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There was a novel sense of optimism after the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's conference on "Developing the Primary Curriculum: the Next Steps": a feeling that peace has broken out, hatchets are being buried and the long-fortified trenches of dissidents and resistance fighters might at last safely be abandoned. It is much too soon, though, to dismiss all scepticism about a government that has inherited considerable powers to constrain the work of schools. There is still a punitive and coercive streak in some Government pronouncements - or at least in the spin presented to the media.

But Estelle Morris's speech seemed an invitation to genuine consultation, and to reflect a real understanding of the kind of broad, rich and varied curriculum that fits the developmental needs of primary children. The rest of the conference brought together a wide range of views, and - wonder of wonders - highlighted some important research findings to inform the primary curriculum debate.

The emphasis given to the importance of a rich, specialist curriculum in the early years is particularly welcome. It is high time we rescued some of our four-year-olds from an unsuitable and even damaging curriculum, and (as do most other countries) recognised that five-year-olds, too, benefit from good specialist early years practice.

When it comes to key stages 1 and 2, the widespread recognition that the introduction of a national curriculum, however botched and overloaded, has brought some professional benefits should help to oil the debate. So should the general acceptance that British standards of literacy and numeracy are much too low. Our downward slide in the international league tables (page 10) was a miserable reminder.

All international comparisons are somewhat suspect, and need careful analysis. But the findings are still very troubling for Britain. The ray of light is our success at primary science - but in science, later progress still depends on mathematical understanding.

So the Government's promotion of a "literacy hour" and its search for more effective teaching of numeracy have been generally well-received, though they must be careful not to get carried away and prescribe detailed teaching methods.

One big question raised at the SCAA conference was how radical a revision is now needed. Many teachers are rightly wary of yet more change. At the same time, many more long for more time and autonomy to meet the needs of their particular pupils. Robin Alexander's paper (abridged on page 11, TES2) suggested both important principles and manageable ways of proceeding. He was one of several speakers who highlighted the importance of values, and of moral and social and civic education, in any primary curriculum.

There was also widespread recognition of the vital importance of creative arts in meeting the needs and developing the skills of children. Here, the arrival of the famous Hundred Languages of Children exhibition, celebrating the work of Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia municipal nurseries (TES2, page 13), is timely.

Several participants mentioned Malaguzzi's emphasis on the importance of non-word languages, Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences and Daniel Goleman's on emotional intelligence as important recent research and thinking that should inform the curriculum debate.

If there is to be real change and improvement in primary education, a number of important issues will need to be addressed. The question of investment cannot be dodged - including investment to provide more ring-fenced time and support for early years and primary teachers to plan, review and develop their work.

All those supposedly exemplary teachers in Taiwan and Switzerland and even Reggio Emilia have plenty of non-contact time. As Doug McAvoy argues (page 27), professional in-service development is crucial to raising standards. So is specialist initial training for the early years.

Parent involvement - including working alongside parents of babies and toddlers -is a key factor, and there is plenty of excellent experience to build on. The same is true for the use of volunteers and skilled outsiders in primary education. The potential of information and communications technology as a resource for children's independent learning is enormous, and deserves extensive experiment and investment.

But it is a great start that we seem, at long last, to have a government minister prepared to listen and to welcome serious professional discussion. The year 2000 is looming. All comers - parents, teachers, governors - have this week been invited to take part in the debate. Get hold of the SCAA papers, take them to the beach this summer, and join in.

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