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Education minister Hakubun Shimomura on Thursday proposed making English a compulsory subject for fifth- and sixth-graders as part of a root-and-branch overhaul of the elementary, junior high and high school curricula.

The revision is intended to help students compete better internationally, particularly as the nation prepares to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The new guidelines, which Shimomura submitted to the Central Council for Education, a ministry advisory panel, propose that English classes be taught from third grade, rather than fifth grade.

They also recommend English be made mandatory in the fifth and sixth grades. Currently, English is not considered an official subject but is classified as an optional “foreign-language activity.”

English classes would be conducted exclusively in English at the junior high school level, and high school students would be encouraged to hold debates in English.

Shimomura also advised the panel to make Japanese history a compulsory subject for high school students and to review the way geography and history are taught. History is currently an elective subject at that level.

The completely revised curricula, which determine the content and weighting of each subject in classroom schedules, is planned to be implemented in 2020 at elementary schools, in 2021 at junior high schools, and 2022 or later for high schools. Years, in a school context, refer to their respective academic years.

The panel will study Shimomura’s proposals in 2016 and 2017. The curricula are revised every decade or so. The current set was introduced in 2011 for elementary schools, 2012 for junior high schools, and 2013 for high schools.

The current set marked a departure from the “yutori” (relaxed) education policy that was accused of producing lower academic results. This saw a dramatic jump in classes in the academic year.

Faced with the difficulty of packing more hours into the teaching week, the ministry intends to maintain the current intensity and instead review what is taught and introduce new compulsory subjects.

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