David Cameron hails the new curriculum as a “revolution” in education. But school leaders warn of an emphasis on memory learning rather than skills, amid accusations of “personal prejudice”.
The final version of the new national curriculum for English schools will see children learning fractions in their first year of school, while computer programming and evolution will be taught for the first time in primary schools.
The new “rigorous” curriculum is aimed at boosting England’s ranking in international league tables, Education Secretary Michael Gove said, adding that his department had “spent years” examining the curricula used in places such as Hong Kong, Massachusetts, Singapore and Finland.
This final version includes revisions to proposals published in February that faced fierce criticism from experts, particularly in history and geography. History as well as design and technology (D&T) have undergone the biggest rewrites since then.
Overall, the final version will expect more from younger children. In computing children will be given lessons in coding and in maths youngsters will be expected to learn their tables up to 12 times 12 by the age of nine. Under the current curriculum they must know their 10 times table by age 11.
The new history syllabus will see primary school pupils taught parts of Britain’s chronological history dubbed “island story”. In design and technology, pupils will learn about robotics and taught how to use 3D printers.
And by the time they have finished primary school, children should have mastered at least 200 complex spellings with silent letters, including the words “knight”, “awkward”, “conscience” and “mischievous”.
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Prime Minister David Cameron described the changes as “rigorous, engaging and tough” and said the new curriculum would boost Britain’s future economic success.
But teachers’ groups raised concerns that the new curriculum would not give children the relevant skills needed for the workplace.
Dr Mary Bousted, head of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the new curriculum would be a “memory test”.
She told the BBC: “Like most of Michael Gove’s political acts they are rushed in, they outrage the profession, he retreats and then we get a mismatched version, which is very problematic.”
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: “We share the government’s aspiration to have a curriculum that is rigorous and challenging in every subject, for all children… However the jury is still out as to whether the new curriculum will really give children the skills and knowledge they need for the 21st century.
“The ultimate aim should be that young people in England get an education that is relevant and engaging and gives them the edge in a global workplace. That is not necessarily the same as coming top of international test rankings.”
There were also concerns that changes to the curriculum, due to be introduced in September 2014, will be rushed through.
Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said “This is now Michael Gove’s third attempt to rewrite the curriculum.
“He should listen to the experts and not try to write it himself based on his personal prejudices. We need a broad and balanced curriculum that prepares young people for the modern world and gives teachers in all schools the freedom to innovate.”
Mr Gove insisted that it was right for pupils to perform tasks such as memorising poems because the discipline of learning the fundamentals of a subject would help children’s creativity flourish as their skills improved.
The curriculum is for schoolchildren up to the age of 14. But academies, which now make up over half of secondary schools, are able to opt out. This has led to some speculation that the national curriculum is beginning to lose its importance.
Neil Carberry, CBI director of employment and skills, said: “Given the national curriculum does not apply to academies, it will become more of a general benchmark than a prescriptive tool for the majority of schools over the coming years.
He added: “It’s right to focus on rigorous academic knowledge but that isn’t enough on its own. Businesses want a system where young people are equipped with the broader skills they need to be rounded, grounded and ready for work.”