'Don't move on 'til whole class has got it'

17th June 2011 at 01:00
England's primary approach at odds with top Asian systems, curriculum review research reveals

High-performing countries achieve better secondary results by ensuring that primary pupils are not allowed to progress at different rates, according to the Government adviser heading the national curriculum review.

Tim Oates told The TES that the pattern had emerged during international research being conducted as part of the review.

"One of the things that shines out of the high-performing systems is that they do fewer things in greater depth and don't move on with a topic until everyone has 'got' it," Mr Oates said.

"It means that you focus on the level of understanding of all the kids in the group."

The approach contrasts with England's system where differing rates of primary progress are institutionally recognised through the various levels of SATs results.

Research from London University's Institute of Education this week found that one in six UK children has been streamed by ability by the age of seven.

But Mr Oates has found that some high-performing Asian systems go out of their way not to accentuate differences in ability at primary level.

"In (South) Korea they keep kids together as a group until secondary and at the same time ensure that each and every child can learn the core material," he said.

"If brighter kids master something earlier then they have (related) enrichment activities."

Hong Kong and Singapore use the same approach, which led to a "much faster progression in secondary school".

"Obviously there is an issue with those with specific learning difficulties and there is a potential problem in bright kids being bored," Mr Oates said. "The remedy appears to be the way in which the school manages these extension activities."

But John Bangs, senior research associate at Cambridge University and former NUT head of education, said the idea sounded "heavily constraining".

"I think it is antithetical to high standards for kids at the top," he said.

Mr Bangs said it was better for teachers to differentiate between pupils and "maintain the interest of all children in the classroom with a flexible approach to content".

The research the national curriculum review has looked at suggests that the Asian approach may transgress notions of high and low-ability pupils.

Teachers in these systems could "never quite predict which pupil will 'get it' first", Mr Oates said. With high levels of extra private tuition, the Asian systems may not be directly comparable with England.

But he said their emphasis on thorough understanding did challenge the trend here towards accelerating pupils with early exam entries.

Mr Oates made a distinction with US "grade retention" and French "redoublement" where pupils are held back a year if they do not pass their grade.

He said that research also suggested the practice left less able pupils vulnerable to bullying.

The national curriculum review does not have the remit to tell schools in England to take the Asian approach to progression. But if, as expected, it replaces key stages with a year by year structure, this could make it easier to introduce.

CLIMATE CHANGE

NOT RAINED OFF

Climate change could remain in the national curriculum as part of geography, The TES has learned.

It was widely reported this week that review leader Tim Oates (pictured) believed climate change should disappear from the national curriculum entirely.

But Mr Oates told The TES that his comments related specifically to science. He said that if geography was retained as a compulsory subject - a decision being taken this autumn - climate change would be included.

"If we have geography in, then clearly climate is a fundamental matter," he said. "Climate change is one thing, global warming - manmade - another. It is a very controversial debate."

For science, Mr Oates said the national curriculum should concentrate on the "fundamentals of scientific understanding and scientific literacy".

It should be up to schools to decide whether and how to teach climate change and other topics about the effect of scientific processes.

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