John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, announced two significant changes.
The 10 subjects of the national curriculum will be reviewed on a rolling programme every five years. That job will be undertaken by the new School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which will take over the roles of the National Curriculum Council and the Schools Examination and Assessment Authority.
Governing bodies will be required by law to describe teaching methods in the prospectus. That means heads and governors will need to agree policies which the Government hopes will lead to more specialist subject teaching for 7- to 11-year-olds, less teaching by topics, more setting of pupils into ability groups, and greater use of whole-class instruction.
He also confirmed that 'major proposals' for the reform of teacher training will be published by April, including measures to ensure that primary teachers are better able to teach the national curriculum. That may lead to the more specialist or semi-specialist teachers being trained for primary schools.
The moves stem from two reports published yesterday, one from the Curriculum Council, and the other from Ofsted, the new inspection authority.
The Curriculum Council concluded that the national curriculum is overloaded with inessential material at primary level. Teachers have found that they cannot cover the 450 statutory learning targets without being superficial, and infant teachers report 'insufficient time and emphasis is being given to the basics of reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic'.
David Pascall, the council's chairman, said that it had considered reducing the number of subjects taught to primary children, but decided it would be wrong to sacrifice the broad curriculum to which all children are entitled.
Both Ofsted and the council found that, although a lot of primary teachers have revised their approach in response to the national curriculum, too many are still relying on all-embracing topics to cover the various subjects of the national curriculum.
The inspectors said that schools were beginning to focus topic work on a single subject - only doing a topic on history or geography, for example. But teachers remained convinced that 'learning by doing' was better than 'teaching by telling', and gave that as their reason for preferring topic work. 'Sitting pupils down and telling them things was sometimes seen as a marginal, though necessary, strategy.'
The inspectors added that 'most teachers and heads were convinced that teaching the national curriculum was a full-time job . . . it took up all the available teaching time'. Few, however, accurately costed and planned the time spent on each subject.
Mr Pascall emphasised that the national curriculum had never been designed to take up all of the teaching time: it was intended to provide the essential core of learning, around which schools could continue building their own broad curriculum.
The council is already revising the English and technology curriculum orders, both of which will be slimmed down at primary level. 'We will practise what we preach,' Mr Pascall said. The next subjects to be tackled will be decided by the new curriculum and testing authority - but the most likely candidates are history and geography, because maths and science have already been slimmed down slightly.
The council also pointed out that 47 per cent of primary schools are not teaching the recommended 23 1/2 hours a week to children aged 8 to 11; about 300 out of 19,000 schools are giving their junior pupils fewer than 20 hours teaching time a week.
Mr Patten has written to all primary heads asking them to consider the length of the school day, as well as their dominant teaching methods. He has also asked the inspectors to report again in a year's time on whether the council and Ofsted recommendations have been carried out.
Teachers had made 'great strides' in introducing the national curriculum, but, 'it is clear from these two important reports that there is still much to be done to improve the education offered to pupils', Mr Patten said.
The national curriculum at Key Stages 1 and 2, advice to the Secretary of State for Education; National Curriculum Council, Albion Wharf, 25 Skeldergate, York YO1 2XL; Curriculum organisation and practice in primary schools, a follow-up report; Ofsted; available from Westex Publications Centre, P O Box 2193, London E15 2EU - both unpriced.