At a hinge of history

19th April 1996 at 01:00
As The TES launches its new primary section, Colin Richards tries to lift the spirits of a sector traduced by the chief inspector

I don't know where the idea of "a hinge of history" originated but I first used it in 1979 when giving a talk to primary headteachers on developments in the 1980s. I remember making much of the crucial importance of the date on which I gave the talk and then speculating on probable developments. Almost none of my speculations proved correct! My only success was to predict the significance of the date: May 8, 1979, the date of the general election which brought the Conservatives to power.

As with hinges which open or shut doors, so that day opened up a wide range of unimagined possibilities and initiatives and shut off others. To use a cliche it proved "a defining moment" in the recent history of the education service.

Seventeen years on, primary education is again at a "hinge of history" where possibilities can be opened up or shut down, where policies and practice can move forward or back. This "hinge" is not tied to a general election, though one is in the offing. There is a paradox. Just as primary education is poised to move forward after a decade of far-reaching change, there is a danger of failure of nerve, a possible fateful (fatal?) hesitation, a risk of reversion to the certainties of 19th-century elementary education rather than confrontation with the challenges and uncertainties of 21st-century primary education.

Primary schools generally (though not universally) have achieved much in the decade since 1986. David Bell in The TES (February 9, 1996) highlights the successful introduction of the national curriculum and the implementation of more sophisticated assessment procedures at a time of falling budgets and rising class sizes - achieved without damaging the positive, motivating atmosphere of so many primary schools.

A dispassionate evaluation of evidence from the Office for Standards in Education and other sources reveals other improvements: the successful introduction of local management; the development of more effective curriculum coordination and planning; the fostering of closer, more productive links with parents; more systematic approaches to school and staff development. Other improvements could be cited. There is no inspection evidence to suggest that these have been achieved at the expense of standards in the so-called but misnamed "basic skills"; indeed there is evidence of improvement in children's basic knowledge, understanding and skills.

Of possibly longer-term significance is the questioning of long-established assumptions and practices. In some (though again not all) schools primary education is being seen, not as the end in itself or merely preparatory to secondary education, but as part of a reasonably consistent, continuous and coherent experience offered to pupils from age five (or earlier) to 16. In some schools distinctive curricula are being developed incorporating, but going well beyond, the basic requirements of the national curriculum. In some the "mixed economy" of separate subject work and topic work is being reviewed (though rarely replaced) and separate treatment given to particular aspects of programmes of study. In some, generalist class teaching is being complemented (but again rarely replaced) by forms of semi-specialist teaching to make better use of the curricular expertise available on the staff. In some, teaching methodology is being "opened up" to scrutiny; discussion about the relative merits of class, group or individual teaching (a relatively unimportant pedagogic issue) is being extended to a much more valuable examination of the range and quality of teaching techniques to be employed whatever the the context. Such questioning of assumptions and practice is necessary if primary education is to move consciously forward, rather than consciously or unconsciously back, into the 21st century.

Yet, despite some improvement in policy and practice, despite some encouraging signs of a healthy professional scepticism towards the verities of the past, there is a deep malaise within English primary education - a malaise shared by so many heads, teachers, advisers, inspectors and, dare I say, HM inspectors. There is a feeling of dispiritedness, a sense of being ill-used by government and by government agencies such as OFSTED; a feeling of being misunderstood and unappreciated by local and national politicians; a sense of being victimised and made scapegoats by unsympathetic media and others anxious to denigrate rather than objectively evaluate achievement. A decade or more of derision is in danger of corroding the professionalism of so many heads, teachers and inspectors.

This derisory, negative tone is captured for me in this year's annual report from the chief inspector of schools. The dismal picture it paints of English primary education is not one which I or many HMIs will recognise. With its highly economical use of registered inspectors' judgments (ignoring for the most part to report their findings of sound or satisfactory standards and practice), its contentious interpretation of the mid-point of the OFSTED seven-point scale (the source of the dubious interpretation that about half of primary schools require improvement) and its negative tone epitomised for me in the laughably negative paragraph 48*, it presents a misleading picture. It contributes to a deepening, not an alleviation, of the malaise afflicting primary education. It needs to be contested.

The lowering of morale and loss of self-confidence occasioned by this and other examples of politically-inspired negative comment are particularly regrettable at a time when the rhetoric of Sir Ron Dearing's settlement offers schools the possibility of reclaiming the curriculum and making it to some extent their own through the exercise of professional discretion. That rhetoric needs to be accepted at face value. The discretion it offers needs to be seized and worked upon in school after school despite countervailing pressures such as testing, performance tables and OFSTED's increasing pre-occupation with inspecting a core, rather than a broad entitlement curriculum.

At this hinge of its history, primary education is indeed at a "defining moment". Building on the achievements of the past decade and rising to the challenge of discretion post-Dearing primary schools could develop broad challenging curricula, perhaps with elements of tailor-made enrichment, which involve a liberal view of what is basic to a child's education and which are taught through a wide variety of techniques in a range of contexts. Or they could lose their nerve and end up providing a curriculum dominated by the "basic basics" which fails to challenge the multiple intelligences of their pupils and which is delivered by a pedagogy more suited to the 19th than the 21st century.

Will the next decade see the continuing development of a genuine primary education or the re-emergence of neo-elementary schooling?

Primary and pre-school, TES2, page 9 Colin Richards, formerly OFSTED's specialist adviser for primary education, now works as an educational consultant in primary and teacher education.

*Paragraph 48 of the chief inspector's report reads: "In all key stages, but most prominently in KS 2, standards in writing are lower than those in reading, speaking and listening. Pupils' writing skills are poor in one fifth of schools in KS2 and3. About one-tenth of primary schools need to make a considerable improvement in reading standards in KS2 and nearly one fifth of secondary schools need to do so in KS3. Standards in speaking and listening are generally better than those in reading. A little over half of schools teach number successfully, but in many others improvement is needed, particularly in KS2 ,3 and 4. Underachievement in information technology (IT) capability remains widespread."

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