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The golden age starts here

It is December 30, 1999. With the start of the new millennium only a day away, a TES reporter looks back on what has been a momentous decade for primary education.

The 1990s have seen the beginning of a golden age for primary education. Every year since national assessment at 7 and 11 was established, standards of performance have risen. Secondary heads can no longer complain that 11-year-olds arrive in their schools with inadequate reading skills. Numerous research studies, starting with one published by the Institute of Education in London as long ago as 1994, have demonstrated the immense significance of the primary school to a young person's achievements not only at 16 but even at 18 and beyond. The country's primaries receive an endless stream of study visits from education officials based in Toronto and Tokyo, Berlin and Boston; they are the envy of the world.

The transformation is all the more remarkable because the decade began half way between tragedy and farce. A rigid prescriptive curriculum based on a secondary model was imposed on the primary sector without serious consultation. Such was the professionalism of teachers in the primary phase that while key stage 2 teachers tried to come to terms with the absurdly prescriptive subject Orders, their KS1 colleagues attempted to make sense of an equally absurd assessment model. By 1993, with their secondary colleagues also in revolt, primary teachers had had enough.

The result was Sir Ron Dearing's Review which brought a powerful dose of common sense to a Government policy which until then had been devoid of it. Though Sir Ron's pragmatic conclusions fell short of perfection, they represented a huge stride forward. Above all, Dearing urged primary teachers to begin to exercise their professional judgment and to make the national curriculum work for schools, rather than the other way round.

Shortly afterwards the same sanity was brought to assessment and from 1995 a constructive dialogue between government and teachers enabled the national tests to evolve towards their present internationally recognised excellence. In 1994 - with hindsight, the turning point for primary education - the Government promised five years of stability. Paradoxically, this unlocked the door to real change.

It allowed primary teachers to reinvent their own practice. They leapt out of the barren ideological strait-jacket of the previous decade. A "what works?" approach became the chief characteristic of the "new pedagogy". "Mixed ability" and "streaming" became labels of the past as children were grouped flexibly according to purpose. In most schools pupils had a class teacher with whom they spent most of the week but for parts of the week they were "target grouped" according to ability or need. Information technology opened up new possibilities for individualised learning.

Overall, schools were diverse in their approaches but united in their commitment to high standards. Crucially, after local management had been successfully implemented, each primary school took responsibility for its own improvement, bringing in outside advice and support from the local authority or elsewhere as necessary.

The golden age resulted from several coincidental changes. A professional culture developed in which pedagogical decisions were based on evidence. Schools collected data from all sorts of assessments and tests, often of their own devising. They used whatever performance indicators were available; the number of "headbangs" in the playground, for example, revealed something about the culture there. If an approach appeared to be failing it was dropped. If a particular section of pupils - girls in science, for instance - fell behind then the target groups were adjusted to address the concerns.

Meanwhile every primary school set its own targets and monitored progress against them. The Birmingham Primary Guarantee, under which each school set improvement targets on literacy and numeracy and made "process" promises such as involvement in a residential experience, became a model for many schools.

Improved teacher appraisal and the involvement of thousands of primary staff as inspectors also ensured a continuous professional dialogue across the service.

It is doubtful if this would have been possible without another vital factor; the increased use of paraprofessionals in primary schools. Nursery nurses and specialist teaching assistants dramatically improved the adult-pupil ratio. They became involved in development planning. Primary teachers at last had time to concentrate on their own professional development.

Then in the mid-1990s the DFE and the Department of Health jointly outlined a new deal for children from birth through to five in the landmark White Paper "The foundations of democratic society: education and the family in the 21st century". It promised rights to advice for mothers in pregnancy, and to regular information for all parents on health and education through the first three years of a child's life. The tedious visits to the doctors to have babies weighed and injected became lively advice sessions for small groups of parents. Universally available nursery education built upon this foundation.

Clearly all this was not achieved without cost. The pace of change drove some heads to early retirement and proved to be a heavy burden on all primary teachers.

And of course more government money was required. From the mid-90s economic growth allowed greater investment. The Government followed the advice of several major reports - the National Commission in 1993, the Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1994 - and invested disproportionately in primary and nursery education. What finally convinced both the Treasury and the sceptical tax-payer that the investment was worth making was the incontrovertible evidence of success provided by national assessment.

The decade was neatly rounded off last week at, of all places, the Law Society. "If the legal profession wants the status it deserves," argued its president, "it must emulate the commitment to continuous improvement which is characteristic of primary teachers."

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