Proposals to change the new primary curriculum will be undermined if the current testing system stays unchanged, according to heads. A straw poll of school leaders by The TES and teaching union the NAHT found grassroots support for the move to themed teaching suggested by education adviser Sir Jim Rose. However, 42 per cent said the changes would have little or no impact if the key stage 2 Sats remained.
Last week, the NAHT and the NUT announced that 10,000 people had backed their petition calling for the Government to scrap Sats. Both are planning a boycott of the tests next year if there is no movement.
Ian Foster, assistant secretary of the NAHT, said: "Despite the good work of Sir Jim Rose, we remain unconvinced that his proposals will be taken up wholeheartedly by schools. With the best will in the world, while tests remain, heads feel they need to get the best possible performance in those areas that are tested. That undermines the idea of a broad curriculum. The freedom is illusory."
Sir Jim has proposed that the current subject-based curriculum be replaced by one based on six areas of learning. Teachers would have more freedom to design lessons to suit pupils' needs and interests.
The poll of 60 heads and deputies found that 70 per cent said they entirely or mostly agreed with the changes proposed by Sir Jim, which is perhaps not surprising as more than 40 per cent said the new curriculum was a fair match to how they already work.
Sir Jim, former head of primary at Ofsted, who carried out the review of the curriculum, said that he "made no apology for modelling its recommendations on best practice". But one in three heads said they will have to make a lot of changes to their curriculum.
The mood feels very different from 1997, when the new Labour government took office and swiftly introduced the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. These brought in the literacy hour and daily maths lesson, and detailed how to teach them. It was very much a top-down reform.
But this was not entirely unwelcome. The official evaluation, published in January 2003, found there was apprehension and scepticism about a policy that sought to change teaching practice, but also found widely differing views, including many supportive heads who held little doubt they had improved teaching.
But what the evaluation, carried out by the University of Toronto, highlighted was that there was less certainty about whether pupils' learning was improving, that teachers said there was not enough flexibility to tailor lessons to meet pupils' needs, and there was huge pressure to hit Sats targets.
Later that year, the Government launched Excellence and Enjoyment, bringing together the strategies under a single Primary National Strategy umbrella, which encouraged primaries to be more creative. Within two years, cross-curricular teaching was on the rise. Heads stressed that this was not a return to the kind of topic work popular in the 1970s and 1980s.
Heads' eagerness to distance themselves from that is partly due to the ghosts of "progressive" teaching that still haunt the profession. Perhaps most notorious in the 1980s was the case of William Tyndale Junior School in north London, where radical changes to give pupils choice and freedom descended into chaos. Pupils were allowed to walk freely into the staffroom and eat sweets all day if they chose. Parents withdrew their children and the press lapped it up. The report into the affair castigated the Government for its lax control of authorities and schools, and was the turning point that led to a national curriculum, Sats and prescription.
Sir Jim's report on his proposals points out that the world is now very different.
"Despite claims of overload and overprescription, the review has found almost universal support for the continuation of a national curriculum," he said. "No respondents to this review suggested, as the recent report by the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee on the national curriculum recommended, that schools should only be required to follow the curriculum for English, mathematics, science and ICT."
The Government is set to announce next month what will have to change. As well as the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee looking into the issue, Professor Robin Alexander, of Cambridge University, has carried out an independent review of all aspects of primary education, and is due to report shortly.
And then there is the looming general election. The Conservatives are carrying out their own curriculum review, but heads are sceptical that they would go as far as to insist on much more than tweaks.
But the poll found that only 18 per cent of heads said the prospect of a Tory victory was delaying their preparation.
One Surrey primary head explained why many didn't want to wait: "What heads are really worried about is that a generation of teachers have been trained on the strategies and aren't well equipped to do imaginative topic work ... The Conservatives won't make much difference because too much effort has gone into it. This is a curriculum that has come from the professionals, rather than the politicians."
HEADS HAVE THEIR SAY
The best thing about the proposed primary curriculum changes is:
- "Flexibility and tailoring the curriculum to the needs and interests of pupils."
- "Using knowledge across subjects. It works well with mixed-aged classes."
- "The fact that any kind of review has taken place at all."
The worst thing is:
- "It will still be seen by some as a curriculum to follow rigidly."
- "It is tinkering by people who think about the past and don't have the courage to make the radical changes necessary."
- "Summer-born children starting school in the September after their fourth birthday."
The greatest obstacle is:
- "The fact that roughly every four years there is a new change of direction."
- "We need time to plan with staff."
- "A lack of trust that Ofsted will value innovation and teachers who have always taught with the national frameworks."
'A SCHOOL LIKE THIS CANNOT AFFORD TO HAVE A DIP'
There are 50 languages spoken at Hounslow Town Primary in west London, but it is English that headteacher Chris Hill is most concerned about. As long as the school is judged on its English and maths results, he feels that introducing any new initiative that may shift the focus off these tested subjects is a risk - even if it may produce better results in the long term.
This year, 80 per cent of pupils at the school reached the expected level 4 - a rise of seven percentage points on 2008, and matching the national average. This was despite having more pupils claiming free school meals than average, significant mobility and 18 per cent of pupils with special needs statements.
Mr Hill said: "I believe that a more creative approach to the curriculum will raise standards over time, most definitely. But like any change, there may be a dip when we are starting something new, and a school like this cannot afford to have a dip."
Mr Hill's approach is to take things steadily. The school results have improved over the past two years, and that is due to a focus on writing and maths. The curriculum is almost entirely subject-based, and he thinks the move to cross-curricular teaching will be gradual.
"I have staff who are most enthusiastic," he said, "and a lot of groundwork has been done across three schools to deliver a more creative curriculum and develop units that the schools are able to share, so we don't get into a rut. I think the preparation will inevitably take a lot of time, particularly for younger teachers, for whom this is a new concept. We will revise and evaluate it as we go along to see what impact it has."
THE CHARTS OF CHANGE
1. How much do you know of the proposed curriculum?
A lot: 15 per cent
Fairly good knowledge: 38 per cent
Aware of broad outline: 28 per cent
Very little: 2 per cent
No answer: 17 per cent
2. Do you agree with the curriculum changes?
Entirely: 12 per cent
Mostly: 48 per cent
Agree with some things: 17 per cent
No: 5 per cent
No answer: 18 per cent
3. How does it match your current curriculum?
Very closely: 13 per cent
Fairly closely: 38 per cent
Not very closely: 28 per cent
Not at all: 2 per cent
No answer: 19 per cent
4. How much of what you teach will have to change?
Nothing at all: 3 per cent
Not very much: 42 per cent
Quite a lot: 35 per cent
No answer: 20 per cent
5. Have you started preparing already?
Yes: 55 per cent
No: 25 per cent
No need: 2 per cent
No answer: 18 per cent
6. Is the upcoming general election delaying your plans?
Yes: 18 per cent
No: 58 per cent
No answer: 24 per cent
7. Do you have the IT needed for the new curriculum?
Yes: 25 per cent
Have IT, but need training: 22 per cent
Need IT, but no need for training: 5 per cent
No answer: 48 per cent
The proposed curriculum changes recommend the end of the subject-based structure. Instead, there would be six areas of learning: mathematical understanding; scientific and technological understanding; understanding physical development, health and wellbeing; understanding English, communication and languages; historical, geographical and social understanding; and understanding the arts.
There would also be a core of six essential life skills: literacy; numeracy; ICT; learning and thinking; personal and emotional skills; and social skills.
The changes went out to consultation last term, and the Government will announce its decision next month. Other proposals are for a September start for all reception pupils, the introduction of foreign languages into key stage 2, and extended studies across Years 6 and 7 to ease the transition to secondary school. These are due to be introduced in 2011.