Don't be blinded by the basics;Comment;Opinion

13th March 1998 at 00:00
There are signs of a "midlife crisis" in the 5-14 programme which has the potential to affect far more classroom teachers than other current and potential reforms. There are sharply divergent views as to where we go from here on 5-14. Are breadth and balance in the curriculum important? Can they be achieved under the current funding regime? Alternatively, should there be more emphasis on the basics (English language and mathematics)? If so, would this be for educational reasons or for purely pragmatic reasons?

Mixed messages are coming from the Inspectorate. When schools are inspected, they are often criticised by HMIs for not spending enough time on environmental studies, expressive arts and religious and moral education. However, there is a contrasting and consistent rhetoric of "back to basics" from ministers north and south of the border. Early intervention is focused on language and mathematics, which are also the focus of international league tables where Scotland is presented as doing badly.

In September, North Lanarkshire moved unilaterally to alter the time balances recommended in Structure and Balance of the Curriculum 5-14. Environmental studies was downgraded from 25 per cent to 15 per cent in P1-P3 and to 20 per cent in P4-P6. The time saved was to be redistributed in equal measure to English language and mathematics. All of the 20 per cent "flexibility time" in the P1-P3 curriculum was to be allocated to language and mathematics. This would mean spending 60 per cent of time on the basics in the early stages (P1-P3).

All this is against a background where the English language and mathematics components of 5-14 are mostly implemented in the primary schools, where the other parts of the programme have an uncertain status in that sector and where the secondary sector has an ambivalent attitude to the whole project.

A study for the Scottish Office by the Scottish Council for Research in Education (Heather Malcolm and Ursula Schlapp, 5-14 in the Primary School - A Continuing Challenge) indicates that English language and mathematics guidelines had strongly influenced the work of almost all primary teachers, but the remaining three main curricular areas were (at April 1996) far from being implemented. Significantly, expressive arts was the least implemented area, behind both environmental studies and religious and moral education.

This debate is about to be overtaken by Government policy on school targets. The proposal is that primary schools should set targets in reading, writing and maths only and the starting points for schools would be based on pupil performance in relation to the 5-14 attainments levels, currently A to E but soon to be joined by a level F.

The Educational Institute of Scotland believes that the 5-14 levels have been systematically abused. Instead of being seen as markers of progress through the curriculum, they are being given a status in terms of pupil and school assessment which they are not able to bear, either educationally or technically. Any targeting system built on these insecure foundations will lack credibility and will ultimately fail.

A radical solution to the problem would involve the formal downgrading of all parts of 5-14 beyond English language and mathematics, except that science, part of environmental studies, might be a special case. This might be presented as "a skills-based approach". Some leading figures in the department have signalled a move in this direction. However, it is worrying that such a radical change in educational approach would apparently fit in with a concentration on basics which has no real educational foundation and which is advanced partly for reasons of political dogma. It is difficult to address serious educational issues when teachers are mainly concerned with day-to-day survival in a hostile funding climate.

This difficulty is compounded when there is ambiguity at the highest levels. We need a new commitment to the principles underlying the 5-14 programme, so painstakingly developed in the early part of this decade. Breadth, balance, coherence, continuity and progression were to be the key features. We need an assurance that initiatives on early intervention and targeting will not damage these features. Most of all, we need a stable funding regime for primary schools which will enable innovations to be developed and delivered.

* Fred Forrester is depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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