Break down barriers between our teachers

7th January 2000 at 00:00
Primary and secondary staff must work together to solve problems dogging the 5-14 curriculum, argues Brian Boyd

IT is nearly 10 years since the first consultative versions of the 5-14 curriculum began hitting the desks of primary and secondary teachers.

The programme had been launched in 1987 with Scottish Office minister Michael Forsyth's famous "consultation" paper Curriculum and Assessment in Scottish Schools: a Policy for the 90s: a highly political document designed to set a new tone of strong Government and centralised control of the curriculum.

The protracted industrial action of the early 1980s had just ended, the 10-14 report had been rejected for being too teacher-centred (not, as popularly believed, for being too expensive) and there was a new air of accountability in New St Andrew's House.

Now Fred Forrester ('Grasping the nettle on 10-14 courses', TESS, December 3) has challenged us to think the unthinkable - that 5-14 has failed. It may be a harsh truth, but the evidence suggests that 5-14 has indeed not achieved two central aims: to raise pupils' attainment and to ensure continuity, particularly in the transition years between primary and secondary.

True, there have been successes. The curriculum review and development groups - working under severe constraints - produced a more balanced primary curriculum, attempted to create greater consistency nationally, provided a template for curriculum planning and enabled, for the first time, primary and secondary teachers to speak the same language about learning.

But the impact of the 5-14 programme has been much less than its architects desired. Secondaries have been slow to embrace it, with only sporadic successes outside the core subject areas of English and mathematics.

But even in these areas, there is growing cause for concern. HMI reports have been critical of the lack of pupil progress, and the assessment of achievement surveys reveal inconsistencies in schools' approach. Secondaries, for a host of reasons, have been reluctant to embrace environmental studies and in some cases expressive arts.

Do we need radical change such as that proposed in North Lanarkshire? The council suggests less flexibility for primary and secondary schools to do their own thing but greater continuity in learning. In addition, 5-14 would effectively become 5-13 and Standard grade courses would begin in S2, cutting down opportunities for pupils to switch off from subjects they dislike.

The final plank is that pupils would not be forced to cover the eight "modes" of Standard grade, allowing more time for study skills, and support for learning. Undoubtedly, there would be objections to such a scheme, not least from HMI, who would see it as a threat to its control and to the conformity which characterises Scottish education.

Even if structura change proves impossible, what can be done to address the lack of continuity in learning from P7 to S1? And how can we make the experience of S1 and S2 pupils more coherent?

First, we may need to look at the recommendation in the 10-14 report of an extra teaching qualification for those who wish to work in both primary and secondary sectors. The training would combine the best of the BEd degree (both primary and the now defunct secondary) and look at pedagogy, the theory and practice of learning and assessment. (But I can already hear objections from the General Teaching Council and some teaching unions.)

The fact is that 5-14 is still bedevilled by ignorance and prejudice on the part of secondary and primary teachers about each other's jobs. These can only be broken down by greater sharing of insights, by teachers working alongside one another and having common goals.

If this is too radical, then much could be done within existing structures. HMI has made much of the need to reduce the number of teachers each pupil sees in the course of a week in S1 and S2. But reducing the number of teachers without improving the quality of teaching, will have little effect.

The curriculum in S1 and S2 ensures that a child's experience is never more than the sum of its parts. My experience of "shadowing" pupils reveals wide variations in teacher expectations, pupil attitudes and an absence of agreed ways of doing things. There are also gaps in coverage of core skills so that, for example, a pupil in S1 or S2 may do very little continuous writing (defined as a single paragraph) in a day, or even a week.

Reading is expected in every subject but rarely taught or reinforced, except for those pupils getting support for learning. Those reading just below their chronological age may regress.

What must be said, however, is that few secondary teachers could work any harder. But could they work smarter?

Could they, with more resources, work alongside primary staff throughout P7 to share expertise? Could they observe colleagues? If the average cluster of schools were to pool the staff's several thousand years of teaching experience, I am convinced that ways of raising attainment would be found.

We need to identify what causes pupils to give their best and how teachers can share the task of raising attainment across the sectors and across the curriculum. We could also listen more to what pupils are telling us about what helps them learn and to parents about how they would like us to help them help their children.

The answer is not to impose more tests and force schools towards earlier internal selection. Instead, HMI needs to listen to the advice we gave them at the outset of 5-14: resource schools to create time for teachers to learn from each other and collaborate to make learning more effective.

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