Overhaul to make schools curriculum more academic

Lessons in history, geography, languages and the arts should be compulsory, says review

Pupils should have compulsory lessons in history, geography and modern foreign languages up to the age of 16, according to a review of the national curriculum ordered by the Government.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the English curriculum is the way it allows pupils to drop subjects too soon, says the review group.

"This has the consequence," the review adds, "of depriving many young people of access to powerful forms of knowledge and experience at a formative time in their lives."

The move is designed to halt years of decline in the take-up of subjects such as modern foreign languages at GCSE. The numbers sitting French and German have more than halved since the Labour government made the subject voluntary for 14- to 16-year-olds in 2004.

Yesterday's recommendation by the review group, headed by Tim Oates, chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, is designed to give a much more traditional academic flavour to the compulsory curriculum up to the end of compulsory schooling at 16.

It also recommends that teaching of the arts – encompassing arts and music – should be compulsory until 16 in a bid to boost music education in schools – a particular hobby horse of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. The call for compulsory lessons in history, geography and modern foreign languages is also designed to give a boost to the Government's new English Baccalaureate. Announced last year, it is a qualification which can be obtained by any teenager gaining five A* to C grades at GCSE in English, maths, science, a language and the humanities – history or geography.

It is one of several radical changes recommended by the review group in a series of reports yesterday. Others include pupils studying for their GCSEs for three years rather than two. This would allow them to study the broader curriculum recommended by the report.

Announcing the report, Mr Gove told MPs that the team's research work showed high performing countries – such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland and New Zealand – "set materially higher expectations in terms of what they believe children can and should master at different ages".

"This comes as no surprise," he added. "Over the past ten years our education system... has deteriorated significantly [in international league tables]. If our schools, and young people, are to become internationally competitive again we must learn from the best in the world."

He added: "The international evidence shows that all successful jurisdictions expect pupils to study a broad curriculum to 16, built around a core of academic subjects. The expert panel argue that England narrows its curriculum for the majority of pupils too early."

The review group's report will now be sent out for consultation with a view to introducing a reformed package in schools in September 2014, a year later than had been previously planned.

Teachers' leaders last night welcomed the delay in implementation to allow further discussion. However, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: "If schools – especially primary – were allowed to concentrate on doing fewer things better, I think that would pay off."

Core beliefs: Why our subjects matter

"Who is it that needs history the most? Our children, of course: the generations who will either pass on the memory of our disputatious liberty or be not much bovvered about the doings of obscure ancestors and go back to Facebook. Unless they can be won to history, their imagination will be held hostage." - Simon Schama on history

"The power of music is too great to put into a sentence or two. It brings people together in such ways that no book or system can teach. Music is an absolute necessity to any youngster." - Evelyn Glennie on music

"You can travel the seas, poles and deserts and see nothing. To really understand the world you need to get under the skin of the people and places. In other words, learn about geography. I cannot imagine a subject more relevant in schools." - Michael Palin on geography

"In my experience, if you go to a foreign country, the people there will always appreciate it if you have taken the trouble to learn their language." Sven-Goran Eriksson on languages

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