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Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 16:56 GMT 17:56 UK
'Silent erosion' of school curriculum
Mike Tomlinson
Mike Tomlinson has just stepped down from Ofsted
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By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

The former chief inspector of England's schools has said that the national curriculum is being "eroded" as part of a "silent revolution" that is narrowing the range of subjects being taught.

Mike Tomlinson, who retired as head of the schools' inspectorate, Ofsted, last month, told BBC News that the government's focus on numeracy and literacy had led to a "narrowing" of the primary school curriculum in a "significant number of schools".

He said he was also concerned that, in secondary schools, the introduction of vocational subjects would lead to traditional subjects being "squeezed out".

He said the changes to the curriculum had happened without any of the debate that surrounded the introduction of the national curriculum a little over a decade ago.

Squeezed out

Mr Tomlinson said: "Over the last years we have had a sort of silent revolution where gradually little bits of the national curriculum have been eroded away or knocked out completely."

I do worry about what is being squeezed out and rather sadly it's the subjects that most commonly were not there prior to the national curriculum

Mike Tomlinson
He described this as "an unhappy and unfortunate trend".

The literacy hour and daily maths lesson are now taught in all primary schools in England and are also being introduced into the early years of secondary school.

Mr Tomlinson said the time taken by numeracy and literacy had led to some subjects having less curriculum time than previously. In particular, subjects like geography, history, the arts and practical subjects such as design and technology had been squeezed.

At secondary level, the former chief schools inspector said some schools were now using the new freedom to "disapply a whole year group from a subject".

As schools looked towards more vocational subjects, there was "a significant narrowing" of the curriculum and this narrowing was likely to increase.

Backward step

"I do worry about what is being squeezed out and rather sadly it's the subjects that most commonly were not there prior to the national curriculum," he said.

He added that "in the space of 15 years we are at risk of moving to a situation that the national curriculum did actually put right".

Mr Tomlinson said he understood the value of vocational subjects for many students but there was a risk of losing something that would be of value to children for the rest of their lives.

"No-one could argue with the view that art, music, drama and English literature are lessons which have an enormous bearing on the way we conduct our lives."

Teachers agree

Mr Tomlinson's concerns will be welcomed by many teachers.

When you get into lovely creative areas, a bit of you thinks 'Oh my goodness have I done the full literacy hour?'

Head teacher
Sue Matthew, head teacher of St Ebbe's primary school in Oxford, believes the numeracy and literacy strategies do put a squeeze on other subjects.

"The constant focus on core curriculum areas somehow gives us teachers guilt complexes," she said.

"You always feel time pressure and feel that you must get at numeracy and at literacy, so that when you get into lovely creative areas, a bit of you thinks 'Oh my goodness have I done the full literacy hour?' and there is this pressure to get through the learning objectives."

Mr Tomlinson's views were echoed by Martin Roberts, head teacher of Cherwell Upper School in Oxfordshire.

He believes the government is pushing the core subjects very hard at the expense of history, geography, English literature, the arts and music.

"That is being exacerbated in the 14 to 16 age group because the government is now saying we must be better at vocational subjects," he said.

Lack of guidance

Mr Roberts is so concerned about the diminishing role for history in the school curriculum that he is holding a national conference to discuss the issue in the autumn.

As BBC News Online revealed recently, guidance to primary schools on the amount of time they should be devoting to different parts of the curriculum was due more than a year ago - but still has not appeared.

Responding to Mr Tomlinson's comments, the Department for Education said it was aware of the pressures on the primary curriculum and was working with the QCA on the new guidance for schools.

But a spokesperson said it was vital to get the basics right in primary schools and to make the curriculum relevant to older, non-academic secondary school pupils.

The length of the taught week in primary schools varies from 20 hours to 26, according to the national summary report published by Ofsted, but more than three quarters of them have lessons for between 23 and 24 hours.

The percentage of time head teachers said they intended to devote to different subjects is shown in the table below:

Subject %
English 29
maths 22
science 10
design and technology 4
information technology 4
history 4
geography 4
art 4
music 4
physical education 6
religious education 5
0Source: Head teachers' reports to inspectors

See also:

09 Feb 02 | Mike Baker
'Murder' of the national curriculum
22 Feb 02 | Education
Timetable advice is long overdue
11 Feb 02 | Education
Language lessons for primary schools
09 Jan 02 | Education
Classrooms of the future
06 Nov 00 | Education
Schools fail swimming test
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