Election '97: SCHOOLS AND THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM: Back-to-basics pledge will free teachers from strict curriculum

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The Independent Online
Labour is preparing to end the nine-subject primary school curriculum. Inner-city primaries will be allowed to abandon parts of the curriculum so that they can concentrate on the basics.

And secondary schools will be given more freedom to send 14-16-year-olds on work experience or vocational courses instead of keeping them in the classroom.

If the scheme is successful, all schools are likely to be offered a less prescriptive curriculum when it is revised in 2000.

This will reopen the debate about what should be taught in schools. Margaret Thatcher originally wanted the national curriculum to include only English, maths and science but she lost the battle against Kenneth Baker, the former secretary of state for education, who insisted on nine subjects in primary and 10 in secondary.

Labour announced new "inner-city action zones" where schools with poor exam results, local authorities and business will be expected to draw up action plans detailing targets for academic performance, better discipline and less truancy. They will be able to apply for the national curriculum to be relaxed so that primary schools can spend an hour a day on both literacy and numeracy.

Though Labour emphasises that grant-maintained schools will not close, their freedoms will be curtailed. They will lose their financial advantages, have to appoint governors from local authorities, and, most importantly, will have to agree their admissions policy with the council. If the school and the authority fail to agree, the case will be considered by an independent arbiter.

A Labour government would advise teachers on how to teach. Traditional methods such as phonics will be recommended for reading and whole-class teaching for maths.

Like the Conservatives, Labour is suggesting that schools should be encouraged to specialise, but its proposals are vaguer. It says: "All parents should be offered real choice, through good-quality schools, each with its own strength and ethos."

One of the biggest question marks over Labour promises is money. The party says that it will use pounds 180m a year from the Assisted Places Scheme to cut infant class sizes, but some experts believe the cost will be much greater.

There is also a promise to spend a bigger (unspecified) slice of national income on education but the funds available will depend on reducing the social security bill.