Proposed primary curriculum: what about the pupils?

Andrew Pollard

Education Secretary Michael Gove and Schools Minister Nick Gibb have finally begun to show their hand on the National Curriculum Review – at least for primary education. This sector has been well prepared for development by two substantial reports — the Rose Review, commissioned by the previous government, and the Cambridge Primary Review, funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. And in the past eighteen months a very large number of teachers, parents and other stakeholders have offered advice to the Department for Education.  The report of an Expert Panel, of which I was a member, drew on this background in making its proposals. However, it is far from clear that these sources have influenced the proposals published yesterday.

The voice that has really counted from beginning to the end has been that of an American educator, ED Hirsch. In his early work, Hirsch developed the view that reading comprehension requires both decoding skills and background cultural knowledge. His influential 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, appended long lists of facts and tapped a strong current of concern about US education. It was then extended to provide a Core Knowledge Sequence of year-on-year prescriptions for each subject pre-school to Grade 8 (age 13-14).

When I first met Nick Gibb, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence was open on his desk, heavily stickered with Post-It notes.  Michael Gove’s instructions to Tim Oates, chair of the Expert Panel, were to trawl the curricula of the world’s high performing countries, to collect core knowledge, and put it in the right order. Then, he believed, we’d have a national curriculum to restore our economic fortunes and provide new opportunities for all.

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.  For my own part, I would not deny that subject knowledge is important nor demur from sustained efforts to consider how it should be most appropriately represented in a programme of study. And of course, the idea sounds wonderful – yes, let’s sort out, once and for all, when spelling of particular words will be mastered, and the use of apostrophes, and the subjunctive, and so on. So this approach is likely to be very attractive to the public.

But the approach is fatally flawed without parallel consideration of the needs of learners. Primary teachers consider the overall experiences of each child, and try to provide a broad and balanced curriculum as is required by law. 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. To do these things, they need scope to exercise professional judgement.

However, on the basis of the new National Curriculum proposals, they are to be faced by extremely detailed year-on-year specifications in mathematics, science and most of English. This is to be complemented by punitive inspection arrangements and tough new tests at 11. The new curriculum will preserve statutory breadth, we are told but, whilst teaching of a foreign language is to be added, provision for the arts, humanities and physical education is uncertain at this point. The constraining effects on the primary curriculum as a whole are likely to be profound and the preservation of breadth, balance and quality of experience will test even the most committed of teachers.

In an attempt to head off such constraints and preserve opportunities for teachers to exercise judgement, the Expert Panel recommended the organisation of programmes of study on a two year basis. But it is Hirsch’s very detailed year-on-year model that has prevailed. This was one of the main issues which caused the Expert Panel as a whole to withdraw from the development of programmes of study, leaving only Tim Oates to work with Ministers and the DfE teams. In the interests of transparency, DfE should identify those who have been particularly influential in preparing the draft programmes of study. 

Certainly there are ameliorative provisions – for instance, the “freedoms” of the School Curriculum permit schools to vary the placement of content within each key stage, or to bring forward material to an earlier key stage. The latter may help teachers to satisfy the needs of high attainers, but there is no comparable provision for those who find learning particularly difficult. Further thinking is absolutely essential on how the needs of those who fall behind cumulatively, year on year, will be met.

Expectations should be high, but if targets are unreasonable they will simply generate a widespread sense of failure. It is essential therefore that the draft Programmes of Study are now subjected to scrutiny, moderation and refinement by teachers, researchers and others so that expectations are appropriately pitched.  And the provisions for flexibility and for slower learners must be explored, tested and developed much further.  Tidying up “knowledge” is a desk exercise, but in the real world of classrooms the range of pupil needs is enormous.  These cannot be wished away.

Education must be seen as “the product of interaction between knowledge and individual development” (Expert Panel report, p11).  Curriculum structures must enable teachers to use their expertise to manage this interaction beneficially.  This is the real lesson of international evidence.

72 thoughts on “Proposed primary curriculum: what about the pupils?

  1. for what it’s worth dorothydee.blogspot.com is a mother’s perspective on the trouble with KS1 teaching and the bad effect it has, particularly on boys. Some of Gove’s pronouncements I do agree with – once they get to 7 yrs old, I think children should be pushed harder because I think they are more than ready – but I am appalled at the narrow focus for young children.

  2. What a fantastic summary of what’s wrong with the new draft programmes of study. And how reassuring, revealing and concerning to hear that the majority of the expert panel weren’t involved in drawing up the detail. I’d be interested in knowing whether the old draft primary curriculum areas of learning from the last review in 2008/9 were considered as part of the process at all.

  3. Thanks Andrew. Just returned from Singapore ( they do well on league tables) but their Government wants to give greater emphasis to character development. We need to develop highly reflective, values-based citizens who are able to ensure that our world is sustainable. Education is more than a crude economic tool.

  4. Excellent stuff – Thank you for this. I am just devastated by the new curriculum – tone as much as anything else. Somewhere down the line we seem to have lost completely the sense of starting from where children are – all the wonderful effective stuff on AfL etc swept away.

    • Headteachers need the support of high profile educationalists like yourselves to help us fight this. I am also appalled, and feel this is possibly a way to ensure academy conversions increase….so schools don’t need to teach it! For the first time i am almost tempted to convert for this reason alone. I despair at the devastating impact this is going to have.

      • Good schools have, for many years, been developing their own skills based curriculum which is initiated by the children’s interests. This enables children to learn the skills they need to develop as successful learners, without boring them! Children need to have knowledge, but they need to acquire this in an interactive way- otherwise they are at risk of becoming disengaged at an early age. I feel that this is exactly what this new curriculum will do. Academy status, here we come!!!!

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  8. Would it be too cynical to suggest that the likely increase in the number of schools running hell-for-leather towards Academy status to avoid the prescription of this new curriculum may be an attractive (hoped for? planned?) fallout from its introduction?

    • I absolutely believe that this proposed new curriculum is designed to have schools converting to academies in droves to escape it. Underhand tactics by the government to get what they want, AGAIN.

  9. Whose form of knowledge, culture, vision, history and authority will prevail in the national curriculum? In other words, who has been asked to compile this list of core contents to be taught to every pupil across the nation? Will they, like Hirsch, be white, middle-class males? I think we should know who compiled this core knowledge.

    Anne Goldworthy makes a good point. Where are the children? The kind of learning that enables people to participate fully in society–will not be achieved by treating children as mere receptacles for facts, but requires that children be encouraged to participate in the learning process and encouraged to develop their own capacities for critical and creative thinking. If we look at the challenges that will be faced by a child born today they will surely need these skills to survive in a world with many environmental challenges.

    Ah the Americanisation of educational culture continues, corporate leadership models for the National college and now this. Lets import some ideas from other U.S academics like David Orr.

    • With regards core knowledge, I am reminded of Brian Street’s critical literacy and his take on Hirsch’s ‘functional’ literacy” “Which culture is to provide the model for such homogeneity and which cultures are to be marginalized within this hegemony is not spelled out: it is presented as a question simply of function rather than of power struggles between competing cultures. The question of which literacy is to provide the standard and which literacies are to be marginalized is similarly disguised beneath the discourse of technological need and institutional necessity. And yet, behind their appeal to apparently neutral forces, Gellner and Hirsch make it quite clear that they have in mind a specific culture and a specific literacy—that of their own subculture. The assumed agreement about what constitutes literacy serves to naturalize their own ideological position: it appears not as an argument in favour of their own preferred kind of literacy and culture but as a given fact of modern life, a necessity by which we are all driven. To question their claims would be to undermine the success and achievements of the nation, to challenge its very identity. Within this discourse, an appeal for cultural plurality and literacy variety appears to be a recipe for chaos” http://newlearningonline.com/literacies/chapter-2-literacies-purposes/street-on-literacy-and-nationalism/

      • These are extremely important points, which confirm again the importance of open debate and resolution concerning the aims and values which should frame any national curriculum.

    • Yes I agree with all comments, and do we really want a society like America? The social problems are manifold.

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  12. Ahh yes…Academy status. Academies are exempt from any National Curriculum subscription. This really doesn’t make any sense does it.

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    • Well, as a researcher who has been funded by the public purse I think it is right to engage and to act in good faith to provide professional support any government which has been elected through our system (however fragile that might be). I been doing that, one way or another, for twenty years or so. But it is surely also right to protest if they prepare to act in ways which could seriously damage educational provision. The medical world has a rule of thumb – ‘do no harm’ – which politicians might consider. With political power comes responsibility.

      • Thank you for the comment, we maybe close to one of those times when you have to communicate the message in tabloid terms.

      • Good point. Sadly, politicians are more likely to take a “hypocritic” oath ;)

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  17. I am really sad that a man with an expert panel still makes all teachers run for the hills or feel deviant to his crazy plans. Afl and teacher assessment has made all the difference.. It sorted the weak from the strong and made teachers teach and children enjoyed learning. This is caveman stuff… Absolutely bonkers!

  18. Thanks Andrew, it seems that politicians seem incapable of moving on from the notion that what needs to be done is simply to spell out a curriculum with a different set of targets. Those of us who have worked in schools must surely be aware that the biggest contribution Government could make is to acknowledge the importance of helping schools provide a diversity of contexts for learning. Some children learn best in whole class situations, others in small group and occasionally 1 to 1. But the notion of a one model fitting all children is misguided.

    • I find the idea of rewards for children who do well (and hell mend the idiots who don’t) is absolutely appalling. That subjects such as Art and Design will ‘continue’ is more than a little patronising and, in my opinion, indicative of the narrow minds who think one size does indeed fit all. Children whose brains do not connect with mathematics, science and conventional literacy seem doomed to fail- and yet some of the real movers and shakers of our world are first, artists, designers, architects, musicians, dancers, athletes…

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  24. What is the point of establishing an eminently qualified expert panel to engage in a consultation process of the teaching profession if you almost entirely ignore their recommendations and plough on regardless with a curriculum policy based on narrow and personal ministerial ideology bereft of any relevance to learners and teachers? Andrew I applaud your academic wisdom and independence. Thanks for trying.
    Paul Desgranges
    Vice Chair
    NASUWT
    Education Committee

  25. Thank you Andrew. As someone who was involved in some of this process I was initially enthusiastic having heard Tim Oates’ views on coherence and control and the possibility that things (curriculum, assessment, CPD, ITT, etc) could be joined up and lead learning and teaching in the direction that we want our education system to go.
    As time went on (from last June to September, then one opportunity earlier this year) I realised that my views and those of people who I really respected were being ignored/discarded. Last summer, we thought we were beginning to work on a curriculum for the next 30 years and couldn’t understand why there seemed to be a lack of time (or resources) to consider things properly.
    If our profession doesn’t speak up now, as you and Mary have done, then we could regret this for generations of learners.

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    • The panel have a professional and moral responsibility to ceaselessly represent the interests of every child, even in the face of a bombastic and, apparently deaf, SoS for Education.

      We all know Gove has pet ideologies; I would beg the panel to rigorously and unrelentingly put these to the sword with persistent meticulous and rational inquiry.

      We can’t allow our whole system to continue to be in the grip of this arrogant man, can we?

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  28. “once they get to 7 yrs old, I think children should be pushed harder because I think they are more than ready”

    Sweeping generalisation there from Dorothy Dicker. Now go back and read the article again, paying close attention to the discussion of variable learning speeds of children.

  29. Thank you, Andrew, for making this so clear and for being so much in support of the children in our care. I couldn’t teach effectively without their participation and engagement in their learning. It’s so worrying that the future of primary education is resting in the hands of a couple of public schoolboys who seems to think they are preparing children for a 1950s society.

    I had the opportunity (or, should I say, misfortune) to meet Nick Gibb when he visited a local university. He had a real bee in his bonnet about young children sitting on the carpet (he didn’t approve, and the conversation didn’t proceed beyond that), and also about children sitting in rows not speaking – he wholeheartedly recommended that one. Really. I refrained from saying that they can sit on the shelves for me, as long as they are learning.

    I would urge all professionals to add to the debate.

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  33. My biggest concern is not the process of trawling through successful methods to design a successful curriculum – don’t we all apply such strategies to improve our own schools? But that American style education as described by ED Hirsch is flagged as the cure of all educational evils. In actual fact as a country we have already adopted the poorest of American traditions for our children: party bags, trick or treat etc etc. do we have to adopt their education systems too? I can remember a family choosing to stay in England when their Dad had left the American Airforce. They made this decision because they much preferred the quality of English education to that of the American system.

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  35. The trouble with primary education is that everyone thinks they know what it is about, many have their own personal beef about it (and we ought to ask ourselves why) and those who have succeeded in life, in the main, are unable to grasp the problems encountered by those who haven’t, and therefore don’t see the problem with a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
    It seems to me we can take a number of pathways in the face of this horrid, patronising and know-it-all draft curriculum but there is little time to select which. We could possibly choose from: active resistance via strikes, with all of the public flak (and likely failure) that results from that; passive resistance by carrying on with what we knows works, and refusing to engage with the worst excesses of the new curricula; or mass conversion to acadamies (and yes, it might be their cunning plan. What we don’t have time for, as far as I can see, is appealing to politicians or even the media to have some common sense. We need some strong and clear communication from our unions, to gather views and co-ordinate a unified response to this potential destruction of everything we have worked for over the last few years. And pardon me if I’ve missed something, but what exactly is supposed to be so successful about the US system?

  36. According to Nick Seaton at the Campaign for Real Education the experts on the panel were chosen by DfE officials determined to undermine ministerial ideas. He recommends that any official charged with “perceived subversion” be disciplined in future.

    (That last sentence is an example of the use of the subjunctive which the Programmes of Study want to inflict on primary school pupils. It would have been more direct to write “He says that officials charged with “perceived subversion” should be disciplined.”)

    http://www.cre.org.uk/docs/ep-critique.pdf

    The new PoS are being discussed on the Local Schools Network.

    http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2012/06/proof-that-gove-by-passed-his-own-expert-panel-to-push-through-idiotic-curriculum-changes/#comment-18784

  37. Well done Andrew! I must say I was surprised that these were the recommendations of a panel you served on. You are right to disassociate yourself from Gove. Nobody I can remember has single handedly done more harm and created a more chaotic system than this strange and arrogant man.

  38. Well done Andrew, please keep up the good work. Some of us remember the best of the Plowden, Bullock and Cockcroft Reports which put the child at the centre of the provision for learning. Engaging children’s interest is crucial in the early years and the narrow, prescriptive curriculum which is proposed is likely to result in more harm than good.

  39. That is very helpful background Andrew. I wonder which experts have been recommending a return to the divisive O-level and CSE system, which we moved on from in the 1980s!

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  42. I’ve had a quick look (very quick) at the Core Knowledge PoS

    http://www.coreknowledge.org/mimik/mimik_uploads/documents/480/CKFSequence_Rev.pdf

    My specific area of interest at the moment is that of fractions so that is the only bit I have really looked at. Honestly? Nowhere near as bad as Gove’s draft maths PoS. At least the core knowledge seems to follow a more realistic progression – ours seems to have taken CK and pushed everything ahead 3 years. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t like CK – for starters by grade 3 (Y3ish?) they’ve abandoned all talk of concrete resources and conceptual understanding.

    Let’s hope whoever wrote the awful maths PoS heeds ACME’s recommendations!

    http://www.acme-uk.org/media/10025/20120807%20-%20acme%20ncr%20response%20part%20a%20-%20final.pdf

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  44. Andrew, and anybody else who cares to read,

    The new guidelines for the national curriculum seem to me to be very misguided, rushed and ill-conceived.

    From reading your post it seems apparent that there is, (in the head of Michael Gove), a dominant discourse of international competitiveness and this seems to have shaped his policy making more than any other consideration.

    I would like to draw everybody’s attention to this element or discourse and openly ask: Since when was education a competition? And more importantly should we be viewing education as a competition, at personal, local, national or even international levels?

    Personally, I reject the idea of competition in education at any level as I feel it is detrimental to what education can be, i.e. an enjoyable, personal or collective affirmation of what good there is to be experienced in life.

    If we instil the concept of education as a competition into the minds of our young children then eventually they will start to believe it. Crucially, when they realise there is no medal table to search for their name on, they will struggle to see what the point was and become disillusioned. I have realised this myself over the previous 10 years!

    Some years ago I took a summer job working as a garden maintenance man. I worked with a man named Bob, a real-ale enthusiast who dis-liked me for my lack of grass-cutting experience. It was the kind of relationship where he believed I was as stupid as I suspected him to be. He said to me whilst driving back from a job that, “education is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t seem to have worked on you!”.

    ‘Worked on you’. I have often pondered these words and what they mean, what they imply and from what perspective you must have to use them. To me it implies a belief that education is a prescription; something that is designed to have a particular impact but may, in some unfortunate cases, not have the desired effect. I hear echoes of Bob’s throwaway comment in much of what Michael Gove writes. (“all pupils to succeed in key subjects”, “each child should be expected to master in mathematics, science and the grammar of the English language every year”, “what pupils should know”, “ensure that schools concentrate on making sure all pupils reach the expected standard”)

    I fail to see how insisting that every child in the class has to master times tables up to 12×12 by the end of year 4 before the class can move onto the next level will help anybody’s educational experience. If this had have been the case in 1994, I would not now be a 26 year old undergraduate reading Education Studies at Plymouth University. Instead I would be a 26 year old sat on an uncomfortably small chair in Lord Scudamore Primary School with the long suffering Mrs Chandler apologising to the rest of the 26 year olds that they cannot progress to Year 5 because John cannot remember his 9 times table!

    My point is, are there some things that we simply have to know in order for us to gain a satisfactory education?

    Education can be a rewarding experience for everybody involved. It doesn’t have to be boring and it doesn’t have to be a process of box ticking. With regards these new proposals (and the old one’s for that matter), I fear the impact that they will place on both pupils and teachers.

    I fear that pupils will continue to experience the pressures of examinations that I remember experiencing when I attended primary school in the mid ‘90s and that all pupils will have experienced since, (testing policy has not changed dramatically since then). Teachers will continue to feel the pressures of exam results, inspections and ultimately their job security in a climate that restricts them from following their creative intuitions and the interests of the pupils for fear of getting ‘side-tracked’. And head-teachers will feel the pressure of stricter measures for performance in limited subjects that, naturally, not all students will excel in.

    I feel that all these pressures and stresses will manifest themselves, ultimately, in the attitudes, values and minds of the very people we seek to enlighten: our children.

    In his letter to Tim Oates regarding and titled ‘The National Curriculum Review’, Michael Gove alludes to, “stronger leadership from head teachers” and “improvements in teaching quality” as being ‘the essential elements of high-performing school systems’. And who could argue with this, but are, as you state ‘year-on-year specifications’, ‘punitive inspection arrangements’ and ‘tough new tests at 11’, going to achieve this high performing school system we all dream so vividly of?

    I have some doubts!

    Any response or criticism of my words will be warmly welcomed.

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  50. Any neutral observer of the review of the curriculum would realise the case against the current proposals is being made in the wrong places and to the wrong people. I applaud your principled expose of the present government’s unprincipled rejection of ‘advice’ it presumably commissioned with the intention of paying due regard to. That it did not, has been amply recorded here and elsewhere. However, where it is not being made, is in the clear light of day for those who most need to receive the message. What is happening, without doubt, will affect the future of education in our country and consequently will affect our future. It isn’t simply of concern to academics and professionals protesting on specialised web sites away from the notice of parents, families and young people. The public have right to know the extent to which the supposed consultation process was a sham from the outset, because such behaviour damages our democracy.

    There is a need to engage the public in this project. It will not suffice just to create some eye-catching headline in the hope of drawing attention to the need for an open, unprejudiced debate. We have an opportunity to shape a system for educating people from cradle to grave at the beginning of a century of change, the demands of which we can barely begin to comprehend (that is what this has to be about).

    A way ahead would be to establish an interim national leadership group. It would be non-political and aim to inform and consult parents and others using schools as the point of focus. This would ensure open participation at grass-roots level and involve key stakeholders directly. If media interest waned, as it probably would, that would not matter. There are other means of maintaining interest and commitment via social media today, as we have seen happen in countries that are yet to evolve democratic rule. People have new ways of influencing their leaders, and they work. Of course this is a wild dream, I hear you mutter. But, when did that ever limit courageous individuals with a vision of what might be?

    Many years ago I picked up a gem of a book entitled ‘The Learning Society” by Dr Robert M Hutchins, published in 1968. Please allow me to quote;

    “The leadership, in recognition of the facts of life, must come from individuals and groups who can, over the years or decades, persuade their fellow citizens that what they see is true. These may include writers, artists, scholars, or anybody who has the independence or vision to transcend his culture. It can come from free minds and those pursuing the dialogue about the condition and aims of society.”

    It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. I’m in, what about you!!?

  51. Andrew, I am not sure when you posted your article back in June last year whether you thought it would still be attracting interest ten months on. I entered the discussion rather late, back in October. Since then, I have been watching developments very closely around the primary curriculum in particular. I feel driven to add to my earlier comment because the concerns you addressed then remain unresolved. They were not “wished away”.

    It is clearer now, in light of more recent developments, that common sense has no chance of tempering the excesses of our political leaders in this crucial debate over the curriculum. Sadly, the application of brute political power threatens to delay more than just the reform of the curriculum. It promises to block the long-overdue re-framing of education for the future.

    Since October, I have been preparing a campaign that aims to divorce education from party politics. I read the whole thread again today Andrew. John Walker’s comments of 23 October caught my attention because he asked something that I believe is central the ongoing debate over the curriculum. I would like to suggest that there are some things we do “have to know in order to gain a satisfactory education” for every child. The first thing we need to know and convey to young people is that education matters. The second thing we should know is, if we imagine that all children have the same needs, talents, interests and aspirations, what we teach them will matter rather less than it could and should. I am not arguing that knowledge is unimportant. The curriculum needs content like a sandwich needs a filling. I just don’t think all children will enjoy the same filling and, especially for primary aged children, if they don’t enjoy it, they won’t benefit form it.

    Unfortunately, the excesses of political tinkering in education have continued to escalate over the last ten months. There is no sign that the voice of reason will prevail and we will be stuck with reforms, some of which are potentially disastrous or obviously divisive, until the next politician to take their turn at directing our national education is handed power at the DfE. The madness has to stop. I hope that people will take the time to follow what I have written at http://www.ordinaryvoices.org.uk and consider giving their support to the campaign to change the way we plan and deliver education for this new century.

  52. Thank you Andrew for your continued advocacy of common sense. Mr Gove’s consistent refusal to take advice from experts is particularly alarming in mathematics, where his own lack of ability in the subject (as evidenced by his failure to understand the difference between causality and correlation) gives us little hope that he could possibly having anything of value to offer young learners.

  53. As a retired History teacher, I have been following the revision of the History National Curriculum for the last 3 years with a growing sense of horror, Thank you for this insight into what lies behind The Programme of Study – apparently very little.

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