Editorial - It's elementary. Primaries should not be Dr Watsons to secondaries' more glamorous Sherlocks

1st April 2011 at 01:00

There must have been several unrecorded moments on the road to Mordor when Sam Gamgee thought: "Sod it, Frodo, you're a self-important trustafarian with no sense of irony and a rather undeveloped character. This bloody book would be much more interesting if I kept your ring, got quite nasty and made whoopee with an elf." Similarly, it would have been understandable if Jane Bennett had elbowed her plainer sister out of the way for the more lucrative Mr Darcy, Jeeves had sued Wooster at an employment tribunal and Tonto had fessed up that "kemo sabe" actually meant "sad white trash". Second fiddles shouldn't always be content to play along.

This week Teach First extended its successful programme into primary schools (page 11). Few initiatives have done more in the past decade to raise the status of teaching. But whatever its benefits, its debut in primaries conforms to a worrying national pattern: secondary schools come first, primaries later. Education for younger children has become the natural home of the policy hand-me-down.

On one level that isn't surprising. Problems in 11-14 education have been so acute for so long that they have absorbed a great deal of official resource and imagination. But on another level it is. All the evidence shows that educational disparities between social groups develop very early in childhood and widen rapidly with age. The longer underperformance is left, the harder it is to fix. Early intervention, everyone agrees, is far more effective and beneficial than later remedial work.

So why is spend per pupil #163;1,200 higher in our secondary schools than it is in our primaries? There are some predictable answers - secondary education is more complex, specialised and diverse, and that is expensive. However, that doesn't explain why the gap between the two sectors is greater in the UK than in 13 out of 29 OECD countries, or why we should automatically accept that funding should be so disproportionate, or why we alone among developed nations have larger class sizes in our primaries than in our secondaries - they average 25.7 and 21.3 compared to an OECD average of 21.6 and 23.7.

Could it be that our relative neglect of primary education has more to do with prejudice than rationality? Do governments devote most of their white papers and, let's be frank, The TES most of its pages to secondary schools because 84 per cent of primary teachers are female and teach in small, unglamorous institutions? Are primaries overlooked because that isn't where the action is perceived to be? Except, of course, that it is.

So it would be understandable if primary teachers from time to time thought of secondary schools as Dr Watson must have done of Sherlock, Friday of Robinson, Sancho of Don Quixote and the Donkey of Shrek - you'd be nothing without me. And you know what? They would be right.


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