Monday, 28 April 2008

Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum - thoughts?

I think that the Independent Review is important and everyone interested in education in England should respond to the Call for Evidence (though you only have to 30th April to do this now).

Here are my thoughts about some of this; I would be really interested to see any feedback on this from others, and I will be able to use this feedback in my role as one of the members of the Advisory Group. So please add a comment if you have any views.

Extending the Early Years Foundation Stage into the Primary Curriculum

I think that this is an issue which needs to be considered as a number of separate items.

Areas of learning and development I think that the decision to split the curriculum into 6 areas in the Early Years already makes life quite difficult for nursery and reception staff. For example, Knowledge and Understanding of the World is a huge curriculum area which seeks to unite large areas of learning which are really distinct (e.g. history and ICT). In my experience, parents do not understand what is meant by this wide term, and it makes planning and assessment difficult. Cross-curricular planning is not made easier by uniting different areas of learning under one heading.

Children’s emotional and social development; the role of care in the curriculum I think that the principles and introductory sections to the EYFS give a useful account of how care links to learning for young children. My experience in Islington and Haringey is that we are in the middle of significant cultural/social changes around the role of schools in relation to care of children. Many children now spend extended hours in schools. Additionally, there appears to be less consensus and certainty in society about important aspects of bringing up children, especially how to set limits on children’s behaviour, and how much time and freedom should be given to young children for independent play, especially play outside and/or away from the supervision of parents. Whilst I think there can be a false nostalgia about social coherence in the past, there is a present and real difficulty being experienced by parents I work with in these areas.

Schooling plays an important role in how society constructs and understands childhood. So I would argue that there are two significant themes of importance about care in primary education. Firstly, many children appear to need more care from their schools, than they did in the past. They are showing signs of distress, anger, unhappiness and insecurity in school, and the school cannot help children to learn unless there is engagement with these issues of care. Secondly, there is a wider lack of confidence about how children should be cared for: how they can be loved, encouraged and valued, but also helped to learn about what sort of behaviour is socially acceptable, and what is not. Many children also need help to manage the fragmentation of modern family life, and social and cultural diversity in local neighbourhoods and society at large, and many parents are looking to schools to help their families.

It is for these reasons, that I think the primary curriculum should follow the lead of the EYFS and show more regard to children’s social and emotional development, and the importance of children feeling cared for in schools as well as provided for in a narrower educational way.

However, I think that a temptation arises out of this to see social and emotional development as a thing which can be taught. I think that this reification is unhelpful. My experience is that programmes developed elsewhere and sent out to schools are not helpful. Personal, social and emotional development cannot be taught as a separate lesson. My experience is that for staff to help children in this area requires a whole-school and whole-staff approach which (to be brief) is about how staff relate to children throughout the day; how staff are helped to cope with and make sense of the sometimes disturbing behaviour they have to manage; how staff are encouraged to make real relationships with the children; and making time and space for play in schools.

I would stress the importance of play, by which I mean opportunities for children to play freely and symbolically (e.g. homecorner play, play with dolls and small world people and animals, etc). I think that play can provide the opportunity for children to symbolise difficult feelings and experiences. To do this, play has to be given enough time, space and value for children to develop it (so it cannot be just done in “playtime” or as a treat for a few minutes when work is finished). Teachers need to consider providing play as being important – it requires care and attention in terms of what materials are offered and how this is developed.

With opportunities for quality play, and with the support of thoughtful and caring teachers and teaching assistants, children can be helped to feel safe and secure in school, to manage some of the difficulties of modern life. Schools can also share these aspects of their work with parents, which parents may find helpful in coming to answers for themselves about how to help their children’s development. I can share further examples from my experiences at Kate Greenaway Nursery School, if helpful, where children’s behaviour has improved significantly, especially in respect to children becoming self-disciplined, co-operative and collaborative.



Dispositions to learn It seems to me that the Children’s Plan has been developed partly in response to concerns about the current state of childhood in England. The plan gives a clear message about the potential of all children to succeed, enjoy their childhood, and grow up prepared for adult life. Therefore, children should not be over-pressured by over-formal or too narrowly focused teaching and learning to the exclusion of other fundamentally important areas of development and learning. The EYFS states that all aspects of development and learning are equally important; but many young children, especially those born in the summer, then experience (at a young age) a narrow Key Stage One curriculum. This pressure and narrow focus prevents children’s own natural, exploratory drive developed through self-directed play and rich first-hand experiences. I would argue, therefore, that a second element of the EYFS which could usefully be extended throughout the primary years, is the emphasis on the development of children’s dispositions to learn. With a balanced curriculum, including time for play and first-hand real experiences, children’s curiosity, perseverance and ability to communicate and collaborate are all nurtured. On the other hand, with an excessive early focus on narrowly conceived literacy and numeracy, some young children are effectively “switched off” learning. My understanding of the research into children’s early literacy and numeracy in schools is that there is still an excessive emphasis at Key Stage One on teacher-direction to the exclusion of more dialogic talk and extended conversation in classrooms. Whilst there is now good research evidence for the synthetic phonics approach to teaching reading, and for many aspects of the teaching of number in the Primary Strategies, both depend strongly on a classroom context in which children feel engaged, in which there is a context of rich, “whole” language, and in which number and other mathematical concepts are applied in real situations. I would argue therefore that primary schooling could be usefully rebalanced to allow more time and opportunity for children’s self-directed play; and a broader and more balanced curriculum which is therefore more likely to match the range of interests children have.

The effective elements of the Primary Strategy approach to literacy and numeracy need to be more clearly contextualised, so that formal learning is not introduced too early, and so that teachers and teaching assistants use more shared-thinking, dialogic and conversational techniques rather than simply delivering a pre-planned session and using questioning narrowly just to judge children’s levels of achievement.

Transitions

Summer-born children Some time ago, I was teaching twin boys in a nursery class who had been born prematurely, so their birth date was the end of August, not the middle of September as it would have been if they had gone to term. Their prematurity caused mild developmental delays and health professionals anticipated that over time, these delays would become gradually less significant. However, their developmental delay was extremely significant aged 3:11 with the prospect of their starting Reception the following month. After a great deal of discussion and negotiation with the local school, educational psychology child psychology, etc, it was finally agreed that they should stay an extra year at nursery. They then transferred to Reception successfully and have needed much less special needs support than had been anticipated the year before. On the basis of this experience (and the personal experience of being father to a prematurely born child) I would suggest that there should be more flexibility about starting Reception, with local authorities perhaps holding a multi-agency meeting to agree on what would be the most appropriate school start date for children “at risk” of starting school at the wrong time. Further consistency between the last two years of the Foundation Stage will also help children as they move from year to year, and it is also important that Year One planning recognises that many of the children are at the same age and/or development as those in Reception.