagreement about the whole nature of education. On the one hand are those who argue that schools should concentrate on the three Rs because children cannot learn anything unless they can read. On the other are the supporters of a broad curriculum who say that we should tell primary children not only about history but also about right and wrong, politics and culture.
The argument goes back more than a century, to when the Revised Code of 1862, a sort of three Rs national curriculum, had inspectors visiting schools to test standards of reading and writing. Schools were paid according to test results. Matthew Arnold, the poet and an inspector, complained that the result was a "mechanical and lifeless" curriculum.
More recently, Kenneth Baker, a former Secretary of State for Education, has described how he clashed with Margaret Thatcher when they were devising the national curriculum in the late Eighties. Mrs Thatcher, who, according to Mr Baker, got her views on education from her hairdresser and her cleaner, wanted only English, maths and science to be compulsory. Mr Baker, by contrast, wanted a 10-subject curriculum to ensure that pupils received a broad education. He took the view that, unless subjects were made compulsory, they would not be taught. In the short term, he won, but the curriculum was later slimmed down after teachers held a test boycott in protest against the overcrowded timetable.
During the last year, similar fights have been fought in Whitehall over the emphasis schools should put on the basics. Last January, Mr Blunkett annnounced that he was relaxing the law on the primary school curriculum to allow schools to spend more time on literacy and numeracy. The Government has set ambitious targets for 11-year-olds in reading and maths for the end of this parliament.
There was an outcry from musicians, artists and actors. Sir Simon Rattle, the conductor, attracted a band of high-profile supporters who said that the creativity and culture of the nation's youth was under threat. Mr Blunkett responded by setting up a working group on creativity in schools. He has also set up task forces on citizenship, the environment, morals and spirituality, and personal and social education.
All these have come together in the Preparation for Adult Life Group which reported to Mr Blunkett just before Christmas. But the arguments go on.
Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, told the group that he was against making citizenship or any of the other issues under discussion compulsory. It would distract schools from their main priority - improving standards in literacy and numeracy.
But Professor Bernard Crick, chairman of the Government's advisory group on citizenship, which included figures such as Michael Brunson, ITN's political editor, wanted an immediate statutory requirement for citizenship.
Mr Blunkett now has to reconcile the conflicting views. Despite a long standing commitment to the promotion of citizenship in schools, he is concerned about the targets. And the arguments for focusing on the basics for the youngest children are persuasive. As Estelle Morris, the schools minister, has pointed out: "The problem at the moment for too many children is that they don't get a broad curriculum because they cannot read and write."
Experts on comparative education argue that we tend to expect far more of schools in this country than, for example, Pacific Rim countries. Taiwan, which scores highly in international comparisons of numeracy, teaches citizenship, but does not expect schools to instruct children about everything from parenting to mortgages.
Teachers are ambivalent. While they complain that schools are being asked to cram in too much, they fear a drift towards Matthew Arnold's "mechanical" curriculum. Dr Patrick Tobin, principal of Stewart's Melville College and Mary Erskine in Edinburgh, and last year's chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, warns of the dangers of a "Gradgrind" curriculum in the Government's primary education policy, "squeezing out the inspiration which historically has distinguished seminal periods in education development".
He says: "The Baker curriculum was over-prescriptive but now there is a danger that the core curriculum is going to shrink and that you can't guarantee a serious place, for instance, for modern languages." He opposes compulsory citizenship lessons. "Instead of trusting that a good education will produce aware young men and women, they are taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut."
Marianne Talbot, consultant for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority responsible for guidance on pupils' moral, spiritual, social and cultural development, shares his fears about the reduction of schooling to a series of tests and measurable objectives.
She says that there is much enthusiasm for a project which looks beyond the utilitarian to more fundamental questions. "People are hungry for this sort of thing. They are fed up with the idea that education is simply about getting qualifications. They are very happy to be reminded of the fact that they went into teaching because they want to help young children fulfil their potential."
Somehow, Mr Blunkett has to find the best of both worlds. That may be less difficult than at first appears. Some evidence is emerging that schools which emphasise the importance of values, which develop a common ethos, may at the same time be raising academic standards (see the story about Allens Croft Road primary school). Birmingham city council is so impressed by the results of the pilot project on values that it has decided to examine the relationship between schools' values and their test and exam results. A study by Michael Barber, now head of the Government's Standards and Effectiveness Unit, showed that schools with plenty of out-of-school activities tended to do better in exams.
A too narrow focus on literacy and numeracy may bore children, bore teachers and may, in the end, be counter-productive.
SO WHAT IS
"Now what I want is, Facts... Facts alone are wanted in life."
Mr Gradgrind in
Dickens' Hard Times.
"It is a sort of Gradgrind curriculum in my view, not a rounded one."
Kenneth Baker, former Secretary of State for Education on Margaret Thatcher's views on the curriculum.
"What we must look for here is first religious and moral principles, second gentlemanly conduct, thirdly intellectual ability."
Dr Thomas Arnold (1795-
1842), headmaster of Rugby.
"For too long, many primary school teachers have been prevented from giving literacy and numeracy the attention they deserve because the national curriculum has lacked a clear focus on the basics."
David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education.Reuse content