Thoughts on Gove’s Primary Curriculum

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October 10, 2012 by lambethteachers

From Terry Wrigley, University of Edinburgh, visiting Professor at Leeds Metropolitan University and editor of the journal Improving Schools.

August 2012

A narrow curriculum

The proposed curriculum is clearly not intended as an aspirational set of recommendations. It is to be implemented in an environment structured by high-stakes accountability (inter-school competition, league table publication of test results, an increasingly draconian inspection regime) as well as possible reforms in teacher pay and grading.

In the days of the 11plus examination, like many of my generation I spent over a quarter of each day in upper primary practising ‘intelligence test’ questions. Brian Simon once remarked that children were selected simply on the basis of long division, children would spend half of each day practising just that.

It is already apparent that many children in Years 5 and 6 endure a curriculum which is narrowed down to the requirements of the KS2 test subjects. It should be clear that once the new test of spelling, punctuation and grammar is introduced, children will spend inordinate lengths of time deciding between colons and semi-colons or distinguishing prepositions from conjunctions, irrespective of their stage of development as writers.

It will also take away significantly from the time they might be spending learning history (British or otherwise), geography, a foreign language, learning to sing or play a musical instrument, painting and appreciating art, exploring the natural world or developing scientific reasoning, learning about various religious traditions, and so on.

It is time for ministers to step back from the path which has marked education in England over the past twenty years and which, according to the PISA data, is associated with a substantial decline in educational standards.

Many warnings have been issued about this, not least from Diane Ravitch, an American scholar of impeccable Conservative credentials, once Education Secretary to President Bush Senior. Ravitch, after twenty years advocating blanket testing, privately managed schools (charters) and a high-stakes accountability system, has now publicly recanted, pointing to poor standards, misleading test data, curriculum narrowing and superficial learning and understanding as consequences. In addition, she is appealing to the important role of schools in building community and democratic citizenship. In other words, the measures which were supposed to lead to higher standards have resulted in decline.

Coalition education ministers should pause to learn a lesson, before it is too late.


Methods of teaching

When Kenneth Baker introduced the original National Curriculum following the Education Reform Act of 1988, he insisted that there was no intention of dictating to teachers how to teach but only what to teach. This promise was soon broken by the incoming Labour Government in the context of a Literacy and Numeracy Hour, followed by various ‘strategies’ involving particular stereotypes of lesson structure and methodology (e.g. the ‘four-part lesson’).

Despite Mr Gove’s protests to the contrary, the proposed primary curriculum is full of prescription of teaching methodology, both explicit and implicit.

It has been widely understood since Piaget’s early research – indeed, possibly since Comenius – that children gradually acquire abilities to operate in more abstract forms of reasoning, and that young children in particular need a dynamic interaction between perception / experience and symbolic representation. There is little awareness of this in the curriculum proposal, which appears to assume an ability to operate at a level of abstraction which is divorced from immediate or imagined experience.

Secondly, and particularly in the field of language and literacy, it is assumed that the best way to increase children’s skills and accuracy in use of their native tongue is to provide explicit explanations of grammatical rules. This is highly questionable: the children are likely to be already competent in such syntax in their speech long before they become capable of understanding and integrating the explanation. Secondly, the explanations, particularly in terms of spelling, while sometimes useful, have multiple  exceptions.

This raises the question of the exceptional faith being placed on synthetic phonics, to the neglect of other aspects of literacy and its acquisition. This is not to question the need for explicit instruction in phonics, which is almost universally accepted; only in the imaginations of some tabloid journalists is the issue a binary opposition between ‘phonics’ and ‘real books’. My argument is that reading requires various complementary skills and processes, and that the techniques are best acquired when children have a sense that reading is pleasurable and informative.

English is perhaps the least amenable of any European language to a purely phonics approach to literacy: even some of the shortest and most common words are best taught by visual recognition, since the phonic match is approximate and often misleading (the, was, one, two etc.).

Perhaps it is the case that synthetic phonics is more effective than analytic phonics, though the evidence is limited (see Wyse and Styles in Literacy, April 2007). The biggest experiment, covering an entire education authority in Scotland, West Dunbartonshire, is frequently misrepresented. Its initiators and managers insist that phonics was only one of its strands, which included working with childminders and nursery staff to create a rich and pleasurable literacy environment for very young children; and a rigorous follow-up by a small army of trained classroom assistants and volunteers of primary and secondary children who were still failing to read.

The West Dunbartonshire project proved highly successful in its own terms by creating dramatic improvements in decoding print, but was less successful in terms of reading for understanding.

It is telling that the evaluation report gives prominence to the following quotation:

For all the money, time, energy and ingenuity we have spent on reading research, we are still at the stage of saying that children learn to read when there is something they want to read and an adult who takes the time and trouble to help them. (Meek 1983)

Lowering standards

Michael Gove is rightly concerned about England’s declining performance in the PISA tests. Unfortunately his response is likely to make things worse.

The decline from 2000 to 2009 is not quite as severe as Mr Gove presents, as some of the countries which scored higher than England in 2009 had not been participants in 2000. It is still highly significant: leaving the newcomers aside, out of the 32 participating countries in 2000 England fell by 2009 from 8th to 20th in reading, 9th to 19th in maths, and 4th to  10th in science. In reading and maths the fall was from around the upper quartile to the half-way mark. The more modest fall in science may be partly due to science being a core subject from the start of primary school in England, unlike other countries.

The particular significance of PISA, compared with other national and international tests, is its emphasis on holistic and critical thinking when reading texts and the application of mathematical and scientific understanding to realistic situations and problems. It is the acquisition of cognitive ability which has suffered a decline.

There are signs that this begins in primary school.

i)               Philip Adey and Michael Shayer (King’s College London) have discovered that children are much less able to solve basic Piagetian scientific problems despite rising SAT scores: the science KS2 tests are very amenable to cramming, being largely based on memorising facts – a practice which is encouraged by the high stakes attached to these tests.

ii)             Mary Hilton (Cambridge University) demonstrated how KS2 tests in reading were modified in the late 1990s to reduce the emphasis on reading between the lines, leaving mainly literal fact-spotting. Whether or not this was deliberate, it produced the illusion that the previous government’s literacy hour was a great success, though pupils were not in fact well prepared for the more complex literacies required for academic success in secondary education.

Unfortunately the curriculum now being proposed by misses the point: that young people in England are memorising a great deal of information in schools but not, for the most part, learning how to think better. It emphasizes above all else the accumulation of information rather than properly integrated understanding and the intelligent application of knowledge.

Despite the rhetoric of ‘raising standards’, the Secretary of State’s proposal seriously risks dumbing down education in English primary schools.


Micro-management and deprofessionalisation

There is a further danger in the degree of micro-management represented by these documents, which come closer in genre to a scheme of work than to a National Curriculum. This level of prescription might make it easier for classes to be directed by less qualified and lower paid staff such as classroom assistants. However, it also has the effect of deprofessionalising the teaching role.

This is in continuity, but an intensification, of a problem which has been present for some years. In the early 1990s government officials began to speak of teachers ‘delivering’ the curriculum. This metaphor of delivery suggests a simple process of transmission of information. By contrast a professional view of teaching involves a thoughtful mediation, and particularly in more disadvantaged schools: how to build on pupils’ prior knowledge, how to connect with their prior experience and lead them through a learning process to engage with established academic knowledge and extend their horizons of understanding.

The level of detail of the proposed National Curriculum – spelling lists, details of arithmetic calculations, scientific facts – risks turning teachers into the kwikfit fitters of education.




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