Back to basics: Will Gove's National Curriculum overhaul prepare children for the future?

Times tables, reciting poetry, and foreign languages from age seven – education editor Richard Garner gives his verdict.

It would be putting it too strongly to say that Education Secretary Michael's Gove's announcement of the proposed new primary curriculum had me jumping for joy. Indeed, on reflection, it was more a case of "about time, too" when I heard he had embraced the idea of making language learning compulsory for all children from the age of seven.

It could, however, be one of the most significant announcements he has made in regards to attempting to change the culture of our country.

We have embraced almost with pride the fact that report after report in the past few decades has branded us as the "language dunces of Europe". By us, I mean England specifically. Welsh is thriving in the principality's primary schools and Scotland already teaches foreign languages in its primary schools. I was interested to read of the languages he would be encouraging in primary schools – French, German and Spanish, obviously, but also Greek, Latin and Mandarin. Of the six, it is Mandarin I would most like to see flourish because of its importance to our future as a trading nation.

A mere announcement of intent to introduce language learning by September 2014, of course, is not enough. A report published by the education trust CfBT made that crystal clear yesterday. History is littered with examples of countries introducing foreign-language initiatives without giving enough thought to the increase in the number of teachers trained in the subject to deliver it.

Also, I take heed of the remarks made by Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, that the the Government's first foray into reviewing the primary curriculum made great play of lessening the bureaucratic burden on teachers and giving them freedom to innovate – but all the subjects that are compulsory at present will remain compulsory so there is no obvious space for the new language requirement.

That may not prove too problematic, though, because more and more primary schools are already flirting with language teaching and could be used as beacons to show the way to others. Mr Gove's announcement, of course, was not confined to just languages. It painted a canvas of a far more rigorous primary curriculum in the three Rs.

I also welcome some of the other proposals outlined in the package. In maths, I am happy with the requirement that children should learn their 12x12 times tables by the age of nine. I remember David Blunkett when he was Education Secretary enthusiastically embracing a rap version of the times tables then being used in schools. Perhaps we could dust that down to bring a little more fun to rote learning in the classroom.

Equally, the decision in science to put more focus on experiments and demonstrations is to be welcomed. I could see some Sir Humphrey-type figure in the Department for Education describing this decision as "brave" because of the impending health and safety issues. However, it is undoubtedly true that learning through experiments would be a way of making what always seemed a dry subject become more lively.

Before I get too carried way, though, I should mention my reservations about some of the proposals for the teaching of English. I have no problem with the reciting of poetry by five-year-olds and I like the focus on the spoken word that will be achieved through debating and presentation. This is likely to increase a pupil's self-confidence, which will then have a spin-off effect in other aspects of their work.

No, my main worry is that the decision to publish a list of the words that children should be able to spell at each age in primary school is just a tad too prescriptive – especially the 236 words they should be able to spell by the age of 11. (It's not just because some of them, I have to admit, I struggle with myself. "Embarrassed" is the one that always gets me. I prefer to spell it "red-faced".)

I also remain to be convinced that everyone should learn to read through synthetic phonics. Yes, it has a major part to play in the teaching of reading but generally I am against the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach to most things. Some of the critics of Mr Gove's approach, I feel, may have a point on this one. Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, for instance, says: "Far from liberating teachers, the Coalition Government is more interested in shackling their professional discretion to a far greater degree than any of its predecessors."

Other critics, such as the children's author and poet Michael Rosen, point out that some of the things Mr Gove is to "introduce" are already happening in most schools. For instance, he finds when he visits primary schools that five-year-olds are far better at reciting his poetry that he himself is.

All in all, it amounts to a more traditional curriculum than the one we have at present – giving fuel to the critics who say he is returning to a Gradgrind philosophy of education. (Actually, I think the words "Gradgrind" and "philosophy" are mutually exclusive as the Dickens character had no ideas beyond "facts, dear boy".)

I would not go all the way with those critics, but when Mr Gove outlines his draft proposals for the teaching of the other compulsory subjects in primary schools – art and design, design and technology, information and communication technology, music and physical education – he will be under pressure to show that the requirement to teach them is far less exacting than it is at present if he really is going to give teachers some space to innovate.

Back to the starting point, though. I still see the foreign-language proposal as the most significant one in the Government's package.

It is eight years since Labour decided to make the subject voluntary for 14 to 16-years-olds, a decision that led to a headlong rush away from the subject at GCSE level.

Stephen Twigg, Labour's Education spokesman, says his government's mistake at the time was not in making the subject voluntary but in not boosting the subject in primary schools beforehand.

He is right and it is a shame that it has taken so long to get to the stage that we are at now. (To be fair to Labour, it had been planning to remedy its error before it left office, but its proposals for a review of the primary school curriculum fell foul of the General Election as the legislation could not get through Parliament before its dissolution.)

I remember I began my campaign (and this newspaper's) to improve language teaching in the UK by recounting a story I remember from when my brother was holidaying in Germany. He was with three friends – one of whom was having trouble with a car-park attendant.

"I say, Graham, come over here," the friend said to him. "This peasant doesn't speak English."

Hopefully, what is being proposed this week will help confine that sort of comment to the dustbin of history.

Gove's curriculum: the verdict

English

Pupils will be taught to read through synthetic phonics. There'll be a focus on spelling and grammar and children will be encouraged to use formal English through poetry recitation and debates.

Verdict: synthetic phonics are effective, but a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the best way of teaching every pupil. No quarrels with stress on spelling, but the approach of specified words may be too prescriptive. I like the emphasis on the spoken word here, though. It will do a lot to build up pupils' confidence and commmunication skills, something employers say is currently sadly lacking.

Maths

Pupils will be expected to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions so they can progress to more advanced work like algebra in secondary school. By the age of nine, all should know their times tables up to 12x12. By seven, pupils should know "number bonds" up to 20.

Verdict: Entirely admirable. In general, the maths proposals are among the best in the package.

Science

Greater focus on the acquisition of scientific knowledge, with new content on the Solar System, speed and evolution. Increased focus on practical scientific experiments.

Verdict: Fine, but as one area of the curriculum expands, you have to consider how to fit it all in. And you need to invest in equipment to make sure you can deliver this pledge.

Languages

All children start learning a foreign language from the age of seven, concentrating on learning one language fluently, so they can speak sentences in it.

Verdict: About time, too. Now we have to make sure they are enough teachers trained to teach the subject. There is a debate about whether it would be better to tackle more than one language in less detail. Where the problem lies, is in making sure secondary schools can build on the languages children have learned.

The rest

Programmes of study for art and design, design and technology, geography, history, information and communication technology, music and physical education will be published later this year. They will be less demanding than the existing national curriculum requirements so teachers can have more opportunity to innovate.

Verdict: Gove needs to be as good as his word on this. Otherwise, it will not be possible to fit everything in.

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