Heads need to wake up to the nightmare

23rd November 2012 at 00:00
Gove's vision of neo-elementary schooling threatens all you hold dear, argues Colin Richards

Primary heads' concerns are the stuff of nightmares. Should they go for academy status? How is the new framework for school inspection likely to affect them? What are the implications of changes to teachers' performance management? What about their own pension and job retention prospects?

With such a range of worries it is no wonder that most didn't have the energy in the summer to express dissatisfaction or despair at the government's plans for the primary curriculum. Yet these proposals are central to a dystopia that will soon engulf them. Unless these proposals are opposed, and principled alternatives supported, primary heads will sleepwalk into a nightmare in which all but the most exceptional schools will be forced to sacrifice the liberal, humane values of primary education to the soulless bottom line of the politician.

The proposals due for formal consultation are part of a package that, if implemented fully, will radically redesign state primary education. The elements are: excessively detailed, rigid prescription of content based on just three subjects; an inspection system focused on a narrow, impoverished view of "achievement" in the same subjects; and yet-to-be devised ways of "grading" attainment on content knowledge.

This is a worryingly coherent programme. The threat to primary education as we know it, both in academies and non-academies, is very real. A form of neo-elementary schooling, a defensible but different conception, is set to be imposed, partly as a sad reflection of examination-obsessed states such as Singapore. This is not what most heads and teachers signed up for; it is not what most parents want for their children; and judging from the findings of the Cambridge Primary Review it is not what children themselves desire from their schools.

In this neo-elementary schooling, the curriculum will be dominated not by the understanding of key concepts or the fostering of personal qualities but by knowledge of content - "stuff", facts, mathematical algorithms - underpinned by restricted approaches to early reading. Well over two-thirds of the available time will need to be spent on inculcating subject knowledge in maths, English and science, thereby making a mockery of a "broad and balanced curriculum".

Some heads may fondly think that the new curriculum will be "manageable", but in what terms and at what cost? Children from disadvantaged backgrounds who need breadth of experience most are least likely to be given it. Inspection and testing will mean that most schools will feel constrained to follow a yearly syllabus irrespective of pupils' levels of understanding.

The second constraining item fostering a neo-elementary approach will be the new, even tougher Ofsted inspection framework in operation since September. It stresses an impoverished view of what constitutes "achievement" and uses test data as the major criteria for making judgements. It will not require inspectors to even attempt to evaluate achievement in the humanities, arts and PE. Since the "achievement" judgement is central to the overall effectiveness judgement, this focus will only encourage schools to focus on those three core subjects.

Will, at the very least, those primary academies deemed "outstanding" be mercifully free from neo-elementary schooling? No, because of the third item in the package. That third item is, to use Michael Gove's own words, "some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English". This will apply to every state school without exception.

The details are not yet public but the resultant arrangements could well be even more burdensome than the current regime. It seems likely that these tests will reinforce a limited approach to "surface" learning, which for some children will mean learning by rote material they do not understand.

The whole package represents the most detailed set of prescriptions placed on primary schools since the demands of the Revised Code of 1862. Our current system of English state primary education, imperfect but appropriately ambitious, is to be replaced by a highly constrained system of neo-elementary schooling. This is the stuff of nightmares and will pose a huge threat to the values and practices (let alone health) of primary heads and teachers. They need to be fully awake to the danger.

The liberal, humane values that inform the work of many primaries need reaffirming in this new, dangerous context. Optimistic, forward-looking opposition is required.

Colin Richards is a former HMI and a primary sector specialist adviser to Ofsted.

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