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From the editor: stop kicking downwards; start respecting primaries

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There is a hierarchy of complaint in education. Business and industry complain that graduates are not work ready, higher education grumbles that pupils are not university ready, secondary schools say that primary pupils are not secondary ready. As for primary schools and early years? Well, they just get on with the job.

Most of the time criticisms arise because of a lack of alignment and communication up the chain, with everyone working towards a different set of targets and outcomes. So business leaders blame the academics, the academics blame the secondary school teachers and the secondaries blame the primaries.

At the base of this hierarchy are early years and primary schools. But they should shrug off any criticism: there is plenty of confidence in how they are performing.

We now have firm evidence of what excellent nursery provision looks like. The Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education programme (EPPSE), which followed 3,000 children from age 3 to 16-plus, demonstrated that pre-school adds value, resulting in the equivalent of seven B grades at GCSE, rather than seven C grades, at 16.

Current figures from Ofsted put the percentage of primary schools judged good or outstanding at 83 per cent, compared with 73 per cent of secondary schools. Indeed, it is at primary level where we seem to have got things right.

According to Chris Husbands, director of the UCL Institute of Education, “you’d struggle to find better primary schools in the world. We know what really good primary schools look like and how to get them.” The key to the success of England’s primaries, Husbands says, is a genuinely rich curriculum that encompasses both academic and emotional skills.

So with all this, why is it that teachers at the start of our education system feel under attack? The latest “pedagogic stick” used to beat them with is that they are not specialists and lack subject knowledge.

This, however, points to a lack of awareness of what they are set up to do and the skills that they require, says Sinéad Gaffney in our cover feature (pages 24-30). A primary teacher must provide children with a foundation in English and maths, teach across age groups as well as across the curriculum, and ensure that this culminates in children having a grasp of the basics while still being instilled with a curiosity for the world around them. I’d call that a specialism.

If the primary system is not set up to provide the answer that some are seeking, perhaps it is because the wrong questions are being asked.

The Education Select Committee’s latest inquiry, although slightly off-beat, may be of help here. It is asking what the purpose of education for children of all ages in England should be. From this, the committee wants to determine what measures should be used to evaluate the quality of education against this purpose and how well the current education system performs against these measures.

Some may argue that they will never achieve a consensus on this subject, and that this is not what a select committee should be doing. What it should be doing is holding government to account over its policies. But it’s a complete waste of everybody’s time holding ministers to account over policies that don’t support the education system that we will require in 2016 and beyond.

I, for one, welcome the select committee’s diversion and wish it well. It’s vital to get the basics right. Ask any primary teacher.


This is an article from the 11 December edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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