Leading Article: Clearing the clutter from the curriculum

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THE NEXT two weeks will be crucial in deciding the future of the national curriculum and testing. One after another, the three largest teachers' unions are holding their annual conferences. Protests against testing top their agendas. Then, immediately after Easter, Sir Ron Dearing will take over the separate curriculum and testing authorities in preparation for his chairmanship of a new single authority later this year.

As the Independent on Sunday disclosed yesterday, John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, wants to carve a fresh course through the turmoil. Last Friday's extraordinary High Court judgment, when Mr Justice Mantell concluded that teachers are not obliged to deliver the national curriculum, led Mr Patten's teacher opponents to rejoice - but their celebratory mood merely underlines a lack of judgement. Boycotts can only bring short-term victories; in the longer term they will inevitably damage pupils' education. For head teachers, governing bodies and local authorities, the legal obligation to deliver the national curriculum remains.

While holding firmly to the national curriculum's broad framework and the principle of regular testing, Mr Patten will this week signal to more moderate teachers his willingness to reduce curriculum content and rethink the way pupils are assessed. That, it seems, will be his direct brief for Sir Ron's imminent takeover. Mr Patten's aims are partly political: having lost the initiative to the unions' boycott campaigns last term, he must now step ahead. However, his decision to review the national curriculum should be welcomed by teachers and parents, because it is the right way forward.

The objectives of a review are relatively simple. Curriculum content needs to be reduced to an essential core of knowledge and skills, followed by simplified tests that assess children's learning of legally prescribed programmes of study. It is not necessary to test every subject in the same way at every stage. Parents are mainly concerned about literacy, numeracy and practical skills among the youngest children. For older children, tests are necessary across the full 10-subject range of the curriculum. But these must not be too complex and time-consuming, nor should they overwhelm the primary business of learning.

Ministers need some fresh faces on their new, powerful curriculum and testing authority. These should include, in particular, people with open minds about the various kinds of testing available. We need to decide, at each stage, what tests are for. For example, progress in reading and writing should be measured very finely for the benefit of parents, teachers and pupils: the present testing authority is already grading the reading performance of seven-year-olds. Technology might be different - based on teachers' own assessments of coursework, perhaps. In some subjects, it may be possible to take snapshots of national and individual school performance, by measuring a proportion of children in each age-group.

Above all, Sir Ron should bear in mind that hardly any parents understand the structure and jargon of the national curriculum at present. That is hardly surprising, when many teachers still struggle with the differences between programmes of study, statements of attainment, attainment targets and all the other obscurantist terminology that seems endemic to modern schooling. How can parents articulate their views when they cannot understand the language? Sir Ron will perform a great service if he clears out the clutter.