National tests at 11 hamper primary review

24 Oct 2008 The Guardian

Testing decisions

Primary teaching is handcuffed by Sats, says Mike Baker

Later this month a much-anticipated report will land on the desk of the schools secretary, Ed Balls. It could mark the biggest shift in primary school learning in England since the creation of the national curriculum. Indeed, the Rose review of primary education could be as epoch-making as the Plowden report (Children and their Primary Schools) of 1967. While this is only the interim report, it will establish the direction of travel. It will recommend a primary curriculum based not on discrete subjects but built around half a dozen or so "areas of learning". The emphasis will be on a skills-based curriculum, rather than the 1988 national curriculum model, which comprised discrete, traditional, secondary school subjects. Although literacy and numeracy will be centrally important skills, there will be an emphasis on personal development and on social and emotional learning.

Of course, the national curriculum has been in retreat for a while now. Last week's demise of the key stage 3 Sats was a further nail in its coffin. The government's own 2003 report, Excellence and Enjoyment, urged schools to "make full use of curriculum flexibilities in order to take ownership of curriculum".

But the reality is that, while the Sats remain, schools will continue to feel constrained by a curriculum dominated by numeracy and literacy preparation. And, of course, that is the rub: what will Rose say about testing? When Ed Balls set up the review in January 2008, he specifically excluded any "changes to the current assessment and testing regime". So, although Rose was urged to introduce more flexibility and personalised learning to primary schools, he was expressly told that he could not touch Sats, the handcuffs that bind teachers to a narrow curriculum.

There are other tough decisions for Rose's review. He was told to be creative and radical, and to reduce the burden of compulsory subjects, while also being told what he must include. So room must be found for compulsory foreign languages at key stage 2.

Rose was also told to find ways of including the creative arts, humanities, PE and sport despite a reduction in the number of compulsory discrete subjects, especially in key stage 1.

The Rose review will take the primary school curriculum further away from the secondary school model. Indeed, it will be much more influenced by the Early Years Foundation Stage. In short, it will build upwards on the skill foundations laid there rather than, as in the past, being seen as mini version of secondary school.

The review's remit is big. It is also required to report on the issues of summer-born children and dyslexia. And time is short. This interim report comes just 10 months after the review was announced. Indeed, from announcement to the final report in March 2009 will be just 14 months. By contrast, the Plowden committee took over three years to compile its report and recommendations.

For all that, the Rose review may have many similarities with Plowden, which also urged greater curriculum flexibility, with more focus on "topics" rather than rigid subjects, and a greater emphasis on learning through play and discovery.

But Plowden was not constrained by national tests and targets. Indeed, the Plowden report concluded that "it is not possible to describe a standard of attainment that should be reached by all or most children". Plowden was not against assessments within schools, describing them as "helpful", providing they are used with insight and discrimination and so long as "teachers do not assume that only what is measurable is valuable".

The big test for the Rose review will be whether it can deliver a more flexible and skills-based curriculum in primary schools that will, it seems, remain bound to national testing and targets.

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