So you think primaries are 'sorted'? Think again

9th January 2004 at 00:00
The Government is increasingly behaving as if proper schooling starts at 11, writes David Hart.

The Government's current three-year funding settlement for schools, which began to take effect last year, has been marked by a number of developments prejudicial to the primary sector.

The National Association of Head Teachers, which I represent, has many members in the secondary and special school sectors and wishes to see these strongly supported. But evidence of a funding neglect of primary schools can no longer be ignored.

The current debate on higher education top-up fees rightly emphasises the need to invest in the early years. Yet, without substantial investment in primary years too, the Government's hopes of raising standards will simply never be fulfilled.

The Government should never have asserted, in 2001, that it had "sorted out primary education". Significant progress had been made in primary school standards. But it was incredibly complacent to suggest that more did not need to be done. The importance of the primary sector cannot be over-emphasised. So we need a much more coherent and well-resourced strategy for primary education. The literacy and numeracy strategies have run out of steam. So have the key stage 2 results. Something more needs to be done.

There is a distinct feeling among primary heads that too many people of influence feel that serious education only begins at 11 and that primary schools are only here to provide literate and numerate pupils.

The Government's primary strategy makes great play of its goals for sport, music, drama and languages for under-11s. But the gap between promise and delivery is great. And the resources to underpin the strategy are conspicuous by their absence.

It is worth noting that under the spending formula for 200405 the basic entitlement is pound;2,111.59 per primary pupil and pound;2,826.63 per secondary pupil - a gap of 34 per cent. So much for progress towards a national funding formula based on curriculum need.

The national workload reduction agreement will have a big impact on primaries. They have a great deal to do in order to achieve the most expensive elements, for example providing time in the school day for teachers to do planning, preparation and assessment and to carry out leadership and management responsibilities. Yet all the Department for Education and Skills can do is to keep repeating the mantra that support staff (ie cover supervisors and higher-level teaching assistants) will free up teachers. Certainly there is a strong case for many more support staff.

But equally there is an overwhelming case for more teachers.

Secondary schools deserve, and need, the investment they have had. But let us remember that no primary gets specialist school money, or leadership incentive grant. The distribution of leadership grants was controversial enough among secondary heads. But the reality is that pound;175 million per year will have gone to 1,400 secondaries over the three years 20034 to 20056. Anybody would think that not a single primary school serves a challenging community. Even where the Excellence in Cities initiative operates, the implementation of it in primaries has been excruciatingly slow despite the obvious benefits.

The latest example of government discrimination is even more blatant.

Secondary schools in five London boroughs are to receive pound;300m in capital improvement programmes to revitalise secondary education in these boroughs. This is much-needed but not a penny goes to the primary schools in those very LEAs. Who honestly believes that highly desirable investment post-11 will magically improve attainment pre-11?

One cannot help concluding that, for too many people of influence, secondary education is somehow superior to primary. Certainly the Government's spending decisions give the impression that it has the same sense of priorities. If so, it is making an enormous political error.

The diverse secondary system, including specialist schools and city academies, is here to stay. But even though this agenda is strong on investment, it cannot be expected to single-handedly yield the "quantum leap" in performance that the Government wishes to see.

The reality is that, without a well-resourced primary sector that delivers a broad and balanced curriculum as well as high standards in literacy and numeracy the Government will never achieve its long-term aims.

The raging discontent amongst primary leaders over the cost of workload reduction, funding of performance-related pay and league tables may be seen by some as an unconnected set of grievances. They are not. They are acute symptoms of a deeper anger rooted in the belief that primary schools are of second-order importance in the eyes of the Government, and that heads are being expected to deliver a challenging standards agenda without the necessary cash support.

A government ignores such anger at its peril.

David Hart is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

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