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Education Leaders' Guide to...primary programmes of study in English, maths and science

image of smiling pupil at computer

The much-anticipated new primary curriculum has finally been published by the Department for Education with promises of increased rigour, and opening a period of consultation.

 

The slipped timetable means that the new programmes of study for these three subjects plus PE will be introduced a year later than planned, in September 2014.

 

The DfE has stressed that the draft programmes of study are more demanding than the existing National Curriculum, and raise standards in "the basics" enabling children to do more advanced work at secondary school. These "align England with those countries that have the highest-performing school systems," it says.

 

Eye-catching changes to requirements in English and Maths, including a requirement to learn poetry by heart from 5, times tables up to 12 from the age of 9, and calculations using fractions in primary have made the headlines, but there are more radical changes.

 

In chief, these are that levels and level descriptors have disappeared, that the mathematics curriculum is specified year by year, and that KS2 is split into "upper" (year 5 and 6) and "lower" (year 3 and 4) specifications. There are, says the DFE, no plans to replace levels and level descriptors and apart from the KS tests, it is up to schools on how they assess progress. The whole class must "grasp core content" before moving on.

 

A published letter from Mr Gove to Tim Oates, chair of the Expert Panel on the curriculum review, says: "I do agree with the panel that there needs to be a relentless focus on ensuring that all pupils grasp key curriculum content. The removal of level descriptors and the emphasis in the new Programmes of Study on what pupils should know and be able to do will help to ensure that schools concentrate on making sure that all pupils reach the expected standard, rather than on labelling differential performance.

 

"In terms of statutory assessment... I believe that it is critical that we both recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress. Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required, so that we can recognise and reward the highest achievers as well as identifying those who are falling below national expectations. We will consider further the details of how this will work."

 

It also appears that schools will be required to publish their curriculum for each year from this September.

 

The documents released by the DfE so far -- the three draft curricula, the Tim Oates letter, an updated frequently asked questions section and a press notice on the website -- have a distinct lack of clarity in these areas.

 

The NAHT has given a cautious welcome to the draft documents, in particular the scrapping of levels, the emphasis on the pleasure of reading in English, and the assurances of no additional statutory assessments or changes to key stages. However, general secretary Russell Hobby is questioning where the proposed curriculum freedoms will be found, and adds: "Some of the proposals are less dramatic than they seem at first glance. Nine out of 10 primaries already teach a foreign language. Phonics is also already widely used, and speaking and listening are similarly encouraged. Close engagement with nature and outdoor working is a feature of many primary schools.

 

“A more considered evaluation will follow when members have had time to digest the full documents. We hope - and expect - that this is part of a debate rather than a done deal.”

 

There are apparent contradictions in the documents on how the promised debate and consultation on the programmes of study will take place. Mr  Gove's letter to Mr Oates on how the debate and consultation will take place says: "We will work closely with the teaching profession over the coming months to determine exactly how the new National Curriculum will be enhanced and assessed. Our guiding principle will always be to learn from the highest-performing schools and give special weight to the experience of those professionals who have done most to raise attainment for all students and who have helped the disadvantaged most of all."

 

In the press notice, however, the department promises an "informal consultation" so that the programmes of study can be "widely discussed". "Some will think aspects are too demanding, others that they are not demanding enough, and there will be debate about what is appropriate at different ages. The Department for Education will consider the public debate and re-draft the programmes before re-publishing them later in the year for formal consultation."

 

There will be a consultation later in the summer on the plan to introduce foreign languages from the age of 7. 

 

The key points of the overview

What is Mr Gove hoping to achieve through the new primary curricula?

The press notice talks about plans to "restore rigour in key primary subjects" and align England with countries with the highest performing school systems.

Mr Gove's letter to Tim Oates talks about setting "ambitious goals for our progress as a nation". He expects the aims for each subject to "embody our sense of ambition, a love of education for its own sake, respect for the best that has been thought and written, appreciation of human creativity and a determination to democratise knowledge by ensuring that as many children as possible can lay claim to a rich intellectual inheritance."

 

In the Frequently Asked Questions section on the DfE website, the Government says it intends the National Curriculum to properly reflect the body of essential knowledge which all children should learn. The aims include rigour and high standards, and coherence of what is taught in schools, ensuring all children have the opportunity to acquire a core of essential knowledge in the key subjects, and allowing teachers the freedom to use their expertise to help children realise their potential beyond that core.

 

Does he suggest how he thinks these goals can be met?

Mr Gove cites "high performing jurisdictions" several times in his letter, explaining that they have a clear and structured approach to setting out high expectations with strong school accountability, and that the Government needs to set the same level of high expectations in England.

 

He says he has been "struck by many of the features which characterise the most successful jurisdictions and indeed the highest-performing schools in our own country.

 

"Stronger leadership from head teachers, together with more intelligent accountability and, above all, improvements in teaching quality are the essential elements of high-performing school systems.

 

"Our policies to extend academy freedoms, reform performance tables and inspection and attract even more outstanding people into an already great profession should help raise attainment for all children and help the poorest most of all.

 

"I am determined that the changes we make to our National Curriculum reinforce these reforms. I want our curriculum changes to provide heads with a clear sense of high expectations in the essential subjects of mathematics, science and English. Our curriculum changes should also ensure that schools are held properly and rigorously accountable for helping all pupils to succeed in key subjects. And our curriculum changes must provide the gifted teachers we have in our classrooms with both a sense of the higher standards that we know they are driven to reach and the freedom to develop more innovative and effective approaches to teaching."

 

What do we know about plans for assessment and replacements for level descriptors?

The letter to Mr Oates suggests a simple vision for the future: that children will simply be expected to master the content for each year or key stage, whichever is relevant.

 

"In order to ensure that every child is expected to master this content, I have, as the panel recommended, decided that the current system of levels and level descriptors should be removed and not replaced. As you rightly identified, the current system is confusing for parents and restrictive for teachers.

 

"I agree with your recommendation that there should be a direct relationship between what children are taught and what is assessed. We will therefore describe subject content in a way which makes clear both what should be taught and what pupils should know and be able to do as a result.

 

I have considered carefully the panel’s suggestion that, in primary schools, all pupils should be expected to have grasped core content before the class moves on. The international evidence which you provided on this issue is indeed both interesting and important.

 

I do agree with the panel that there needs to be a relentless focus on ensuring that all pupils grasp key curriculum content. The removal of level descriptors and the emphasis in the new Programmes of Study on what pupils should know and be able to do will help to ensure that schools concentrate on making sure that all pupils reach the expected standard, rather than on labelling differential performance.

 

In terms of statutory assessment, however, I believe that it is critical that we both recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress. Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required, so that we can recognise and reward the highest achievers as well as identifying those who are falling below national expectations. We will consider further the details of how this will work."

 

The press release simply says that the levels and their descriptors were confusing for parents and bureaucratic for teachers, and that they will be removed and not replaced.

 

What flexibility is there over teaching the National Curriculum in primary schools, now that maths is specified by academic years as is English in KS1, and in two-year blocks for KS2?

"Schools will have flexibility over when National Curriculum content is taught. Maintained primary schools are required to teach a Programme of Study by the end of each key stage. Schools will however continue to have the flexibility to move content between years, so long as they cover all the content by the end of the key stage. They will also be able to move on to the content covered in the next key stage early if they believe it is appropriate to do so."

 

How are pupils with special needs expected to cope with this new approach?

The FAQ section says teachers should have high expectations for all their pupils and must make clear how this will be set in their school curriculum. A minority would have "particular requirements" arising as a consequence of SEN. " Teachers must take account of these requirements and make provision, where necessary, to support this diverse group of pupils."

 

What about the announcement on languages in primary schools?

Mr Gove's letter says he wants to add breadth to the primary curriculum by requiring all schools to teach a foreign language at KS2, "in common with high-performing schools in this country and other high-performing jurisdictions".

 

It says: "The new foreign languages Programme of Study will require an appropriate balance of spoken and written language. Pupils must learn to speak in sentences, with appropriate pronunciation. They will have to express simple ideas with clarity. Pupils should also learn to write phrases and short sentences from memory. They should develop an understanding of basic grammar. And they should become acquainted with songs and poems in the language studied. Teaching should focus on making substantial progress in one language."

 

In the Frequently Asked Questions section on the website, the DfE says that if a primary school chose to teach a classical language such as Latin to pupils that would be acceptable.

 

How is the curriculum being slimmed down?

Mr Gove says there will continue to be requirements for the teaching of art and design, design and technology, geography, history, ICT, music and physical education across all the primary years. "Programmes of Study in these subjects will, however, be much shorter to allow for the maximum level of innovation at school level in the development of content in these areas."

 

When will the other curricula be released?

The press notice says later this year.

 

Why is the review process taking longer than originally planned?

The DfE says it has thrown up a number of "important challenges" including how to ensure the National Curriculum is as ambitious as those of the highest performers around the world, how it should be structured including attainment targets, and how to create a better fit between the curriculum and GCSEs.

The Detail:

Susan Young April 2011
Susan Young is an education journalist
Page Published: 13/06/2012

The detail: