Leading article: This is not the radical reform primary education needs

Sir Jim Rose's review gives schools insufficient freedom

When Ed Balls commissioned Sir Jim Rose to look into the state of Britain's primary schools the Education Secretary suggested the result would be "the most fundamental review of the primary curriculum for a decade". Such an outcome was always unlikely given that the former head of Ofsted was not permitted to evaluate the Government's onerous testing regime. And, unsurprisingly, Sir Jim's final report, published yesterday, does not suggest the radical departure for primary education that Mr Balls predicted it would.

That is not to say it has no value. The report contains sensible proposals, such as encouraging primary schools to teach children through a stronger emphasis on the spoken word and artistic expression. Sir Jim also argues that children born in the summer should be entitled to start school the September after their fourth birthday to stop them falling behind older classmates.

Another significant proposal is for computer skills to become a "core skill" in the curriculum, alongside literacy and numeracy. It makes sense for primary schools to acquaint children with computers now such technology has become a central feature of almost every workplace.

Yet there are problems with making it a "core" subject. Teaching children how to download podcasts is not as important as teaching them how to spell or recite multiplication tables. Sir Jim suggests that online resources such as Google Earth could be used in geography lessons and video conferencing technology to connect with pupils in other countries during foreign language lessons. These are reasonable suggestions. But the internet should be an aide to more formal teaching, not the content of lessons.

There are other dangers lurking in the report. Sir Jim suggests an emphasis on thematic learning to replace the traditional division of subjects. What matters is what works. If such teaching methods help the absorption of knowledge, they should be implemented. But we need to remember that a failure to teach students a basic chronology of events in history lessons at secondary school has created problems. Jumping around thematically has proved confusing to students. We must not make the mistake of replacing one educational straitjacket with another. This Government's failure over the past decade has been in overloading the curriculum, imposing too many tests and attempting to manage schools directly from Whitehall. And there is scant evidence that ministers have learned from past mistakes. Only this week they announced that education on "emotions" should be compulsory in primary schools from age five. Sir Jim himself acknowledges that the existing curriculum has grown too "fat". But it is not clear that his recommendations would trim it.

What our primary schools need is a clear and concise list of knowledge and skills that children should possess by the time they move into the next level of education. Once that has been established, the job of policymakers is to step back and give teachers the freedom to impart knowledge in the manner they deem appropriate.

The proposal last week from the Conservative education spokesman, Michael Gove, to extend the secondary academy system to primary schools points the way forward. Giving schools the freedom to run their own budgets and decide how best to teach the curriculum looks rather more like the "fundamental" reform the primary education sector needs than anything the Government has produced.