Primary schools report calls for urgent reforms

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The Independent Online

A major Government report today called for urgent reforms to protect primary schools struggling to cope with an overloaded curriculum.

Under proposals outlined by Sir Jim Rose, the Government's top adviser on primary schools, traditional lessons such as history and geography would be axed to allow teachers greater flexibility to teach fewer subjects in greater depth.

Instead of teaching subjects individually, the report said the curriculum should focus on cross-curricular studies encompassing a range of subjects and ideas.

The report said: "Failure to protect primary schools from curriculum overload will lead to the superficial treatment of essential content, as they struggle to cope with 'the next new thing' rather than teach worthwhile knowledge, skills and understanding to sufficient depth, and make sure that children value and enjoy their learning."

It proposed six new areas of learning for schools to focus on: Understanding English, communication and languages; mathematical understanding; scientific and technological understanding; human, social and environmental understanding; understanding physical health and well-being; understanding the arts and design.

Sir Jim's interim report proposed the most radical education reforms for primaries in 20 years.

The former Ofsted chief inspector was asked by Schools Secretary Ed Balls to conduct a full review of the primary curriculum, although his remit did not include examining testing in schools.

The omission has faced fierce criticism from teaching unions who say testing is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

Sir Jim has previously said testing was "the elephant in the room" when talking to schools.

In his report he noted that many people believed Sats tests for 11-year-olds placed "serious constraints" on the curriculum.

It said: "Concerns centred on the way in which the outcomes of tests are reported and the time many felt must be spent preparing children for the conditions of testing, thus narrowing the curriculum."

The report said schools should give priority to literacy and numeracy skills as well as nurturing pupils' personal skills, with a greater focus on children's health, wellbeing and personal development.

Primary education often failed to recognise the importance of speaking and listening skills, the report said, and more attention must be paid to these areas as they are "essential in their own right" and crucial for learning.

Sir Jim's proposals also called for ICT teaching to be reviewed to "provide a better fit with children's developing abilities".

Today's youngsters were so computer literate that ICT skills usually taught in secondary schools should begin in primaries instead, it concluded.

This means primary school children could be taught to use podcasts, or make their own radio programmes.

The report called for a smoother transition between nursery and primary school so that children did not face an abrupt change from play-based learning to formal schooling, and suggested summer-born children be given the option of starting school part time to ease them into school life.

It recommended that all primary children learn a foreign language, but that schools should only focus only on one or two. If possible, pupils should then learn the same language when they reached secondary school.

Sir Jim said: "The demands of society on primary schools have risen and continue to rise but if we are to establish a 'world class' high quality curriculum, we must face the reality of prescribing less so that teachers can better teach and children can better learn.

"What some regard as the piggy-in-the-middle position of the primary years from age five to 11 presents a considerable challenge for curriculum design and choice of content. While primary education must build upon the early years foundation stage, and prepare children for education post-11, it is far more than either a post-script to the early years, or a prelude to secondary education."

Mr Balls said: "Despite a decade of improvement, record results and much good practice in schools, I want to create fresh momentum in our primary schools that will ensure that all children reach their potential, whatever their background."

Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the report would be met with "some optimism".

But she added: "Whatever freedoms may be proposed, his review however, represents a missed opportunity. Unlike secondary teachers primary schools will continue to be constrained by National Curriculum tests and now an additional added burden; the school report card.

"Jim Rose's review fails to tackle the fact that National Curriculum tests inhibit and narrow the curriculum by making teachers feel they have to teach to the test. He has yet to tackle the overloaded content in each subject."

Liberal Democrat schools spokesman David Laws said: "The Rose Review seeks to give the impression that the curriculum burden is being cut back, but it is not clear whether this will actually be the result of the proposed changes.

"What schools really need is greater freedom to set their own teaching priorities, not a new set of Government directives."

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "A review of the primary curriculum has been long overdue.

"We support Jim Rose's plans for a slimmed-down national curriculum which focuses on skills rather than facts for their own sake, understanding rather than rote learning, and cross-curricular topics rather than separate subjects, as a way to transform teaching and learning in our primary schools.

"But to bring about this transformation, as Rose points out, the Government must deal with the elephant in the room - a testing system which narrows the curriculum.

"Teachers have waited a long time to be allowed to use their professional skills and expertise to really engage all children in learning.

"The areas of learning outlined in the report will enable teachers to inspire their pupils to become active, engaged, lifelong learners, and to shape a curriculum which is relevant to the local area and school."

Margaret Morrissey, of parents' group Parent Outloud, said the review "flies in the face of all parents have being asking for".

On the issue of summer-born children, she said: "The biggest issue after Sats on parents' agenda is putting very young children into school too early.

"We are one of a few countries in the developed world who put children in school before six or seven, and, may I say, those who go in later achieve as well, if not better, than our children."