Common sense and scientific sense
Kenneth Baker was one the earliest users of the term ‘core’ in the context of the National Curriculum. However, the term ‘basic subjects’ or ‘the basics’ had already been in common parlance at this time. In recent years we have seen a swing back to the term basics to cover literacy and numeracy, but Kenneth Baker’s core curriculum included science, and the recent emphasis by this government on ICT arguably makes it part of the core. It is not irrelevant to worry about what terms we use. When we talk about basic subjects we are saying that these are subjects that incorporate the skills and knowledge essential for success in school and later life. The idea of a core leads us to consider a body of knowledge and skills that will be shared by all pupils and in some way be at the centre of the school curriculum. We might argue that use of the term ‘basic’ leads us to see primary education not as a distinct but necessary stage in the pupils’ school life, but as the elementary building blocks on which future schooling depends. In this second sense primary education becomes a preparation for the much more significant secondary stage. This sort of idea is encapsulated in the notion of elementary and secondary education, the terms used in England and Wales until 1944. In short, the arguments that led to identification of English, mathematics and science as core subjects are subtle and varied. The idea that there is an essential core curriculum now seems like common sense but is it? We need to remind ourselves that a different core curriculum could be constructed. It all depends on what we decide is significant and important. Not so long ago very different ideas of what the core of the primary curriculum should be was current. In 1963 Sybil Marshall in An Experiment in Education described her work in a small rural school. Her focus is not subjects but the way children learn and how they represent things.