Cambridge Primary Review puts DCSF on the defensive

It’s a shame that the DCSF response to (RSA Fellow) Robin Alexander’s thoughtful Cambridge Primary Review was so – well – unthoughtful.

The report includes a core emphasis on dispelling the “policy-led belief that breadth and standards are incompatible, when the evidence consistently shows the opposite – that one requires the other and the best schools achieve both”. It calls for higher standards across the curriculum, with the humanities and arts being given the same emphasis and quality of teaching as numeracy, literacy and science teaching.

And the response from the department?

“English children were recently recognised as being the highest achieving in maths and science among European countries.

Which is great, but is that it?

Either the department’s argument is that a narrow emphasis on success in maths and science tests to the detriment of other elements of the education of children does in fact result in those children succeeding in maths and science tests.

Or, and I suspect this is more likely, the defensive nature of the response means there is no attempt to engage with a counter-intuitive, but well evidenced, assertion that breadth begets success even against narrow measures.

There isn’t even any of the usual attempt to argue that the department deplores teaching to the test (see Ed Balls’ comments on this last year) or that all areas of the curriculum are important. For once the rhetoric matches what the policy drivers seem to imply.

We need open, accessible debates about education that help the public get into some of the complexity of these issues.

The DCSF’s blank-faced autopilot reponse to such a thorough and ambitious review doesn’t help. The public deserve better.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Cambridge Primary Review puts DCSF on the defensive

  1. Caz

    Did anyone really think that the DCSF wouldn’t sit in the corner and sulk over this?

    I’m a music teacher, and for some time have been asking nyself (and others!) whether or not the emphasis on testing and the teaching “to the test” that we all know goes on, is stifling childrens’ creativity and imagination. I posted here – http://caz963.edublogs.org/2008/12/09/is-the-emphasis-on-maths-and-english-stifling-kids%e2%80%99-creativity/ about it at length. Based purely on my own observations, I’d have to that the answer to that question is yes – and this study appears to back them up.

    I was the recipient of a bog-standard state education in the 1970s and 80s. I went to bog-standard comprehensive schools in North East London and got good grades and eventually a good degree. I honestly don’t remember ever coming across peers who weren’t able to read, write and add up to a reasonable standard, and I do remember that we did art and history and geography at primary school as well as the 3Rs. So what’s changed? What is it about the curriculum that is causing so many pupils to leave Primary school with such a poor command of Maths and English, when there is such a heavy emphasis on those subjects now? It’s as though “more” has led to “less” – and yes, I know we are told all the time that standards have improved, but I teach at secondary level and I see very little to convince me of that fact. Scruffy books and illegible handwriting (and believe me, that really is the pot calling the kettle black, because mine is atrocious!) are the norm, and most pupils have no idea how to present work or how to express ideas (verbally as well as in writing).

    Subjects such as History and Geography surely present ample opportunity for the use and development of literacy skills, and any good teacher will incorporate elements of literacy and numeracy into their lessons where appropriate – I always try to do so, even if it’s just a simple set of instructions, or some “musical maths” (sums using note values).

    Of course, we want our children to be able to read, write and add up – but they should also be able to understand and interpret what they read and be able to express themselves creatively.

    Oh, and one last thing – if
    “English children were recently recognised as being the highest achieving in maths and science among European countries.”

    – why have I seen a fair few comments on blogs and newspaper sites today stating that the British education system is no longer respected by the rest of the world?

  2. louisethomasrsa

    Thanks Caz – I agree entirely that children should be taught to read and write in a way that enables them to interpret the world around them. In addition we would argue that they should be taught to interpret the world around them in a way that enables them to shape it!

    Regarding levels of literacy and numeracy, the definitions need careful thought. Around 20% of children currently ‘fail’ to achieve the expected Level 4 in English tests.

    However, level 3 requires that children ‘read a variety of tests fluently and accurately’, and their writing is ‘often organised, imaginative and clear. The basic grammatical structure of sentences is usually correct…Spelling and punctuation [are] usually accurate”

    This hardly indicates that a fifth of children are illiterate! As you rightly point out, the inability of many young people to express themselves in speech or in writing is potentially a much greater problem.

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