Editorial - The primary curriculum goes round in circles

22nd June 2012 at 01:00

The end of Venn diagrams may be nigh, at least in primary school maths lessons.

Those delightfully useful diagrams, with their clear, overlapping circles, have been dropped from the planned national curriculum for that subject.

As yet there has been no national outcry, but it may be only a matter of time before a campaign starts to bring them back. You can paint your own placards ("Venn do we want them? Now"; "Let's talk about sets, baby").

Of course, such a campaign would be a waste of time as many primary teachers will carry on drawing Venn diagrams in maths anyway. Just because a topic is not spelled out in the national curriculum does not automatically mean that schools will not teach it.

Politicians deliberately ignore that point. The education secretary likes to imply that Churchill had been airbrushed out of history lessons just because the wartime prime minister did not receive a specific namecheck in the curriculum. Hitler is not named either, but it is hard to see how lessons could possibly cover the Second World War without mentioning both of them. (And when do you ever hear teachers saying that the biggest problem with the history syllabus is "not enough Hitler"?)

The government made the same cynical move last week when it spun the new draft core primary curriculum to the press. It scored an easy win with traditionalists by suggesting that it was taking education back to basics and rescuing a generation of children, none of whom would otherwise learn their times tables, spelling or a foreign language. But in doing so it alienated the tens of thousands of primary teachers who were teaching all that already.

Today's joint poll by TES and the NAHT heads' union (pages 8-9) indicates that the majority of primary schools are already teaching the times tables up to 12 times 12, and modern foreign language lessons can be found in nine out of 10 primaries. This reinforces the point: just because a topic is not spelled out in the curriculum does not mean that schools stop doing it.

However, the findings should also be salutary for those teachers getting their knickers in a twist about excessive change. It turns out that the new core primary curriculum is not radically different from what most schools teach, after all. It does not liberate teachers with new freedoms, as ministers had promised, but nor is it unprecedentedly prescriptive or Gradgrindian. That the survey also shows that a significant minority of schools are not yet meeting the new goals may be strangely comforting for the government, as otherwise all the paperwork would look pointless.

Valid fears still exist about the new curriculum. When more of the plans are published we may see the prescription in the core balanced with greater freedom in other subjects - a move that will please some school leaders but inevitably risks narrowing children's education. The government has also failed to explain why it is making such capital out of a curriculum that its favoured schools, the academies, will be free to ignore.

However, based only on the plans published so far, we could draw two circles, one containing the material the government has boasted it is introducing to schools and the other what teachers already do. The overlap in that Venn diagram is bigger than either side may like to admit.


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