Primary teachers give Patten black mark for two new reports

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The Independent Online
TEACHERS protested yesterday at the Government telling them how to teach, after the publication of two 'landmark' reports on the primary school curriculum.

The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), the new inspection authority, reported that many primary schools had failed to carry out government advice last year to introduce more specialist subject teaching, along with more whole-class instruction, less teaching by topic, and more grouping of children by ability.

The National Curriculum Council, in the conclusions of a year-long review of the primary curriculum, advised all primary schools to effect those changes to teaching methods. The National Association of Head Teachers responded with a warning: 'Previous Secretaries of State have understood that they have neither the expertise nor the wisdom to dictate to teachers how they should teach.'

The council consulted a large number of primary teachers during the review, who said the curriculum was overloaded for 5 to 11-year-olds. John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, accepted the council's recommendation that the whole curriculum be slimmed down in a rolling programme of review over the next few years.

However, that did not satisfy the teacher union leaders, including those representing primary heads. They wanted the compulsory curriculum's content to be reduced more quickly, by taking out some subjects. The national curriculum requires all pupils from five upwards to follow detailed programmes of learning in English, mathematics, science, technology, history, geography, art, music and physical education. Religious education, although obligatory, is not part of the curriculum.

Infant teachers told the council the heavy content of the national curriculum was reducing the amount of time that 5 to 7-year-olds spend on learning the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic. Junior teachers said it was forcing them to teach superficially.

David Pascall, chairman of the Curriculum Council, said it had decided against reducing the number of subjects because all pupils deserved to learn the full range of subjects from the outset. Instead, he argued, the curriculum's content should be reviewed gradually - meeting teachers' other plea for a period of less disruptive change.

Mr Pascall responded to union pressure for quick action by pointing out that the council would be publishing a revised English curriculum next month, which would reduce content. The redrafted technology curriculum was heading in that direction, and the science and mathematics curricula were simplified more than a year ago.

Yesterday's recommendations will be followed up by Mr Patten in April with extensive teacher-training reforms. That raises the possibility of training more primary teachers as subject specialists, or semi-specialists, so they have the detailed knowledge that enables them to teach the national curriculum to older primary pupils.

At present most primary teachers are expected to teach all 10 subjects with equal confidence. The Government hopes primary heads will organise timetables so that, at certain times of the day, classroom teachers can hand over to roving specialists who concentrate exclusively on their subject.

However, Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, argued that most primary schools were too small, or lacked the funds, to employ specialist subject teachers in addition to general class teachers. He doubted whether the Government would meet the cost.

The other controversial recommendation is that primary teachers should 'set' their pupils in groups of similar ability for some subjects - not the same as 'streaming' pupils into whole classes by ability. Both the curriculum council and the inspectorate accept that many primary teachers are already grouping pupils, but would like to see the practice spread further.