The new Primary Curriculum

The revised National Curriculum it seems is to appear bit by bit accompanied by some pretty ruthless political spin in the Tory press. So far we have the teaching programmes for primary English, maths and science. This seems to be one of the most flawed processes that even current education ministers have wished on us. Here are just a few of the emerging areas of concern:

  1. In his covering letter, Michael Gove agrees that there should be some aims for the curriculum. But we don’t have them yet and we don’t know when we will. So we’ll have a detailed curriculum long before we have agreed what we’re trying to achieve by it. A truly wonderful piece of Govian logic.
  2. Gove appointed an expert group of four people to advise on the revision of the curriculum. Three of them have quit the process because their advice was not being listened to. We now have no idea who actually wrote the documents that have just been published but it seems to have been driven by politicians to a quite remarkable extent. Andrew Pollard has written that “why Mary James, Dylan Wiliam and I were appointed to the Expert Panel remains something of a mystery, for we were hardly likely to accede to this crude design for curricular reform”.
  3. The process has been described by one of the expert group as “trawl the curricula of the world’s high performing countries, to collect core knowledge, and put it in the right order”. A narrower approach to developing a curriculum would be hard to imagine.
  4. The government promised an end to top down prescription – headteachers, we were told, know best and should be left to run their schools. Yet we now have the most detailed set of prescriptions that we have ever had, right down to spelling lists.
  5. There is total confusion about progression. There is no understanding that, in Andrew Pollard’s words again “primary teachers consider the overall experiences of each child, and try to provide a broad and balanced curriculum. The skill and expertise of the teacher lies in building on each pupil’s existing understanding and capabilities, and in matching tasks to extend attainment”. Yet teachers will be faced with a rigid teaching programme set out in extraordinary detail which will completely constrain their attempts to meet the differing needs of their pupils.
  6. Levels have been scrapped – but there is no suggestion about what will replace them. That’s been dumped in the box labelled “too hard”. But we are told there will have to be a grading system at least at the end of Key Stage 2. We can clearly expect a pretty ruthless testing regime that will worsen the tendency, already too strong, to teach to the test. Daily spelling tests anyone?
  7. The three core subjects have been planned on their own. Leaks to the Sunday Times suggested that they will take up a higher proportion of the week than they do now and so it will be harder than ever to deliver a broad and stimulating curriculum. Yet actually we know from consistent inspection evidence over many years that schools which get the best outcomes in “the basics” do so by providing exactly that broad and stimulating curriculum. The primary curriculum has to be seen as a whole not as a set of unconnected boxes.
  8. The approach to early English ignores all that we know about the development of oral language in the early years. The government approach seems to equate doing something early with achieving high standards in the end. Whereas in fact what they are doing is putting inappropriate expectations on very young children and setting many of them up to fail.

These are just a few of the problems with this approach to the curriculum. There are many more buried in the detail that will need to be addressed. More importantly perhaps, the government needs to understand that imposing  a curriculum based on a particular ideology without holding and winning a debate within the profession about it is a recipe for cynicism and disaffection in our schools.

 Labour will need to make the case that simple rote learning does not equal rigour. Our curriculum needs to be much more ambitious in its range and breadth. That is how you make school genuinely challenging and prepare young people properly for their adult lives. 


One Comment on “The new Primary Curriculum”


    So, Michael Gove is ‘in open warfare’ with the experts he commissioned to advise him on the national curriculum. (‘Gove’s own experts in revolt over curriculum shake-up’ The Observer 17 June).

    Gove has published plans for a new national curriculum for primary schools with rigid year-by-year requirements on the teaching of mathematics, reading, writing, a foreign language, learning poetry by heart from the age of five, and a strong focus on spelling, grammar and rote learning.

    Professor Andrew Pollard is one of four experts appointed by Michael Gove to advise on the new national curriculum. Recently he has described Gove’s reforms as ‘fatally flawed’. He says they are so prescriptive they will prevent teachers from using their own professional judgement in the classroom.

    Gove, as secretary of state for Education, is in authority over primary education. He has never taught in schools. By profession he is a journalist and since writing Michael Portillo: the Future of the Right in 1995 has published three more books on politics. He has been in Parliament since 2005.

    Pollard is an authority on primary education. Since writing The Social World of the Primary School in 1985 and Children and their Primary Schools in 1987 he has written a further 12 books on aspects of primary education. Before then he taught in primary schools. For seven years he directed the ESRC funded Teaching and Learning Research Programme – the largest ever research project in education in the UK.

    Who should make these decisions which will affect every child in England? Who should we trust? Wake up England!

    Michael Bassey (Who has just joined SEA)