A decade of curriculum policy: er, what policy?

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
'Let us imagine an incoming government chooses to give top priority to raising standards of literacy. What in practice does it mean to give something priority? Statute would have little or nothing to do with it. The central challenge would be to change teachers' behaviour in classrooms."

Michael Barber, later head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit, in his "How to do the impossible" lecture, December 1996.

Have you been wondering just how primary education got to the state it's in today, why there have been policy turns every few years, and why no one is really sure if children really can read and write better than they could 20 years ago?

If so, you're in luck, for academics have been on hand to document the mess. Jim Campbell's analysis, presented to a symposium on primary education at the British Educational Research Association's annual get-together last week, will not make you feel better, though - unless you just want reassurance that yes, you have been doing your best, and, as you suspected, policy-makers have not been doing theirs.

So let's go back to 1978, a landmark year for educational researchers, because that's the last time HMI undertook a sweeping, large-scale survey of primary schooling, which didn't examine the effect of government policies (there weren't any) or how schools were meeting the demands of the national curriculum (there wasn't one), but just looked at classroom practice.

"Some findings were, potentially, dynamite," says Professor Campbell, now with the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, in Warwick. "HMI reported that more able pupils were consistently set work poorly matched to their abilities, and that there were low expectations for pupil performance by teachers, especially in inner cities.

"The curriculum was not generally planned to incorporate progression, and was narrowly focused on the basics of mathematics and English, with poor or patchy provision in most other subjects," he says.

Government reports followed, setting out the notion that children should be entitled to a broad and specified curriculum, culminating in education secretary Keith Joseph's 1984 call for a national curriculum.

Meanwhile, the Oracle study in 1980 showed pupils learned more in schools where more time was spent on "whole-class interaction with the teacher". At the same time, international comparisons found that English 13-year-olds'

performance in maths had worsened.

So, we can see the roots of later government policies: entitlement to breadth and richness (national curriculum), and better teaching methods in the 3Rs with more whole-class teaching (literacy and numeracy strategies).

Professor Campbell's complaint is that these improvements were each taken in opposition to the previous ones.

First came an overloaded 10-subject curriculum, taking no account of the hours in the primary school day or the time needed to teach the 3Rs.

Then, a determination to boost the basics, at the expense of richness. In the mid-1990s the Tories attacked on three fronts: underperformance in literacy and maths; too much time making things out of egg-boxes; insufficient direct teaching. Labour followed this up with the literacy and numeracy strategies in 1998.

"The significant point about these strategies was that they specified teaching methods and time allocations," notes Professor Campbell. They were implemented "very fast and largely uncontested". In three years, the professional culture "appeared to have been transformed".

Then came a recognition, after national test results levelled out, that pupils do best in the basics when their curriculum is rich and meaningful.

So in 2003, we had "Excellence and Enjoyment", the primary national strategy's call for breadth and balance. It contains similar messages to the 1978 HMI survey.

If ministers had kept their eye on those 1978 findings, we could be having a smoother, straighter and shorter ride. For Professor Campbell, what he calls the "successful colonisation" of primary education by the Government will have been justified if it succeeds in permanently raising teachers'

expectations and pupils' attainments.

But will it? "Any ambitions for the whole curriculum, whether at the school, local authority or national level, can only be realised if there is a clarity and consensus over policy over a sustained period. The post-1994 period has been driven by unusually strong directional swerves," he says.

"You have to say of the whole curriculum policy over this decade: 'Policy? What policy?' "

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