Primary curriculum – the debate continues

Written by: HTU | Published:

It seems everyone has an opinion about the draft primary school curriculum. The consultation has now closed and as we await the final document, Suzanne O’Connell listens to what has been said so far

There are few people who sit on the fence when it comes to the new draft curriculum. The polarised views became particularly apparent with the publication of one letter signed by 100 education academics.

The letter itself probably did not raise anything that hasn’t been said before: “This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity. Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote-learning without understanding. The learner is largely ignored.”

The letter attracted some hastily delivered responses from the establishment. Education secretary Michael Gove said: “School reformers in the past often complained about what was called The Blob – the network of educational gurus in and around our universities who praised each other’s research, sat on committees that drafted politically correct curricula, drew gifted young teachers away from their vocation and instead directed them towards ideologically driven theory.”

While Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw said: “I am extremely upset and concerned that there should be this level of criticism for what I think is absolutely essential – more rigour in the national curriculum and a greater focus on basic skills.”

The reconstruction of the national curriculum has brought personal opinion, individual experience and political rhetoric to the fore. For some, the curriculum reflects the ideological and political beliefs of Mr Gove and there is uncertainty about just how well researched, professionally constructed and informed it really is.

On March 26, the Grand Committee in the House of Lords debated the curriculum. The transcript makes interesting reading, if for no other reason than it highlights clearly the individual prejudices and preferences that surface when curriculum content is discussed.

The Lords’ opinion

The Lords’ views range from the idiosyncratic to the informed. Lord Black of Brentwood requests that animal welfare is included: “It is proper for me to declare a feline interest as an owner of a venerable Russian Blue cat. Teaching children from an early age about the importance of caring for pets will help them to integrate effectively with others…”

The Earl of Clancarty questions whether politics should be so influential in its development: “I find it bizarre that a national curriculum can be so much the product of those – some might say of a single individual – who, in their day-to-day work, have such an overtly political agenda.”

Education minister Lord Nash, in his introduction, emphasised the flexibility that the government claims the new curriculum will offer teachers: “Freedom from top-down prescription and freedom to innovate.” What some have described as “prescription” in the English curriculum, Lord Nash refers to as “exemplification”. His introduction highlighted some of the changes:

• In English a greater emphasis on reading for pleasure and greater clarity on spelling, punctuation and grammar.
• In mathematics – a stronger emphasis on arithmetic with more demanding content on fractions, decimals and percentages.
• In science – greater detail on scientific concepts and processes and the mathematical aspects of science have been strengthened. Schools will be expected to teach their pupils about evolution and inheritance.
• In music – there is a balance between performance and appreciation.
• In art and design there is a stronger emphasis on drawing skills and on the historical development of art.
• In history there is a clear chronological narrative of British and world history.
• In geography there is a greater emphasis on locational knowledge so that pupils can use maps and locate key geographical features such as oceans, cities and continents.
• In PE there is a greater emphasis on competitive sport to build character and self-esteem and to improve teamwork.

The Lords’ discussion isn’t always supportive. Concern is raised about the lack of statutory PSHE and Baroness Walmsley pointed out: “Children should know about puberty before it happens to them.”

In response, Lord Nash sites the need for local decision-making: “We should leave teachers free to teach what is appropriate to their circumstances.”

The House of Lords does raise the issue of the relevance of the curriculum proposals and whether it is sufficiently forward-looking. They note the absence of some of the arts such as film and animation, digital media or photography and drama. Baroness Walmsley again comments: “The science curriculum is one that I would have recognised when I was at school more than five decades ago.”

The subject associations

There is a great sense of frustration and alarm generated by the majority of subject associations in response to the draft. Many have taken time to provide their recommendations and contribute to the consultations. Many feel ignored.

Furthermore, the argument Mr Gove makes against the academics cannot apply to them – they are not based in ivory towers and although they may include academics, they are generally focused on the world of the practising teacher.

Some associations have grouped together to demonstrate their opposition in general to the curriculum. The ATM (Association of Teachers of Mathematics) have joined with the NAPE (National Association for Primary Education) in supporting a petition demanding that Mr Gove “re-formulate the proposed new national curriculum (primary)”.

The letter reads: “We believe that the present proposals demonstrate a lack of respect for and trust in the experience and expertise of the teaching profession, parents/carers and children themselves.”

Meanwhile, the National Association for the Teaching of English has said: “The English curriculum in particular seems at risk of being influenced by the apparent prejudices of current policy-makers.

“At primary level this looks like leading to an unhelpful, exclusive over-emphasis on systematic synthetic phonics in the teaching of early reading and an obsession with grammatical forms and terminology in the teaching of writing.”

Many subject associations have had much less detail to base their criticism on. However, the outlines have been enough to raise some strong objections. The NSEAD (National Society for Education in Art and Design) is critical of what it sees as a “historical fine art-led model focusing on appreciations, aesthetics and beauty in preference to a more balanced programme of study that includes contemporary, global, design and media industries”.

They regret the neglect of textiles, graphics, ceramics, photography, games and web design, film, television and animation.

The design and technology lobby has been very vocal in its condemnation of the draft curriculum. The CBI and the Design and Technology Association are indignant: “This draft D&T curriculum not only threatens the future of design education but also the future of the huge range of sectors that rely on the vital skills that design and technology delivers – it focuses too much on basic craft and maintenance skills at the expense of high-quality learning.”

However, it is history that has taken the lion’s share of public debate. The History Association does not hold back: “More than 20 years of thoughtful and sophisticated approaches to curriculum development have been thrown away in this document.”Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicians) describes the music curriculum as being “about” music, rather than “of” music. She suggests that there is no clear route of progression across the key stages and no mention of creativity.

There has been some support for the transformation of ICT into computing. However, the removal of ICT skills as a distinct part of the curriculum has not been matched by its elevation in other subjects. There is only mention of books and pencils in English and no mention of keyboard skills; sketchbooks are mentioned in art and design but not digital photography.

There is one subject that has had a more positive reception. The inclusion of statutory foreign languages into key stage 2 has been perhaps long overdue. The fact that “modern” has been omitted does not generally detract from this significant step forward.

The schools

So to the headteachers and their staff who are responsible for delivering these hotly contested programmes of study. Not every school will have to juggle and adapt their curriculum to take account of the new content, headteachers of academy schools can stand back a little and watch the debate.

The majority of schools are, understandably, keen to retain what they have already developed and that they recognise works well. The first task will be to see what can be salvaged from the existing resource boxes before opening up the catalogues and signing up for training. The issue of professional development is an important one. There is concern that teachers do not have the subject knowledge that they will need to deliver the new curriculum.

For Peter Cansell, headteacher of Harwell School in Oxfordshire, his unhappiness with the curriculum proposals begins with the aims: “This is potentially serious for generations to come of children in our care, it is serious for society as we should value primary education as something more than just a means to prepare children for work.”

Mr Cansell is in no doubt that it is the views of Mr Gove that feature most strongly in the draft and describes it as a ragbag of ideas “to satisfy the whims of a secretary of state who has a view of education fixed in the 19th century”. He is also mistrustful of the motivation behind the drive for computing rather than ICT: “Not one primary practitioner seems to have been approached, however several in the ICT industry were asked for their opinions. Will they also be the ones offering the training to deliver the reforms?”

For Mr Cansell and the subject associations, there is a confused trail from these published draft programmes of study to their authors. Lord Nash states: “We have asked a specific question in the consultation about our proposed aims for the curriculum and we will take all views into account before finalising them.”

The question is whether all views will hold the same level of influence and if anyone will take any notice of them anyway.

• Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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