Radical reform urged in primary school teaching

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The Independent Online
IMPORTANT changes in primary school teaching, including a move away from mixed ability teaching and topic work, are to be recommended later this month to education ministers.

Both the National Curriculum Council, and Ofsted, the new schools inspectorate, are to propose radical changes in the way primary school children are taught and classrooms are organised. The reports will be welcomed by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, who is keen to undertake a thorough overhaul of primary education, including changes in teacher training.

The major proposals are less emphasis on mixed ability teaching and a move towards setting - separating children by ability on a subject basis - as opposed to streaming, which is separating them into streams for all subjects.

There is concern that some primary school children, particularly 8-11 year olds, are not sufficiently stretched if all or most of their teaching is given by their classroom teacher. There will be calls for more specialist teaching in primary schools, with some teachers concentrating on just one or two subjects. Some teachers may not have sufficient knowledge to handle all the subjects in the national curriculum, particularly for older children.

The new emphasis on specialisation will mean a shift away from topic work, which is teaching across several subjects at once. Ministers have long felt that some areas are not covered in depth if too many subjects are covered at the same time.

The debate about the future of primary education was launched in December 1991, by the then education minister Kenneth Clarke. He asked the National Curriculum Council to advise him about what changes should be made.

He said that the acceptance of discovery methods of teaching, 'active learning' and an emphasis on the development of pupils' skills rather than the teaching of subject knowledge had led to 'an all-embracing, and dogmatic orthodoxy about how children should be taught'.

Though not all primary schools had fallen victim to this, he said he believed there was 'a real risk that this orthodoxy threatens to stifle independent thought based on the realities of the classroom.'

Last week, Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools said in one of their final reports that schools needed to plan their lessons better and that teachers should stop giving the same task to whole classes.

'The highest standards were achieved where teachers used a balance of whole class teaching, working in small groups or pairs and individual tasks.'

Primary schools were still not paying enough attention to history and geography, the inspectors said.

A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said: 'One of the things about children in primary schools is that abilities wax and wane and vary dramatically in subjects and in techniques as the weeks go by.

'If you rigidly set or stream you run the risk of curtailing children's development or pushing too hard at a particular time. There is danger in a rigid approach to classroom organisation.'

She said that mixed ability teaching was sufficiently fluid to allow setting and teaching in mixed groups.