Let them just dive in and learn

12th December 2008 at 00:00
We need a more flexible, less prescriptive curriculum, says the man asked to review it. Here he outlines his proposals

The curriculum - what is it?

"It's all the stuff you learn at school," said 10-year old Adam when I put this question to a group of primary children at a Birmingham school. His answer is a good deal more direct than many of the academic definitions of the curriculum put forward since I started on the Primary Curriculum Review.

Adam's answer nicely captures two vital features of a high-quality curriculum: it has to be composed of the right "stuff", that is to say, the content that we believe is essential for all our children to learn as they progress through the largest part of their statutory education - the primary years. It also has to instil in children a love of learning and an insatiable appetite to go on learning. Rooted as it is in the Children's Plan, it is hardly surprising that the remit for the review is wide-ranging and ambitious for the success of all our children.

I hope to complete the final report in the spring of next year. Meanwhile, the interim report should be treated as work in progress; views are invited upon it until the end of February 2009. Obviously, there is far more to say about it than can be written here. However, views about the proposed design are especially welcome.

An important aim is to provide a more flexible, less prescriptive curriculum. The proposed design draws strongly upon what many of our best primary schools do now:

- They teach worthwhile knowledge and skills directly, and develop children's understanding of the key ideas which define a subject.

- They provide ample opportunities for children to apply and use their knowledge and skills in cross-curricular studies to deepen their understanding and think creatively.

- They pay serious attention to securing pupils' personal development, high standards of behaviour and good attitudes to learning.

Six areas of study are proposed that dovetail well with the early years foundation stage framework and with the new secondary curriculum: the six demand understanding of English, communication and languages; mathematics; science and technology; humanity, society and the environment; physical health and wellbeing; the arts and design.

Each area will contain closely related sets of important knowledge, and skills where direct teaching remains essential. Equally, the design will offer ample scope for well-planned, cross-curricular studies within and between all six areas drawing upon the unique contribution of information technology.

Rather than recycling high-minded platitudes and aspirations, teachers have rightly told us that what matters is what works. Therefore the design must be shown to work convincingly in the typical and the atypical conditions of primary schools. So, how will it work?

Let's look at the first area of learning: English, communication and languages. This is where successful primary schools already apply such an integrated approach. They realise that this is central to all learning, and that "nothing about language development has isolated effects". The often quoted maxim that "children learn to read in order to read to learn" epitomises a guiding principle of the approach.

Within this area, achieving high standards of literacy receives top priority, covering all four aspects of children's language development: speaking, listening, reading and writing. This requires high quality teaching, for example, of decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) skills in dedicated, regular time until children have achieved fluency - that is to say, until they are able to apply these skills automatically thus freeing them to concentrate on understanding what they read, and making their meaning plain in what they write.

The acquisition of the skills which give rise to confident speaking and attentive listening is achieved through the deliberate enrichment of vocabulary and the structures of spoken language, for example, through shared engagement in scientific enquiry, good literature, the performing and expressive arts, and so forth. Speaking and listening are treated as important in their own right and as the bedrock of reading and writing. Children are unlikely to be able to write what they cannot say.

Learning a modern foreign language requires the application of similar principles as for learning native English. Moreover, the discrete teaching of the target language(s) is powerfully enriched by cross-curricular studies. Where the target language is, say, French there are obvious benefits from studying aspects of French culture and the geographical features of France within the area of human, social and environmental understanding.

All six areas of learning provide ample opportunities to use and apply knowledge and skills, enabling children to gain understanding and full value from dedicated teaching of the key ideas that define disciplines and the enrichment of them through cross-curricular studies. Over the coming months a major part of the work led by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will be concerned with refining the content and creating tools to help primary schools plan the curriculum to this design.

While it is very important to provide curricular continuity throughout statutory education, primary education is far more than a postscript to the early years foundation stage and a prelude to secondary education. Given a high-quality curriculum and high-quality teaching the reach of primary children's capabilities constantly challenges our expectations. We must not fail to meet them.

Sir Jim Rose, Chairman, Primary Curriculum Review.

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