Primary curriculum is in a critical condition

22nd February 2013 at 00:00
We must all challenge the disparity between prescriptive primary proposals and light-touch secondary ones, Colin Richards argues

I confess, I was mistaken. On that fateful morning a fortnight ago, I expectantly but fearfully used the link to the national curriculum 2014 consultation web page. At first glance I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps the Department for Education and Michael Gove had listened to their primary critics after all. Perhaps, as with the GCSE, the education secretary had backtracked on the earlier retrograde proposals? It all seemed so reasonable until I realised that the pages I had called up related to the primary curriculum up to, not after, 2014.

The reality was all that I had feared. On a different link, there it was, The National Curriculum in England: framework document for consultation - all 221 pages of it in all its supposedly "slimmed-down" enormity. Of course, it's not a national curriculum: it only applies to England and, in its awesome immensity, only to maintained schools since "academies and free schools have the freedom to depart from it", as do properly independent schools. As expected, it is content-dominated; its first and only avowed general aim is "to provide pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens". This is "fleshed out" (ever so skeletally) in terms of introducing pupils to the "best of what has been thought and said" (by whom and decided by whom?) and in helping to "engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement" (whose?).

Let's examine its content in broad terms (others have already commented on the highly detailed specifics, especially in contested areas such as English, history and geography). Of the 184 pages spelling out the content of programmes of study, 119 are devoted to key stages 1 and 2, plus 34 pages of detailed appendices related to spelling, grammar and punctuation. The remaining 31 pages relate mainly but not only to key stage 3. Of the 153 pages devoted to the primary curriculum, 139 relate to English and maths and, to a lesser extent, science; only 15 relate to the remaining subjects.

Without a trace of irony, the DfE reminds us that "all schools must provide a curriculum that is broadly based, balanced and meets the needs of all pupils". What constitutes "broadly based" is not self-evident and needs arguing out. But many teachers and parents view a primary curriculum comprising 11 subjects plus religious education as reasonably broad, though not as broad as I would advocate.

In the current context, "balanced" is much more problematic. Use of the term does not imply the same amount of time for each and every subject but it does involve value judgements about the importance of subjects and corresponding judgements over time allocations. How much time is likely to be left for the "also-ran" subjects once subject knowledge has been inculcated in just the three subjects of English, maths and science? How can the DfE blithely and blindly claim that "there is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications"? The government is set on imposing its own contorted version of balance. How can such an unbalanced curriculum possibly meet "the needs of all pupils"?

Devil in the detail

What are we to make of the disparity of detail between the primary and secondary proposals? Is it because, God forbid, the primary curriculum is seen as more important since it provides the so-called "building blocks of education". Possibly, but not probably. In publishing less detailed proposals for the secondary phase, the education secretary claims that he is seeking a lighter-touch curriculum that frees up teachers to exercise their professionalism. But why then only for secondary specialists?

Presumably, he does not want to "free up" primary teachers because he doesn't trust them to exercise professional judgement in teaching the so-called but misnamed "building blocks". He even circumvents the clear intentions of the Education Reform Act 1988 that forbid ministers from prescribing teaching methods by claiming, for example, that synthetic phonics or long multiplication and division by traditional methods are part of the content of the curriculum, rather than part of the methodology by which the curriculum is taught. No such detailed prescription of methodology, or content, is to be foisted on secondary teachers. This disparity between the highly prescriptive primary proposals and the light-touch secondary ones needs to be challenged strongly - and by both sectors of the teaching profession.

Some schools - primary academies, perhaps - may feel relaxed about the issue. After all, they have their much-vaunted "freedoms" (though how real are these?). Some so-called "outstanding" schools may feel comparatively immune from pressures, provided their performance data stack up and Ofsted stays away. But here's the rub. Not only is the devil in the detail of the programmes of study but it is also in the detail of the primary assessment and accountability regime not yet published. Parents of children in all schools are being promised "a clear assessment of what their children have learned rather than a 'level description' that does not convey clear information". It will be performance tests focusing on the highly specific programmes of study in maths and English, and presumably being policed by Ofsted, that will determine much future primary practice in every type of primary school unless these proposals are vigorously contested.

The opening paragraph of Richard Pring's excellent book, The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All, comprises a single sentence: "It is a critical time." It is a critical time, too, for English primary education. I would add a plea to that one-liner: it is time to be critical.

Colin Richards is a former teacher and senior HMI and an inveterate letter writer.

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