Primary concerns

10th January 2003 at 00:00
IN the beginning, or at least 20 years ago, the world of primary schools seemed a settled place. Then HMI came along in 1980 and, in its seminal report on Learning and Teaching in P4 and P7, declared that the primary curriculum was not the broad construct promoted by the Primary Memorandum of 15 years earlier but had a narrow emphasis on language and maths.

The son of these strictures is, of course, the 5-14 curriculum which attempted to promote breadth and balance but which, in the view of many teachers (ScotlandPlus, pages 2-3), is now a suitable case for treatment. The official language is one of encouraging flexibility, creativity and enterprise in schools, but these are rather difficult to achieve in a strait-jacket.

It is ironic that an initiative designed to address shortcomings should now be regarded as part of the problem. Time and again, primary teachers argue that they have been landed with a prescriptive monster which has all but devoured the spontaneity that should be the hallmark of learning for the youngest children. But the evidence also points to failures even on that central preoccupation of officialdom, raising attainment - the latest 5-14 test results, themselves stubbornly contentious, do not suggest a period of unrelenting progress.

The birth of 5-14 in 1987 at a time of the political turmoil surrounding the introduction of national primary testing meant that its origins were entirely negative. The result is very little consensus about what should be taught and how it should be assessed. Indeed, HMI's strictures of 20 years ago have come full circle with some authorities, driven in the opposite direction by the target-setting regime, returning to emphasise the basics at the expense of environmental studies and the arts.

Throughout the life of the first Scottish Parliament, MSPs have put the spotlight on universities, colleges and secondary schools. Yet all the official rhetoric, from healthy eating to business start-ups, tells us that the early years are the bedrock for everything that follows. And that is the very sector now crying out for reform.

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