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Primary schools ask for more

Primary headteachers, whose representatives are gathered in conference at Dunblane, have reason to believe that things are going their way. There is always a contest for resources between sectors of education and since the raising of the school leaving age in the early seventies the emphasis has been on funding secondary schools (inadequate although the outcome may have been in practice).

Between the Primary Memorandum in 1965 and the start of the 5-14 programme, primary schools were allowed to go their own way. Because they were perceived to be relatively successful they were not seen as prime candidates for extra funding. In the minds of primary staff, that meant no change in the traditional difference in salaries between promoted primary and secondary teachers, with the latter group benefiting in the seventies from rungs added to the ladder.

The introduction of a form of national curriculum focused fresh attention on primaries. So has realisation that some of the problems apparently endemic in secondaries, such as apathy and indiscipline, can be remedied only in the early years of education.

The National Commission on Education suggested a redistribution of resources towards nursery and early primary. Since the commission reported, evidence about children's reading has appeared to support its argument. In classes where children underperform soon after they begin compulsory education, extra help does make a difference. Experience in the Pilton area of Edinburgh has led the new city council to target 4,000 primary pupils, with the hope that the Education Minister, impressed by the evidence so far, will support the project. This week Dundee became the latest council to see merit in an early intervention strategy and to designate six primaries for its own experiment.

In jousting with secondary subject specialists, primary teachers argue that their job is at least as demanding. We prepare the groundwork, they say, and now they can claim that with extra help fewer children will arrive in secondary underprepared for the next stage. It is an argument that would win support from secondary teachers provided it did not imply a shift of resources.

But that is exactly what it does suggest. At a time when secondaries are wrestling with another round of change, in the 12-14 curriculum and especially looking ahead to Higher Still, there is no pleasure in the thought that early primary intervention might attract money that could have been deployed elsewhere. There is going to be strong competition across the sectors for the politicians' ear.

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