A challenge to the tyranny of testing

Submitted by martin on 27 March, 2009 - 11:13 Author: Pat Yarker

If it wins the next election, New Labour proposes to reshape primary education. Pat Yarker reports on a challenge to the Government’s line of march.

In January 2008 Ed Balls appointed Sir Jim Rose to review the current Primary curriculum and recommend changes for implementation from September 2011. Jim Rose, a distinguished professor of education, had already conducted a review of the teaching of reading (in 2006); that was seized on by education ministers to justify imposing on teachers, despite much opposition, a single method (phonics) to teach children to read. As we go to press his report is due to be published.

Rose was one of the “Three Wise Men” tasked by the Tories in the 1990s to report on the state of England’s primary schools. Rose together with Chris Woodhead and Robin Alexander produced a report that was used by John Major to intensify a backlash against so-called “child-centred” educational approaches and to strengthen central government’s control over schooling. Whatever the full details of the Rose Report — which seems to have been subject to governmental political pressure and excluded the unions from the consultation.

Earlier this year the inadequacy of the Rose review’s remit and intellectual perspectives were robustly challenged in an interim report from the Cambridge Primary Review team: Towards a new Primary Curriculum. Ironically, the report’s author is Robin Alexander.

The Cambridge Primary Review was initiated by academics, independent of government, in 2004, and began to research, consult and publish findings from 2006. Its evidence has bolstered arguments countering many of New Labour’s central tenets about education.

Professor Alexander peppers this latest publication with direct criticism of the Rose Review for intending merely to re-shuffle rather than reform the curriculum. Alexander presents a radical reconceptualisation of what primary education is for and how it should be organised. He argues that a third of the school-year should be set free from the National Curriculum’s centralised prescription and given over to a “community curriculum” whose content should be decided by individual schools at local level.

He proposes an end to the two-tier curriculum currently enforced on pupils by the over-testing regime. While literacy and numeracy take the lion’s share of available time in school, learning in art, music, the humanities, sport and science must compete for what’s left. Quality as well as quantity of provision suffers, and pupils are prevented from getting a broad and balanced education.

Sacrificing breadth of learning experience to the imperatives of high-stakes testing and the “standards” agenda so relentlessly enforced by New Labour has been a betrayal of pupils and teachers. Better, Alexander argues, to understand breadth of learning experience as a guarantor of high standards and of child well-being. Alexander dispenses with the notion of literacy and numeracy at the core and re-conceives the primary curriculum as a matrix of twelve specified aims and eight “domains”. This is an original attempt to move beyond the entrenched argument about whether “traditional” subjects or “progressive” topics should organise curriculum-content in the primary school.

Alexander argues that primary school is both a period for preparing the child for secondary education and a period across which the child develops in her own right. The primary curriculum should be informed by a commitment to the importance of knowledge, understanding, inquiry and disposition as well as skills. Alexander presents these recommendations as a framework. Others, notably teachers and schools, should have charge of the details.

It is clear that the radical changes outlined require an end to KS1 and KS2 SATs. As this report puts it, the assessment tail should not be permitted any longer to wag the curriculum dog.

The work of the Cambridge Primary Review team is outflanking those perspectives which inform New Labour’s education policy. It is time Ed Balls had to contend with greater organised support for teachers and schools to have more autonomy in curriculum-maters and assessment. NUT members can use this report to help prevent their union from any accommodation to the Rose Review.

A condensed briefing and the full report can be downloaded from: www.primaryreview.org.uk.

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