Primary schools should seize their chance to make their own creative changes - starting with a new baccalaureate, writes Joe Hallgarten
Radical curriculum innovation is never easy. My only attempt as a teacher, in a bid to avoid post-national tests inertia, involved asking Year 6s to identify one new skill each would like to develop, and one weakness they would like to improve before secondary school. The most common weakness was fractions and the most popular skills were first-aid and self-defence. I then gave pupils the resources to focus on their choices, whilst worrying about what their choices told me about my classroom climate.
With literacy and numeracy standards perceived to have risen and the focus of government reforms switching to secondary education, now is the time for primary schools to take control of their destiny with some creative thinking about the curriculum. Rising standards mean that the primary sector has collectively earned its autonomy. However, earning autonomy, and having the will and skills to use it, are two different things. As the chief inspector of schools David Bell said in The TES recently, primary teachers "have to regain the initiative and not see themselves as helpless victims in the context of instructions from 'above' ".
The key challenge for primary schools is to ensure that the literacy and numeracy strategies, which have brought undoubted benefits, act as foundations for deeper learning, rather than barriers. As children who experienced literacy and numeracy hours from reception onwards begin to enter junior classes, the success of these strategies could create some genuine space for innovation.
For instance, could a group of primary schools use the power to innovate - granted in the new education Act - to slim down national curriculum requirements and do something more meaningful and motivating instead? A new project by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Royal Society of Arts aims to find this out. The primary baccalaureate would be a qualification children could work towards throughout their primary years, but might lead to them dedicating much of Years 5 and 6 towards it. Its main purpose would be to allow every pupil, armed with good literacy and numeracy skills, to discover and pursue a few learning passions in much greater detail. In aspiring to offer breadth and balance, the current curriculum spreads itself far too thinly, especially at key stage 2. The primary bac would aim to substitute some of the breadth to promote deeper, applied knowledge and skills around specific, but not necessarily subject-based areas.
We are not promoting a return to what David Bell called "woolly-headedness about vaguely defined project work". Far too often, the "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach amounted to "random acts of kindness", with insufficient evidence and informed judgment. A well-designed qualification, making full use of new technologies, other "expert adults" and places of learning outside the school, could give a rigour and robustness that the child-centred vision of a generation ago often lacked.
At the moment, our plans are deliberately half-baked. We are looking for a group of pilot schools with the confidence not only to be guinea pigs, but also to devise their own experiments. Learning from the RSA's work with secondary schools in their Opening Minds project, we aim to create a network so that best practice is shared, and lessons are learned and disseminated.
At the same time, some ground rules are already set. First, any additional qualification should never be made compulsory; too many good ideas have suffered death by prescription. Second, the creation of a bac must involve parents and pupils as well as practitioners. Third, the assessment for any qualification would be formative, focusing on "assessment for learning". And finally, any qualification should never be used as a basis for selection to secondary school.
National tests, targets and league tables are not going to disappear, and any form of innovation must work within these realities. Even confident primary schools, celebrated in the recent Office for Standards in Education report, feel squeezed for time. Yet the best way to counter the pressures of targets may be to develop some alternative success criteria, so that, when faced with local education authority advisers giving a suggested target for a school, a headteacher can assert a different set of priorities, and express them through a robust qualification framework.
A primary bac may seem like a distraction, but if schools do not take the chance to change the curriculum for themselves, within the next decade somebody, yet again, will do it for them.
Joe Hallgarten is an education researcher at the IPPR. The first project seminar takes place on November 18. For further information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org