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Over to teachers

Diane Hofkins finds the director of the new primary strategy is carving out some thinking time

What is primary education for? This question was never considered by the framers of the national curriculum. They were too busy worrying about individual subjects.

However, it is a question that primary strategy director Kevan Collins and his team are asking. With the help of the profession, they want to identify what makes a child into a learner. Then they want to figure out how these skills can mesh with the content of the curriculum.

First they want to make sure that this is what schools want. Dr Collins - a former teacher who was deputy director of the literacy strategy - peppers his conversation with words such as "ownership", "collaboration" and "trust" and phrases such as "learning-together culture".

He stresses that the new primary strategy will not tell people what to do.

It aims to help schools develop their own vision and personality. "How incredibly arrogant it would be for us to say we can write your lesson plan for you," he says.

When it comes to giving advice and examples, they will be concentrating on the hard-to-teach areas.

The primary strategy, launched last spring, represented a change of message from the Government. A broad and exciting curriculum was essential not only for its own sake but to raise literacy and numeracy standards. The key stage 2 targets were relaxed. The strategy contains many strands - pilot projects include leadership support, improving behaviour, and helping young children who are slow to develop language skills - but the most powerful could be its work on the whole curriculum. This will not be detailed advice on how to teach every subject, or how to do topic work, as the strategy document, Excellence and Enjoyment, seemed to hint.

He envisages three essential building blocks for each school: an understanding of your own school's context (what we are); tapping the skills and passions of the staff (who we are) and developing universal learning skills (how we teach). There are big areas of learning which aren't covered by content, such as collaborative group work, says Dr Collins. "It's a key learning skill and an employability skill." So they are investigating questions such as: "What can an effective learner do by the time they're 11? What does it look like when you're five?" For example, he says, there is a substantial group of Year 6 children who get level 4 in either English or maths, but not both. Those who do achieve both "have a grasp of learning. They are more rounded learners by the age of 11. They know how to 'go beyond the given', as (educationist Jerome) Bruner put it".

Children who can attain level 4 in English ought to be able to understand problem-solving in maths. What is it that makes the difference?

To study such questions, his team is turning to the great educational thinkers of the past, such as Vygotsky and Piaget, and leading living academics, as well as groups of heads, teachers and local authority people.

There will be no quick fixes. "It seems to me potentially to be so important that we don't want to rush," says Dr Collins. "I would like to have a culture for about a year of us exploring and asking questions, and to have a constant culture of feedback."

The first two building blocks are about school ethos.

All the institutions featured in the Office for Standards in Education's report on successful primary schools last year "were schools with a very strong sense of delivering their curriculum their way", he points out. He wants schools to understand that the curriculum is flexible enough for them to make maximum use of each teacher and assitant's interests and talents and to suit the particular children and communities they serve. It is possible to teach much of the curriculum through the Celts, for example, or through the arts.

The personality of your school must come through the curriculum, Dr Collins says. The learning skills would help bring the content together, he believes. He does not favour discrete learning lessons, but a rich range of contexts. For instance, children can learn co-operation on a field trip, or empathy through role play.

The vision of ownership and freedom is not a return to the past, but is built on the gains brought about by the literacy and numeracy strategies, Dr Collins believes. "It's not instead of; it's as a consequence we can move ahead."

Kevan Collins would like to hear TES readers' contribution to the learning skills debate. Email

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