A testing decade
The national curriculum has had an enormous impact on the shape of primary education. Colin Richards looks at research that listens to pupils as well as teachers.
These twin research reports both open with a truism: "Primary education in England and Wales will never be the same again." The value of these important studies is that they graphically demonstrate that it is particularly true of the period since 1988. The books are the end-product of an ambitious longitudinal study of the impact of the national curriculum and its significance for pupils, teachers and the process of primary education as a whole.
It is a tribute to the Primary Assessment, Curriculum and Experience Project (PACE) research team at the universities of Bristol and the West of England that, despite the many (often unacknowledged) problems of longitudinal research, they give a convincing sense of what it has been like to teach, and especially to learn, in English primary schools since the introduction of this far-reaching curriculum development measure. The eight years of data collection, from 1989 to 1997, involved classroom observations, questionnaires and interviews with teachers. Importantly, and almost uniquely, the researchers interviewed children, the ultimate consumers, who are rarely consulted or heard.
Using the three core themes of values, understanding and power, the team describes and interprets teachers' experience of the avalanche of policy initiatives that snowed down on them in the late 1980s and 1990s. They document the distress and anger, particularly during the early stages, and the growing sense of resignation and narrow pragmatism of many teachers, but also the creative mediation and subtle forms of resistance shown by many others, especially in schools with confidence in their values and practice.
They report the benefits as well as the disadvantages, and alert readers t many unintended as well as intended consequences of government policies. They assert that "the progressive reduction of both teacher and learner autonomy is arguably the most pervasive and significant result of the Education Reform Act 1988".
The most fascinating elements for me are those that report children's perceptions of the education being "done" to them - for example, the annual league tables of pupils' favoured curriculum activities, showing a clear sense of dissatisfaction by consumers. By age 11, only five activities were rated more positively than negatively - JPE, art, technology, TV-watching and listening to stories.
Children felt their relationships with teachers to be generally good. They had an increasing understanding, as they grew older, of the importance to their future of the national tests. There was also a disturbing deterioration in their assessments of their own capabilities, and a growing sense of pragmatism. As the researchers report, "many were playing the system, were bored, were risk-averse and were shy of full engagement in their learning." They were certainly being taught to perform in terms of the narrow focus of the traditional elementary curriculum of English and maths but there was little evidence of curiosity, imagination and creativity - the very qualities most necessary to cope with the challenges of the 21st century.
The study concluded in 1997. The researchers claim that the trends they identified are likely to have continued, and probably intensified. The challenge for New Labour is to combine a concern for narrowly defined standards with one for standards expressed more widely, in terms of imagination, capability and flexibility.
The opening sentence of these books captures a nostalgic view of English primary education before 1988 as one where some of those qualities were more highly valued than at present. The conclusions argue for a reassertion of their importance - a case, perhaps, of forward-looking nostalgia!
Colin Richards, formerly a primary HMI, is professor of education at St Martin's College in Cumbria