'In primary school do we want to create excellent writers or mini-grammarians?'

We need to strip out some of the overly complex grammar content in the curriculum so that teachers can spend their time focusing on helping children to master the basics, writes teachers' leader James Bowen

James Bowen

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A clear consensus seems to be emerging that, when it comes to the curriculum, what we desperately need is a period of stability. After the enormous upheavals of recent years, understandably, most teachers just want to be left alone to embed what they now have in place.

Whilst there is clearly no appetite for any whole-scale changes, I can’t help but wonder whether just a tiny bit of tinkering might really help schools when it comes to what they are expected to teach. Before you start shouting at the screen, bear with me on this one…

I am not for one second suggesting that anything new should be added – quite the opposite. What I’m proposing is a little bit of "curriculum pruning".

We should remember that one of the aims of this curriculum was to strip things back, to lay out the bare minimum that schools should be covering. It was about identifying the core content that children really need to master before moving on to the next stage of their education. However, due to how it was designed and the inclusion of copious appendices, it didn’t quite end up feeling like that to those of us charged with trying to implement it. Most teachers I speak to still feel like there is simply too much content to cover in the time they have available.

The clearest example of this lies in the grammar and spelling curriculum. Like most teachers, I have no issue with grammar being taught as part of the primary English curriculum. In fact, I’m a strong advocate of it. A firm grasp of grammar is essential in helping young people to be able to communicate their ideas coherently and accurately through their writing. You would be hard-pushed to find a single primary teacher who doesn’t want as many children as possible to leave their school being able to structure and punctuate a sentence correctly.

'An overblown list of complex grammatical terms'

However, the authors of the grammar curriculum went way beyond this and what we have ended up with is an overblown list of complex grammatical terms that children need to be able to memorise, identify and label, and to what end?

Do we want the focus in primary school to be on creating excellent writers or mini-grammarians? In the current curriculum, there is simply too much emphasis placed on the latter. A relatively easy solution would be to strip out some of this overly complex content so that teachers can spend their time focusing on helping children to master the basics of grammar and apply these well in their writing.

Another quick win would be to remove the somewhat arbitrary list of words that it was deemed essential for all KS1 and KS2 pupils to be able to spell. I have never understood why words such as "secretary", "leisure" and "yacht" were afforded such special status in the Department for Education’s eyes. The curriculum already contains a list of spelling rules and patterns to be covered during KS1 and 2; the additional list of words at the end is completely unnecessary.

I want to be clear that this is not about "dumbing down" or making the curriculum less challenging for the sake of it; it’s about asking serious questions about what is relevant, useful and appropriate for primary-aged pupils to learn. It’s also about being honest about where mistakes were made and rectifying these.

Yes, we need stability, but, equally, we want a curriculum that works for our children. My feeling is that a little bit of pruning would get us closer to that goal.

James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets @JamesJkbowen

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