Primary curriculum to shift focus on to skills

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
QCA evidence highlights applied knowledge over content and subjects

The new primary curriculum now in development is likely to have a much greater emphasis on skills than is currently the case, it has emerged.

The document - to be adopted in 2011 - looks increasingly likely to highlight skills alongside content, according to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

The authority is supporting the review of the primary curriculum being led by Sir Jim Rose, the former chief inspector for primary education. The interim report is due out at the end of this month.

The QCA has submitted evidence to Sir Jim from surveys with pupils, seminars with heads and other stakeholders, analysis of Ofsted reports and research.

Mick Waters, director of curriculum at the QCA, said: "I think one of the challenges (of the review) is to stop arguments about what is in and what is out, petty arguments over poets, painters and battles.

"We want to help children understand big ideas behind knowledge to understand the difference science can make to society and the benefits of learning about science for an individual. We need to give them an appetite for more knowledge, the belief that they can make a difference. That is a really different outlook on the primary-age child from the one existing 20 years ago."

Emma Payne, deputy head at Hillcrest Primary in Bristol, has worked with other schools in the area and the QCA on innovating the school's curriculum. She said: "We need a new national curriculum because the current one was designed in a different time. I have been shown one of the drafts of a new curriculum and was really excited to see a focus on skills.

"One of the main problems with the curriculum is there is a big focus on knowledge, and it is too easy to cram children's heads with stuff, rather than the skills they need to apply with any stuff."

Paul Jackson, joint head of Gallions Primary in Newham, is part of the Open Future scheme run by the Helen Hamlyn Trust, which offers a skills- based curriculum.

He said: "Jim Rose has been to visit our school and I've taken the children to meet Mick Waters. The idea that seems to be coming through is freeing up time, allowing schools to take their own direction."

Sir Jim's remit, set out by Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, calls for the introduction of languages, less prescription of content, and potentially developing areas of learning rather than subjects.

The primary curriculum's content is now organised by subject. There are also subject-specific skills and thinking skills, but these are embedded in the curriculum as attainment targets.

In the summer, Sir Jim told a meeting of educationists that it was likely the primary curriculum would remain subject-based.

The QCA, in a review of the primary curriculum in 10 countries, has found only two that organise their primary curriculum by subject rather than broader areas of learning, namely Norway and Slovenia. The latter has said it wants more cross-curricular work.

That review also found a trend towards including skills.

The authority's report on its meetings with 1,500 stakeholders concluded: "Almost all respondents strongly believed that a curriculum framework driven by key concepts and processes (including personal, learning and thinking skills) should replace a curriculum dominated by content."


By Helen Ward TES primary specialist

As so often happens in the education world, you wait ages for a new idea and then everyone has it at once.

Ofsted, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and schools are all seeing a push towards themed learning and discrete teaching of skills in primaries. The signs are that the new primary national curriculum will build on what's already happening.

This week, Ofsted published a report on curriculum innovation. Visits to 32 primary, secondary and special schools found that change led to clear improvements in 30 - and in the other two schools, pupils' were at least more interested in lessons.

In primary schools, innovation tended towards teaching in themes as well as subjects and discrete teaching of learning skills, which programmes such as Building Learning Power and Philosophy for Children have helped to popularise.

The QCA has published four draft curricula - subject based, areas of learning based, skills based and theme based - and said that whichever approach is taken, it is essential to have clear expectations of knowledge and skills.

Sir Jim Rose, the former chief inspector for primary, is due to unveil his report on Hallowe'en. He is the man who steered phonics away from the minutiae of when to teach split digraphs and on to a more practical plane. Sir Jim created a simple framework and left the details to schools, and it worked a treat.

But can he now repeat the same trick?

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