Leading article: Curriculum lesson for New Labour

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The Independent Online

Many of the changes to the secondary school curriculum outlined by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) on Monday are welcomed. It is surely right that pupils should be taught about how to ensure their economic wellbeing as part of personal and social health education lessons, which traditionally have concentrated more on social development. It is right, too, that more accent should be placed on learning outside the classroom. For instance, as part of an attempt to build pupils' self-confidence, schools are being encouraged to let them go on an unaccompanied 50-mile journey at some stage during Key Stage Three (14- to 16-year-olds).

The watchword from the QCA was flexibility. Traditional 45-minute lessons could be scrapped in favour of three hours of learning on the same topic - a theme taken out of the Montessori and Steiner approach to learning - to allow pupils who became interested in a topic to pursue it. There was, though, another side to the launch which became clear as a result of the leaks coming from the Department for Education and Skills beforehand - and these were all the changes ministers were demanding. It is surely right, as Secretary of State for Education, Alan Johnson, has insisted, that more weight should be placed on climate change and global warming in the geography curriculum. It is right, too, that "economically useful" languages such as Mandarin and Urdu should be added to the list pupils can choose to study at 11. Children should probably learn cookery skills and about the history of slavery in the UK - two other demands from ministers. But the flexibility encouraged by the QCA could be lost if ministers react to every issue by insisting on putting it in the national curriculum. Did Mr Johnson, for example, have to point out that the First and Second World Wars should be covered in history lessons? We cannot imagine any self-respecting teacher saying: "Er, we've got to 1914 but let's gloss over the next four years and see what happens after 1918."

Too often New Labour has combined attempts to introduce more flexibility into education with an avalanche of demands as to what should be done. It needs to guard against this, otherwise the public and the teachers will end up very confused.

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