Richness within reach

19th March 2004 at 00:00
David Bell, the Chief Inspector of Schools, encourages teachers to use the gains in English and maths as a platform for broader learning

In my annual report this year I referred to a "two-tier curriculum". I raised a concern over the potential for a gap to emerge, not just between standards in English, maths and science and the rest of the curriculum, but also between the quality of teaching and the sorts of experiences children receive in "the basics" and the rest.

I wanted to focus attention on individual children and young people and to ask about the impact of education on their lives: what sort of deal do they get from their school and how does it really make a difference? Perhaps especially in primary schools, what children as individuals need must be at the heart of the curriculum if they are to make maximum progress in these important years.

So why is it that for so many schools the rich curriculum that children deserve and from which they would benefit is so difficult to deliver? Since test results in English and mathematics for 11-year-olds have now been at a standstill for four years, it seems timely to focus on the contribution that the wider curriculum can make to the basics.

I welcome the primary strategy wholeheartedly and I look forward to inspectors' reports on its impact on the curriculum. I do, however, see some pitfalls. I am concerned, first of all, that we do not lose the gains we have made since the mid-1990s. We must never go back to the days when too many children failed to achieve all they could in English and mathematics by the end of their time in primary school; yet there is no contradiction between this imperative and the delivery of a rich, broad and balanced curriculum.

Ofsted's 2002 report, The Curriculum in Successful Primary Schools, has been much quoted and I make no apology for returning to it. Schools in that survey were able to provide a broad, rich curriculum and achieve high standards in English and mathematics. This was not a two-tier curriculum but an integrated and thoughtfully designed one to meet young learners'

needs. Significantly, what the survey schools were providing was within the grasp of others; in other words, although their energy and vision should not be glossed over, we said this was something all schools could do.

A second danger is that headteachers and governors might treat the different aspects of the primary strategy in isolation. They could, for example, see workforce reform as something to be dealt with separately from curriculum development. If that happens, then real chances will be lost to enrich the curriculum, using the skills and expertise of those who are not trained teachers but who can enrich children's learning.

Another concern is that young teachers who are joining the profession now from initial teacher training may have little sense of the history of curriculum development; it may even be true of some young headteachers, who have known nothing but the national curriculum since 1989. Yes, our newly qualified teachers are better trained than ever before, but we need their innovative instincts to be cultivated - not in the rather undisciplined way of 20 years ago, but in a way that helps them develop a carefully structured and balanced curriculum.

My fourth concern is that teachers might believe that the practices described in the Excellence and Enjoyment strategy are not what inspectors are looking for. If that is the case, then I see it as part of my job to dispel the myth and restore confidence.

I am convinced that primary teachers really do want to provide a curriculum that motivates and challenges children, that enhances their imagination and involves them in practical experiences in the arts, science, technology and in physical activity, indoors and outside. I also believe that they would like to use the wider curriculum for developing pupils' basic skills in English, mathematics and ICT, giving them opportunities to apply their learning for real.

I don't believe that inspection gets in the way of providing the broad curriculum envisaged in Excellence and Enjoyment. The revised inspection framework and handbook are clear about what inspectors should be evaluating and where their inspection priorities should lie. Does the curriculum provide a broad range of worthwhile curricular opportunities and opportunities for enrichment? Does the school look for ways of developing its curriculum? Inspectors should report publicly on the effects of any innovative work they see, so that other schools might learn from it.

Inspectors should also ask whether the school has a clear vision for its work, a sense of purpose and high aspirations. This does not sound to me like a recipe for filling the whole morning with literacy and numeracy.

I cannot emphasise enough that the crucial judgement inspectors must make is about how a school's choices for its pupils make a real difference to their learning and achievement - indeed, to their lives. Do all pupils do as well as they can across the whole curriculum - and if not, why not?

I trust teachers' professionalism and their ability to make the right choices about what is best for their pupils. But teachers need the courage to see the literacy and numeracy strategies not as a strait-jacket, but as a foundation. On good foundations can be built the kind of rich primary curriculum that all children need and deserve.

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