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Saturday, 9 February, 2002, 02:02 GMT
'Murder' of the national curriculum
By BBC education correspondent Mike Baker

There has been a murder. The victim was just 12 years old. The method - slow squeezing to death.

Pity England's poor National Curriculum. Hailed at birth as the saviour of education, it promised a rich and broad range of studies. Ten discrete subjects, ranging from the creative, the practical to the academic, were guaranteed a proper place in school timetables.

Its early years were surrounded by controversy: It was too demanding of teachers, it outgrew the school timetable, it over-loaded children.

Four out of five primary schools are no longer able to deliver a broad curriculum

Others argued over its appearance: Should it have a top-coat of history and geography over its basic suit of mathematics and English? Should it wear the bright jewellery of art and music?

And its diet was carefully picked over by teams of experts: Did it contain enough facts? Was it getting the right balance of creative and practical content?

Eventually, though, its growing pains receded and it began to walk with some poise and balance. Teachers grew fond of it and children and parents recognised its features and even became familiar with its arcane language of "key stages" and "achievement levels".

Infamous twins

But, as happens, along came younger siblings which grabbed more parental time and affection and the poor old National Curriculum started to feel old and unloved.

The first threat came from those infamous twins: Literacy and Numeracy. Demanding an hour a day each, they soon filled more than their fair share of the primary school timetable.

Their parents - the government - diverted resources to these demanding newcomers. The two were the apple of the education secretary's eye. The National Curriculum felt like last year's toy.

First to suffer were the arts and creative activities: Singing, music, painting, crafts, pottery. Their programmes of study were still enshrined in those ring-filed National Curriculum binders gathering dust on head teachers' shelves, but in the classroom they were being squeezed out by Literacy and Numeracy.

Mike Tomlinson, chief inspector of schools
Chief Inspector Tomlinson gathered the evidence
The next threat to the battered National Curriculum was a bullying newcomer called "national targets". He was only interested in mathematics, English and science. He brow-beat the teachers into concentrating on these at the cost of the other parts of the curriculum.

Even within these core subjects there was further favouritism: If it appeared in the tests, then it was important. If it didn't, it was a luxury.

The National Curriculum still had a few friends. Some teachers stayed loyal to all its parts. But then they faced the threat of those enforcers, the school league tables. The message was clear: Neglect the test preparation and you risk the infamy of falling below your neighbours' test scores.

Slow death

The next cuts fell on the fun parts of the school day - the longer practical or problem-solving activities. It became harder for schools to meet the full programmes of study in design and technology, art, music, geography, history and religious education.

The evidence of a slow killing mounted up. Don't take my word for it. Listen to the expert: Chief Inspector Mike Tomlinson. No, not Tomlinson of Scotland Yard, but of the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).

Licking his pencil, and consulting his notebook, Chief Inspector Tomlinson has produced some hard evidence of the neglect, nay the assault, on the National Curriculum.

Let's just read from his annual report. Based on his officers' visits to the scene of the crime in hundreds of schools, he deduced that the Literacy Hour has been stealing time from other subjects. In half of all schools, he notes, English has now commandeered between a quarter and a third of all lesson time.

In his steady, undramatic way, Chief Inspector Tomlinson sends a grave warning: it is "extended practical or problem-solving activities in subjects like science, technology and art that are squeezed out". This, he adds, "represents a serious narrowing of the curriculum".

Indeed, so widespread is this squeezing and suffocating of the National Curriculum that Chief Inspector Tomlinson's boys returned from their routine inquiries to report that only "one school in five is still able to provide a curriculum which is broad, exciting and challenges pupils across the full range of national expectations".

That is a stunning conclusion. Put another way, four out of five primary schools are no longer able to deliver a broad curriculum. If that doesn't amount to the murder of the National Curriculum then Inspector Morse doesn't enjoy a good pint and Hercule Poirot is a scruffy dresser!

What is more we may have a serial killer on our hands. If murder has been committed on the National Curriculum in primary schools, there's also something suspicious going on in secondary schools.

Firstly, those aggressive twins - Numeracy and Literacy - have been extending their "manor" into the early years of secondary school. Secondly, a different threat is undermining the upper end of the National Curriculum. This suspect goes under the name of "vocational education".

Vocational courses

Like a wolf pack around a herd of deer, vocational education is picking off national curriculum subjects, starting with the weakest. First art and music were made optional subjects after 14. Then students could drop history and geography. Now even design & technology, a foreign language and science can be "disapplied" in certain circumstances.

Chief Inspector Tomlinson is on the case here too, reporting that "in more than two-fifths of secondary schools there is non-compliance with one or more elements of the statutory curriculum". Oddly, the media - usually quick to leap on law-breaking - largely ignored this finding from the Chief Inspector.

Now it looks as if even more of the National Curriculum will be eliminated as the government prepares its plans to create new vocational pathways for students from age 14.

When that happens, the National Curriculum will be on the mortuary slab with the pathologists picking over the cadaver for clues.

Here lies the National Curriculum, born 1989, died 2002. R.I.P.

Mike Baker and BBC News Online's education team welcome your comments at although cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

08 Feb 02 | UK Education
17 May 01 | UK Education
14 Sep 01 | UK Education
06 Nov 00 | UK Education
26 Jun 01 | UK Education
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