Patten rips up schools curriculum

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The Independent Online
A FUNDAMENTAL review of the national curriculum and testing, only four years after its introduction, will be ordered by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, shortly after Easter.

As teachers prepare to boycott tests thousands of children were due to take this summer, Mr Patten has accepted that the rows over testing flow directly from the national curriculum itself. The High Court ruled on Friday that one union's boycott plans are lawful, thus opening the way for other unions to ballot their members on proposals that they should refuse to carry out the tests.

Teachers have complained that the tests are badly-designed and over-elaborate and that the workload involved in administering, marking and recording them detracts from their teaching. Conservative right-wingers and Government advisers have also criticised the national curriculum.

Lord Skidelsky, the Tory peer, told a conference 10 days ago that the national curriculum had turned into a monster of 'byzantine complexity' and that 'hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds are being spent in trying to overcome these problems'.

David Pascall, outgoing chairman of the National Curriculum Council, last week urged that what children are required to learn within each subject should be reduced.

Now, Mr Patten is ready to use the creation of a new, single authority for both the curriculum and testing as an opportunity to rethink in detail.

Options will include:

A substantial reduction in the content of the 10 national curriculum subjects.

Testing only 'basics' - English, maths, science, and possibly technology - at the age of seven.

Revising the 10 levels of achievement on which pupils are placed by their tests results.

Mr Patten is determined not to let his teacher opponents - some of whom are flatly opposed to any form of national testing - derail the compulsory curriculum or the tests. He and his advisers are convinced that the curriculum is raising standards and that test results should be published and used to measure performance. But, in effect, Mr Patten will try to slim the curriculum down to the kind of compulsory core that Margaret Thatcher envisaged when it was being drafted after the 1987 general election.

In a speech in Cardiff on Wednesday to the annual conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the most moderate of the three big teacher unions, Mr Patten will argue strongly against the boycott, saying that the best way forward is to conduct the tests and have them independently assessed. He has promised to improve them for next year.

But he will also soon be briefing Sir Ron Dearing, the recently appointed chairman of the new Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, on the future of the national curriculum.

Mr Patten passed over the present curriculum advisers to appoint Sir Ron from outside, because, according to departmental sources, the minister wants the authority to make 'a fresh start'.

Mr Patten is expected to write to Sir Ron saying that there must be no loss of rigour. However, he will ask him to conduct an immediate review, recommending refinements that can be carried out within two years.

A crucial feature will be the national curriculum's 10 Levels. At present, attainment in each subject is measured from Level 1 (an average first-year infant) through to Level 10 (the brightest GCSE candidates). Educationists across the political spectrum believe that the scale is too blunt an instrument, and pupils should be assessed on more finely-graded scales within each stage of learning.

Mr Patten also believes that the first two years of primary school are principally about establishing basic literacy, numeracy and practical skills. Although he does not want to shelve compulsory teaching of history, geography and the arts at that level, he is willing to consider not testing those subjects. He believes, however, that 11- and 14-year-olds should be tested on all subjects.