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Knowledge? It's overrated

Replace conventional primary classes with lectures in emotional skills and teamwork... to classes of 90 pupils , says think tank. Adi Bloom reports

Primary pupils should be taught life, social and emotional skills, rather than focusing on the acquisition of knowledge, a new report argues.

And these lessons should be delivered to classes of up to 90 children, while struggling pupils are offered one-to-one tuition.

Fade or flourish, published by the Social Market Foundation, a pro-market think-tank, proposes a range of changes to the primary curriculum.

As The TES revealed last week, it recommends that primary pupils be grouped by ability and tested every eight weeks, to ensure they are keeping up with the rest of the group. It also suggests that the primary curriculum be more skills-focused, so that teamwork, problem-solving and leadership ability are given equal priority with numeracy, literacy and computer skills.

Claudia Wood, SMF research fellow and author of the report, said: "You need wider social and learning skills to explore problems effectively. We'd use subject lessons as a vehicle for those skills, rather than as an end in themselves. In the long run, those are the skills that make a difference when you're going for a job. It's about getting life skills from an early age."

For example, history lessons could be used to teach pupils to decipher evidence, rather than giving them a list of dates to memorise. And teachers would choose broad themes, which would allow for cross-curricular lessons and project work.

Jane Heyes, head of Brompton-Westbrook primary, in Kent, agrees with the idea of emphasising skills - her school has followed a skills-based approach for more than three years. Targets for lessons include listening, responsibility, organisation, understanding feelings and speaking to others. "How many times do teachers feel that children aren't learning in lessons?" she said. "Often the problem isn't the knowledge you're asking children to learn. It's how children are behaving together, and how they have to behave to achieve outcomes."

To deliver the new skills lessons, the report recommends abolishing the law that limits the size of infant classes to 30 pupils. It suggests that a single teacher might give a lecture to a group of 80 or 90 pupils, freeing up time for others to offer one-to-one coaching to those struggling to keep up.

But Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The idea that bigger class sizes give you greater flexibility is nonsense. It just increases workload and pressure on teachers.

"Children work in groups already. They provide leadership for others, and are heavily involved in problem-solving. It sounds as though the researchers haven't had much contact with primary teachers."

Social and emotional skills are already promoted through the "nappy curriculum", or early-years foundation stage, which all schools, nurseries and childminders will have to follow from 2008.

But the SMF report, published this week, says that these skills are also valuable preparation for secondary school. Ms Wood said: "Evidence shows that, the more emotionally and socially literate you are, the better you're able to deal with transition to secondary. It's about teaching children to adapt to unfamiliar problems."


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