Friday, 16 October 2009

Too much, too young?

It is a bit rich for Prof Robin Alexander and his cohorts on the self-styled 'biggest review of primary education in 40 years' to accuse politicians of ideological interference in schools when they have just presided over a review which has always has at its core an ideological opposition to national testing. So, nobody can be surprised at its best publicised conclusions, that national tests should be scrapped and 'formal learning' should start later.

Yet for a study apperently groaning under the weight of '4,000 pieces of evidence', it is fascinating that it takes a practitioner to explain what nonsense underlies the suggestion that five year-olds are being subjected to rote learning of the sort that a Victorian would recognise - a claim inevitably treated with reverence on the BBC this morning.

In fact, there is not a great deal of difference between what is taught in pre-school in most other countries with a later starting age and what actually happens here. Nor is there a lot of difference between the extent to which some youngsters are taught well at home and others need schools to make up for a lack of home support (as a conversation with any Helsinki primary teacher will attest).

As Liz Steele, a not untypical English primary headteacher writes in the Times today:

Children starting reception class at 4 or 5 are not made to sit in serried ranks and chant times tables. They play, run around outside and often barely notice the transition from pre-school — except that they stay all day instead of just for the morning. While they are gardening, cooking and role-playing they learn about sounds and how to recognise letters.

But it is not a rigid curriculum, it’s learning through experience. For some pupils — who would otherwise not get these opportunities — the chance to interact is crucial to their development. They thrive and grow by being around adults who are trained in how to engage them and by playing alongside other children. Their speech improves and they are supported in a community rather than being taken to towns and clinics where their background and family are unknown.

If the environment is right, with learning experiences and good role models in the classroom, then it is best for some children to start school as soon as possible. Their breadth of knowledge increases and their basic skills improve. They are initially quite ired but we don’t see children falling asleep in corners and they soon become used to it and are quite lively.

It is not the middle classes who would lose out by the change proposed by the Alexander review, but those from backgrounds where there is too little support and stimulation at home. They are starting to fall behind by age three and will fall much further behind if they are denied the sort of purposefulness that is offered in thousands of primaries like that led by Ms Steele. Indeed the Alexander notion that because some parents won't read with their children at home - the main 'homework' expected in primaries - schools should not expect it to happen is defeatism of the highest order.

"Give us back our schools," is the TES headline to its story about the report. And that just about sums up the reasoning behind the desire to scrap tests. For those who object most to national testing are not a generation of youngsters obessesed by competitive computer games but some of their teachers and rather more of those running the teaching unions, who still haven't got used to the idea that schools are not run for the comfort of the staff but in the interests of the pupils; and as taxpayers we have a right to look occasionally at how they perform. Those who regard this as "Stalinism" clearly forget that when the first tests were taken in 1995, less than half of eleven year olds reached a standard that 70-80% reach today.

The primary purpose of primary schools must be to develop literacy and numeracy to a reasonable level in all their pupils, as well as providing a broad curriculum. I would have no argument with stripping back the compulsory curriculum to enable this to happen, and to allow 50% of the day to be decided at school level provided that children were taught to read, write and do arithmetic. I also happen to agree with the suggestion that there should be more specialist teachers in primary school. One of the benefits of the numeracy strategy was that it provided teachers with an understanding of a subject where many lacked confidence, and for which initial teacher education had left them ill-prepared.

But to imagine that children will be better off with less focus on English and Maths, and no proper independent school-level accountability is bizarre. We tried that before the mid-1990s and it didn't work. The only surprise about the Alexander report is that it took so long for them to reach the conclusions they had intended to reach from the start.

I've also blogged on this subject at Public Finance and John Rentoul has picked up this posting in a strong piece for his blog.

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