LONDON — CHILDREN in England and Wales have returned to school after their summer holiday to take part in a revolution. The lessons they are now being taught are determined by a national curriculum, formulated in London and consisting of 10 core subjects. This means that the traditional right of schools in more than 100 local education authority areas to decide what should be taught no longer exists.
The aim of Kenneth Baker, who as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's education secretarypushed through this massive exercise in centralization, was to give pupils and teachers an agreed educational structure within which to work, and to create an acceptable standard throughout the English and Welsh school systems. (Scotland already has a core curriculum, and Northern Ireland may change in response to the new system.)
The new system is the product of a decade of debate, leading to the Education Act of 1988. Mr. Baker, now chairman of the ruling Conservative Party, says much of the stimulus for imposing a national curriculum came from parents unhappy about the quality of the education their children were receiving.
``Many parents felt shut out of a system that gave little guarantee their children would receive a broad education of an acceptable standard,'' he says. ``By having a national curriculum we hope to raise standards and give all concerned a better educational framework.''
The 10 core subjects are art, English, geography, history, mathematics, music, physical education, science and technology, design, and a foreign language. It will now be possible for children to move from one school to another and be entitled to be taught exactly the same subjects.
When it was first outlined in a government document two years ago, the proposed new curriculum was heavily criticized by teachers. Julian Haviland, an education writer, produced a book called ``Take Care, Mr. Baker!'' Mr. Haviland warned that the proposed teaching categories were too rigid, and that there was insufficient scope for cross-curricular topics.
Baker's response was to set up panels of specialists to review the 10 subjects and produce reports.
The result, Haviland and other critics now concede, is a great improvement on the original proposals. The specialist groups have laid down 10 levels of attainment in each of the 10 compulsory subjects.
Prof. Ted Wragg, director of the school of education at Exeter University, says many of the fears about the national curriculum have evaporated. ``There will be plenty of opportunity for teachers to use their imagination, since they themselves can decide their teaching methods and which books and equipment to use,'' he says.
Professor Wragg believes the real test of the national curriculum will come when teachers face the problem of preparing pupils to cope with the flood tide of ``new knowledge'' now running in the Western world. ``Being able to learn for yourself and to transfer skills acquired in one area to new learning situations is essential for any adult in our complex society,'' says Wragg.
Arrangements for teaching English under the new conditions illustrate the huge effort that has been put into producing logical, well thought out teaching structures.
English teaching will now consist of three categories: speaking and listening, reading, and writing. Within each category there are five attainment targets for each of the 10 achievement levels a pupil must pass through. Baker hopes that this rigorous approach will produce a generation far better able to use spoken and written English.
But after two weeks of the new system, schools in London, reported that some of their biggest problems were arising in the teaching of science and technology. Schools that in the past did not stress these subjects - or teach them at all - are having to obtain new equipment.
Here another aspect of the Baker reforms is causing teething problems. He insisted that boards of governors should not only consult closely with teachers, but should also play a part in administering school finances. The governors, many of them parents with children of school age, are discovering that computers, circuit boards, and other modern teaching technology can be extremely expensive.
Wragg believes any problems resulted from the switch to a central education system - like those of most European Community countries - will be vindicated by the benefits of a higher general level of pupil attainment.