Jeevan Vasagar for The Guardian, June 10, 2012:
All children are to be taught a foreign language – which could include Mandarin, Latin or Greek – from the age of seven under reforms to thenational curriculum being unveiled by the education secretary, Michael Gove.
The introduction of compulsory language teaching in primary schools is intended to reverse the dramatic decline in takeup at GCSE. Pupils will need to be able to speak in sentences, with the appropriate pronunciation, and express simple ideas clearly in another language.
They will be expected to develop an understanding of the basic grammar of the language, and be acquainted with songs and poetry. Ministers say that teaching should focus on making “substantial progress” in one language.
The science curriculum is expected to emphasise using the natural habitat around schools – learning biology by studying the growth and development of trees, for example.
There will be less of a focus on doing experiments. Instead, children will be taught to observe their surroundings and learn how scientists have classified the natural world. One source with knowledge of the curriculum review said: “The idea of science being based around a careful observation of the world is a very important place to begin. The science curriculum in Japan has at its core the love of nature. In the past we put too much emphasis on how scientists found stuff out, not enough on what they have found out.”
The curriculum reforms will result in more demanding lessons, and represent a return to the basics of each subject. In maths, the teaching of statistics at primary school will be slimmed down to make way for more mental arithmetic.
Children will be expected to do multiplication and division with large numbers without the use of pen and paper. Pupils in the final year of primary school will be introduced to algebra.
The new programmes of study, which are being published for consultation this week, are to be introduced in schools in September 2014. They follow a report on the future framework of the national curriculum in England drawn up by an expert panel chaired by Tim Oates, director of research at Cambridge Assessment, an exam board. One of the most far-reaching proposals is a plan to scrap the levels that children are awarded in Sats tests at the end of primary school. The percentage of pupils reaching level 4 is used to determine whether a primary school is failing. It is not clear what will replace Sats levels. Scrapping them may pave the way for schools to provide more specific details of pupils’ progress in subjects.
In English, the curriculum will emphasise the importance of grammar. For the first time, the government will set a list of words that all children must learn how to spell. These will include bruise, destroy, ridiculous and tyrant.
Pupils will be expected to learn poems by heart and recite them in public. They will also be taught how to debate.
The new English curriculum will say that by the end of year 4, children should be listening to and discussing a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. There is also greater stress on learning to read through phonics.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “There is no doubt these programmes are more demanding. It is appropriate to express high expectations in a statement of curriculum aims, but schools will need time and support to develop their teaching to reach those aims.”
The shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, said the government was “absolutely right” to make the learning of foreign languagescompulsory from the age of seven.
On BBC1’s Sunday Politics programme, he urged ministers to go further. “Children will get a love of learning languages if they get the chance to learn them younger. The government’s talking about seven. I would encourage schools to start teaching languages younger than seven,” he said.
Twigg said he was opposed to the legislation that created free schools, but a future Labour government would not close down “excellent schools”. He said: “I have a different concern about free schools … At the moment there is a serious shortage of primary school places in many parts of the country and yet the government’s spending priority on schools’ capital is free schools.”
The number of primary schools teaching languages has been increasing in response to a target set by the previous government., though school inspectors say headteachers’ monitoring of language provision can be weak. This is often because primary heads feel they lack competence to judge language provision, Ofsted says. Languages have collapsed at GCSE since they were made optional at the age of 14. In 2010, just 43% of GCSE candidates were entered for a language, down from 75% in 2002.