Will Sir Jim's formula help tomorrow's pupils?

8th May 2009 at 01:00
The Rose review's final report eases teacher's burden, but if Sats stay, support will be muted

It is a tricky balancing act to pull off - moulding a primary curriculum that can promise both change and stability.

The change primary teachers and heads have been crying out for is a reduction in the sheer amount they have to teach. But there is also a resistance to the constant drip-drip of interference from government. During the 16 months the Rose review was in existence, it had to incorporate two additional areas of learning and the announcement that sex education was to become compulsory.

Sir Jim Rose has found a way forward by basing his new curriculum design on two growing trends in primaries in England: themed lessons and thinking skills.

Abdul-Hayee Murshad, head of Hermitage Primary in Wapping, east London, who advised Sir Jim, said: "The Rose review means primary schools will be able to meet their pupils' needs without apologising for it.

"A lot of schools are doing this behind closed doors. They are not sure whether what they are doing is the right thing. It's almost as if they're worried they are breaking a rule. But there isn't a strict rule on how the curriculum is organised."

Rose emphasises personalisation for pupils and, in order to deliver this, flexibility for schools when the new curriculum is introduced in 2011.

The hope is that by reducing prescription, content will be cut back. As Sir Jim notes in the report: "Those who would add ever more to the curriculum should try to put themselves in the shoes of primary teachers facing the frustration of trying to keep the already well-filled subject plates spinning while more is being added to them."

The plans are based around "essentials for learning and life", which schools will be expected to ingrain across the curriculum. These are made up of three "core" skills - literacy, numeracy and ICT - plus personal development.

The change of structure is mirrored by a change of emphasis. Sir Jim has called for ICT to be used more coherently, for more work on number knowledge in the early years, and for the development of problem-solving in maths at all ages. In literacy, the review stresses the "central importance" of speaking and listening.

The curriculum has been arranged into six areas of learning (or understanding): English, communication and languages; maths; science and technology; history, geography and social; physical development, health and wellbeing; and the arts.

For each area, the essential knowledge, key skills and breadth of learning are specified. The progression sets out what children should be taught with examples and details included as "explanatory text". In understanding the arts, for example, children in the middle years should learn about "the role of the arts in their life, their locality and wider society". The explanatory text goes on to say "this includes public art galleries, libraries, museums, theatres, concerts, the built environment or objects they buy and use".

Narinder Gill, head of Hunslet Moor Primary in Leeds, said many schools were already doing the types of cross-curricular work the report promotes. In some cases, they have been encouraged by Mick Waters, formerly of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, who has travelled the country talking about the curriculum.

"Some schools will say, `Oh, we do that anyway,'" Mrs Gill said. "But I suspect the interest will be heightened. There is an excitement about this, an anticipation that the report is an opportunity for us."

Rose makes no apology for promoting ideas that some staff will complain are "by no means `new'", saying that the "pursuit of novelty without quality and benefit to children has no place in primary education".

While the report has been given a broad welcome, there is already wariness about some of the changes. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said that while primary heads might appreciate many of the review's ideas, it arrived at a time when they were already inundated with consultations.

"What doesn't play well in schools is that we are looking at change on top of change," he said. "People are weary of it."

The most controversial recommendation is that children should join reception in the September after their fourth birthday. This is to ensure all children have the same amount of schooling. Currently, some summer- born children may start in reception up to two terms after their older classmates. Research shows that summer-born children do less well in tests throughout their school lives.

Although 94 out of 150 local authorities already operate a single September entry point, early-years experts raised concerns about the proposal earlier this year. They said summer-born children would not necessarily do better if they had longer in school, and that their social skills could suffer. The Government has gone some way to addressing these concerns by pledging to cover the cost of 25 hours' childcare a week for parents who want their children to enter school later.

There is also the issue of the national curriculum tests, which were excluded from Sir Jim's remit.

Liz Lawrence, chair of the Association for Science Education's primary committee, said: "I think teachers will be a little freer to select content because there is not quite as much prescription but, to be honest, until something is done about assessment, the curriculum will continue to be driven by Sats, especially in upper primary school."

Questions amp; Answers

Q: Will the new primary curriculum actually be implemented?

A: A general election will be held between now and its implementation. If the Tories win, they have said they will not support the review, although they will not necessarily scrap all its proposals.

Q: How disruptive will implementation be?

A: Each school will be affected differently. Many will have to put more emphasis on ICT, but a quarter of primaries already have excellent provision.

Q: ICT has a bigger role - anything else?

A: There is a call for more play in Year 1, more investigative work, drama and role play. Speaking and listening skills should also be more prominent.

Q: So what's been cut?

A: Not much at first sight. Sir Jim Rose has said it's not about what's in or out; it's about giving schools greater discretion to select curriculum content according to their local circumstances and resources.

Q: Is everyone happy?

A: No, the Association for Physical Education is disappointed that the review fails to recognise the distinctive value of physical education, and that it has reduced both its visibility and importance within the new curriculum. Some teachers have also warned that the specifications for music and RE are too ambitious.

Q: What happened to the two early learning goals that Sir Jim was asked to consider?

A: They are to remain as valid aspirational goals for the end of foundation stage.

Q: Will all pupils have to start school in the September after their fourth birthday?

A: Ed Balls says not. The review says a September start is preferable. Currently, some children start in January or April. The change would mean parents could choose to send them earlier. This should be subject to a discussion with parents, taking into account their views of a child's readiness to join reception. Mr Balls has pledged to fund private nursery places, but it is not clear whether schools would receive money for the empty reception places.

Q: What happens next?

A: All 25 recommendations have been accepted by the Government and consultation on the programmes of study has already begun. It runs until July 24. See www.dcsf.gov.ukprimarycurriculumreview


Contrary to some interpretations, the Rose review should enhance the place of science in the primary curriculum. Indeed, the shift from an old core of subjects - English, maths and science - to the new core skills - literacy, numeracy and ICT - is likely to lead to more appropriate science teaching. After all, in studying science, children need to be able to talk about their ideas, read and write, do basic maths and use ICT effectively. It is essential to build on these skills in science, as it is in other subjects, and this, along with re-establishing links with technology, will create natural opportunities for stimulating learning.

What the Rose review brings into sharp focus is a critical stage in pupils' education: the primary-secondary transition. It is an area of obvious concern for secondary schools, especially as they begin to introduce the new key stage 3 programmes.

The relatively short but crucial transition period can affect the achievements and attitudes of young people for the rest of their lives.

The Wellcome Trust is today publishing a report on the effect that transition has on science teaching, in which contributors look from different perspectives at the impacts on pupils and the challenges for schools.

The evidence shows a dip in attainment and interest in science when children move to secondary school. This is often because the beginning of KS3 seems to repeat what pupils have already covered in KS2, as well as a disconnection between styles of teaching, and children's high expectations of secondary science not being met.

It is especially important to address this since there is evidence that career choices are greatly influenced around the ages of nine to 12, so transition is key if we are to support both the education of the next generation of world-class scientists.

But transition isn't about making the change from primary to secondary invisible. Many young people relish the prospect of moving up to "big school", and this can be a positive change. It is imperative, however, that secondary schools are aware of what pupils bring from KS2. Their achievements at primary school must be built upon.

With the potential of the Rose review to reinvigorate primary teaching and KS3 freed from Sats, now is the perfect time for schools to co-operate to bridge the gap better. If we could get KS2 assessment right too, we could really make the most of transition to the benefit of all young people.


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