Faults buried by the feelgood factor

Bill Laar

Bill Laar argues that vital issues in primary education have been side-stepped in Sir Ron Dearing's review of the curriculum.

Long ago, in a school where games were treated as central not merely to the education, but to the development of young people, we were coached by an austere religious whose manifest conviction of our inherent worthlessness so undermined us that we never won anything of consequence. He was replaced, in time, by a man of unfailing optimism who persuaded us that we were capable of anything, provided we "never stopped having a shot at things and trusted in God for the rest." He transformed us in no time from paralysing diffidence to posturing assurance. The trouble, as the headmaster sourly pointed out, was that we only imagined we, and things in general, were better than they actually were; in the end we remained as far away from winning anything as we had ever been.

I see something of that in the Dearing Review and its outcomes. Sir Ron Dearing has taken a weight off teachers' shoulders. One has only to recall the climate of depression and resentful hopelessness that infected schools less than a year ago to appreciate the transformation.

Suddenly teachers feel things can be managed. The signs of revival are everywhere. Teachers and advisers talk of fresh beginnings, of opportunity for a "return to real education and the things that matter." Staff are working together with the avowed intention of "implementing Dearing."

Development plans and INSET are increasingly focused on the implementation of the new Orders. Many schools are responding energetically and often creatively to the quite stringent guidelines from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Planning the Curriculum at Key Stages 1 and 2. Teachers are squaring up, probably more seriously than ever before, to the perennially complex challenge of reconciling subject-based and project-driven curricula. The nature, extent and degree of collaborative planning taking place in primary schools is probably unprecedented. Co-ordinators are increasingly expected as a matter of course to provide curriculum guidance, monitoring, INSET, and even in-class teaching support, frequently in more than one subject, in a way that aspires to compare with the sophisticated leadership of secondary colleagues who head up major departments.

How has the transformation been wrought? The probable causes suggested here for the revival have a bearing on the central argument of this article, that the "Dearing Solution," for all its undeniable achievement in enhancing teacher morale and promoting some valuable outcomes, leaves the really important issues of primary education untouched, and some of the most contentious aspects brushed under the carpet.

Schools, like those young games players of long ago, may have only have been led to believe things are better than they were, when in fact little or nothing has changed, and matters are, if anything, worse, because teachers are operating under a delusion.

The Dearing Review was informed by an evident belief in the importance of primary education; acknowledged the worth and importance of primary teachers; involved teachers in the consultative process; and quite clearly reduced the burden of the curriculum Orders, significantly modified assessment, and handed back to teachers the 20 per cent of discretionary time, of which so much has been made.

And there is a moratorium for five years on any attempts to go back on the arrangements. But, probably more than anything, what has won teachers over is the expression of reasonable expectations. Sir Ron Dearing's advice, remarkable in the context of children's curriculum entitlement under the Education Reform Act, is that teachers "exercise their professional judgment, especially outside the core subjects, on which elements in the curriculum they pursue in depth and which they cover with a lighter touch." This message implies "do your best in the circumstances".

But it is ambivalent statements such as these that point to the flaws at the heart of the Dearing Review. These are: * The review failed to take serious account of the time dimension. It is probably impossible for primary schools, as they are presently organised and staffed, to deliver the national curriculum and certainly not "the curriculum beyond," in the time available. By implication, therefore, the concession of the 20 per cent flexible time was, at best, a delusion, and, at worst, a crude sop to teachers.

* The curriculum is still so cumulatively formidable that generalist primary teachers are unlikely to be able to manage it, despite the kind of imaginative guidance provided by SCAA.

* The new Orders complicate rather than simplify the teacher's task, leaving her with the massive challenge of translating the broadest and, in some cases, vaguest of curriculum descriptions, into relevant work for pupils.

* Some Orders, notably science, design and technology and information technology are probably too complex and demanding for teachers to manage at the primary level, faced as they are with the obligation of teaching so many subjects.

* the notion of finding "the best fit" at the end of the key stage has been hailed as imaginative and helpful. But how are teachers to decide when particular elements of the Orders should be taught? How serious is the possibility that more and more of the curriculum will be left until the children "are older" and pushed up to Years 5 and 6?

* For some schools the notion of a subject-led curriculum, especially at key stage 1, remains difficult to accept. As one headteacher put it: "It is an inappropriate imposition at the primary stage, and one they cannot comfortably adapt to, just as secondary schools have been made to feel they must organise along mixed-ability lines, despite a general failure to do so effectively. "

* The possibility of up to 20 per cent free time provides opportunity for schools in particularly advantaged circumstances to introduce elements - a modern language for example - that will accentuate the gap between them and the less fortunate.

* No realistic account seems to have been taken of schools' need for more resources in certain subjects.

But the most serious defect of all may be that as the peace was sealed, so was the fate of primary education - as a poor relation.

When all is said and done, the new curiculum fails. It does not face up to the dilemma that has been avoided since the national curriculum was envisaged: how children's curriculum entitlement can be realistically provided for by primary schools, with one hand metaphorically tied behind their backs. By implying that certain adjustments will make the national curriculum feasible in primary schools, and ignoring the crucial matter of the readjustment of the funding formulae in favour of primary schools so they can provide for specialist teaching and adequate non-contact time, Dearing helps, instead, to ensure that the task remains beyond them.

Sadder still, by tacitly suggesting to teachers that doing the best they can, rather than what is required by the Act, is acceptable, Dearing is risking the possibility that children's education will become once more a lottery dependent upon place, time and circumstance.

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