Battleground defined but caricatured by the media.
The debate over Primary education has been caricatured in the media as a simple battle between “the trendy” and “back to basics” factions. In the red corner, Sir Jim Rose and his supporters. In the blue, Richard Alexander and his. Rose close to Government thinking, Alexander independent but closer to Tory thinking. If only it were so simple.
The Government from the start has been dismissive of the Alexander Review, not least because it had no control over it. On publication it claimed that its findings were out of date as if there is some ticking clock in the background which suddenly negates research evidence, at a time of the Governments choosing. Many of its findings ring as true today as they probably will in ten years time, and probably did ten years ago. It’s a manifestly inadequate response from the Government, and irresponsible too. You cant simply dismiss the findings of an exhaustive review, conducted over a number of years and authored by highly respected academics in a few headline grabbing and obviously misleading phrases. The Government was accused by Alexander of preparing a response to his Review by reading the media, rather than the report itself, which rings uncomfortably true.
Sir Jim Rose, the former Ofsted director of inspection, who led the Government commissioned Primary the review, proposed that the national curriculum be redesigned into six areas of learning. These to cover understanding of: English, communication and languages; mathematics; science and technology; human society and the environment; physical health and well-being; the arts and design. He was attempting to give teachers more flexibility. The new curriculum is due to be introduced by 2010. Rose wants a more joined up approach which many in the media interpreted as less robust academically and the virtual loss of discrete subject teaching – an interpretation which clearly bemused Rose. Again its worth reading his report in detail to understand how it fits together. Primary Teachers and heads according to surveys broadly welcomed the proposals in the Rose review. Views in the media though were decidedly mixed. The major criticism of his efforts centred on his perceived failure to take the opporunity to recommend changes to the testing regime. But this was not part of his remit. So you cant blame him on this score.
The final report of the independent Cambridge Primary Review, called for the depoliticisation of the classroom, with central control slashed to a minimum and funding pumped into schools. The report’s prevailing mood is underlined by its headline conclusions: reform Sats and scrap league tables, extend the early-years foundation stage to Year 1, rebalance the curriculum, train teachers to become educators not deliverers of ready-made lessons and carry out a full review of special educational needs provision. Subject specialists should also be introduced alongside generalist class teachers in the upper years of primary.
On a hugely positive note the report concluded that Childhood in England is not in crisis and nor are primary schools, which instead may be “the one point of stability and positive values in a world where everything else is changing and uncertain”. Primary teachers have never neglected the 3Rs, and it is similarly a myth that they have been controlled by a cabal of 1970s ideologues. Instead, the crisis that needs to be addressed is the fate of children blighted by poverty and disadvantage who still leave education far behind their classmates. (Here the Tories would agree) Richard Alexander believes Sir Jim’s review has fundamentally missed the point. The problem is not curriculum overload, but a mismatch between what schools have to do and the skills of their staff. Primaries need more teachers and more specialist teachers in addition to generalist class teachers. Although Alexander concedes that centralised reform has produced important and necessary changes in children’s services, he believes it has gone too far in relation to curriculum and pedagogy. The role of government should revert to providing the administrative and financial framework, setting the goals and scope of the national curriculum and the broad standards primary schools should achieve. The Tories see the Alexander Review as a rebuke to the Rose Review, in that Rose gave insufficient emphasis, in their view, to the importance of subject specialists at key stage 2. favouring instead cross-cutting themes. But the Tories are concerned too about the Alexander Reviews proposals to raise the age of compulsory schooling and to make accountability “fuzzier.”, to use Goves description. The lesson from the Knowledge is Power Programme schools in America, Gove claims, is that the most disadvantaged children benefit most from more schooling, not less. But how does this square with practice in Finland and Sweden, where teaching starts later, although they are higher in international league tables and are thought to have more equitable systems? Alexander actually argued that the Early Years Foundation programme could be extended a year.
The dilemma the Tories face is familiar. On the one hand they preach the need for greater school autonomy, championing new free schools, while focusing on the importance of good teaching and the need to support the best professionals and reward them, but on the other hand they cant resist telling teachers what they should be doing and what should be taught in schools. So school autonomy is good, the message seems to be, providing you do what we want you to do.