Primary schools: another way of educating

Submitted by Matthew on 22 October, 2009 - 3:29 Author: Pat Yarker

For the past three years a team from Cambridge University comprising fourteen lead-authors and scores of researchers has undertaken the most comprehensive and thorough-going analysis of the state of Britain’s Primary education service since the ground-breaking Plowden Report of 1967. The team published their Final Report on 16 October. Democracy is its key theme.

It cannot be an accident that the Cambridge Primary Review is one of the most democratically-based pieces of academic labour ever carried out in Britain. The team produced 31 Interim Reports looking at, among other things, the primary curriculum, assessment and testing, the impact of government reforms and the condition of childhood in Britain today. Their writings have incorporated evidence from thousands of academic papers, over a thousand written submissions, two hundred and fifty seminars and conferences and two dozen new research-surveys.

The team travelled the country to meet education workers, primary school pupils, their parents and carers, and took evidence from all these groups. The reports are informed not only by academic research but by the experiences, observations and considered opinions of very many who work in or use the primary school service.

The Cambridge Primary review was financed independent of government (by the Esmee Fairburn Foundation) and its remit was not limited, as was the government-commissioned Rose Review’s, by what would suit the government of the day.


The Review’s Director and Editor Professor Robin Alexander says the current system of tests, targets and League Tables which so strait-jackets Primary education has “Stalinised” schools.

Alexander says the imposition by both Tory and New Labour governments of an increasingly centralised, coercive and rigid policy framework is a “the state theory of learning”. Embodied in the so-called National Strategies for Literacy and Numeracy, it has re-framed education as delivery and compliance.

He calls for centralisation to be reversed, for an end to the “empty rituals” of consultation and the disenfranchisement of local voices.

He condemns the way unelected and unaccountable groups inside government or its agencies make policy on the basis of scant or shoddy evidence.

He exposes the authoritarian mindset of those in power, and challenges them to lay aside their favourite rhetorical weapons, those of myth-making and derision, as they engage in the continuing national debate over education.

The Final Report includes over seventy formal conclusions and a similar number of policy recommendations. These build on government approaches which have made a positive impact, while also radically overhauling the primary education service where necessary.

Among the most important proposals are a re-definition of the “standards” agenda, a new approach to assessment, a re-vamped model of inspection, a full review of the definitions, procedures and provisions involved in Special Educational Needs, an extension of the Foundation stage (before formal schooling is begun), and advocating that specialist teachers as well as generalists be used in the Primary classroom.

The Final Report re-states the case for broadening any conception of educational “standards” in the Primary school to aim at excellence not just in reading, writing and maths, but in oracy, the arts and humanities and the sciences. In other words all aspects of the curriculum to which every child is entitled. Higher standards in literacy and numeracy grow from richer all-round provision.


Part of that provision is the teaching offered pupils, and the Cambridge Review team make important recommendations about the nature, length and content of Initial Teacher Education.

Teaching younger children requires highly-sophisticated, knowledgeable and expert practitioners. It cannot be done on the cheap, for example by the misuse of Teaching Assistants to take whole classes. In its focus on the quality of teaching rather than on streamlining the curriculum, as well as in its overview of the aims and values which should inform primary education, the Review outflanks the proposals of the Rose Review.

The Review team calls for SATs to be scrapped, and for assessment for learning to be separated from assessment for accountability. This strikes at the heart of the current system, which makes a single set of public tests supply information about individual pupils, whole classes, their teachers and their schools. Everyone outside the Department for Children Schools and Families understands that SATs cannot do all the government pretends they can. Various suggestions for reform have been offered. The Final Report argues for an increased role for Teacher Assessment, for sample-testing and for an improved model of school-inspections.

Media headline have been focussed on the proposal to extend the period during which young children engage in play. The Review Team argue, partly on the basis of widespread international practice, that involvement with those more formal, teacher-directed activities all too commonly seen as being “proper” schooling should not begin until the child is aged six.

But “play” is understood in the Report to be children’s work. Anyone who has spent time observing the multiple activities which go to make up a child’s imaginative “playing” will recognise that it is an opportunity for many different kinds of learning. In “play” children begin to make sense of the world and their own capabilities to act within it and on it.

The Final Report claims: “English insistence on the earliest possible start to formal schooling… is educationally counterproductive”. In particular, such an early start works directly against the best interests of the poorest children.


The Final Report deflates fashionable talk of ‘toxic childhood’, noting that children were among the most upbeat of the many thousands of people who supplied it with information and evidence.

The Report is neither complacent nor doom-mongering about what it is like to be a child in modern Britain. Instead, it focuses attention on the most urgent area: “The real crisis of childhood concerns the fate of those children whose lives are blighted by poverty, disadvantage, risk and discrimination.” It develops this understanding by noting once again that:

“The persistent ‘long tail’ of [school] underachievement, in which Britain compares unfavourably with many other countries, maps closely onto gross disparities in income, health, housing, risk and well-being.” In other words, the poorest and most multiply-disadvantaged of working-class children are likely to achieve in school much less than they are capable of, and which in other circumstances they could achieve.

From the time of their arrival into the more-formal system working-class children are likely to be labelled as deficient, incapable or failing, with grave consequences for their future in the system.

One way to help the poorest children ready themselves for formal schooling is to give them a year or so longer to do so. In falling over themselves to reject the Final Report’s recommendation to explore the feasibility of raising the age at which children begin formal schooling, the government has tried to present itself as acting in the interests of those most deprived. In reality, having presided over a widening of the gross inequalities indicated in the Report, New Labour has made it all the harder for such children to achieve success in school.

It was only to be expected that one-time NUT member and now Schools Minister Vernon Coaker attempt to rubbish the Final Report. The government has tried to disparage the earlier Interim Reports even as they implemented several key recommendations (notably those to scrap the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies.) NUT General Secretary Christine Blower was right to call the Final Report “an immensely rich source of policy ideas”. It will have to be reckoned with.

The Cambridge Primary Review has re-set the parameters within which Britain’s state primary education service ought to be discussed for the next period. All in all the Review is too well-grounded in real experience and tested theory, too inclusive, too wide-ranging, too comprehensive, too weighty, evidenced and well-argued to be ignored. Government, whether New Labour or Tory, may pretend the Review does not exist. Ministers may claim, absurdly, that because the Review team commenced investigatory work in 2006, their Final Report, written over the past few months, is somehow out-of-date.

But wherever those ministers seek to adventure in considering Primary education during the life of this Parliament and the next, they will find the work, words and influence of the Cambridge Primary Review already awaiting them.

• What I’ve written here draws on material released by the Cambridge Primary Review team and made available on their website. It is not possible to download a full copy of the Final Report, and buying one is costly. However, all schools are being sent a copy of the forty-page booklet: Introducing the Cambridge Primary Review for free. This booklet will also be available to download. Visit: www.primaryreview.

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