Launching the government’s review of the national curriculum back in January 2011, Michael Gove condemned the current national curriculum as ‘too long, patronising towards teachers and [stifling] innovation by being far too prescriptive about how to teach’. Schools minister Nick Gibb described his vision for the new national curriculum as ‘a tighter, more rigorous model of the knowledge which every child should be expected to master … to be a benchmark against which schools can be judged rather than a prescriptive straitjacket into which education is squeezed’.
Teachers may be forgiven for being surprised, then, if they hit the ‘send’ button to print the draft Programmes of Study for English, maths and science published this month. At 24 (plus a 25 page appendix), 28 and 37 pages respectively, they’re significantly longer than their current equivalents. And with the Programmes of Study specifying, amongst other things, lists of words children be able to spell by the end of each year, when each multiplication table should be taught, and the size of the writing implement children should use (it shouldn’t be too large for their hand, we’re helpfully informed), it’s hard not to conclude that the government hasn’t been entirely successful in moving away from prescription and condescension.
The DfE clearly anticipated this sort of griping, defending itself in the FAQs accompanying the draft Programmes of Study with the assertion that, as English, maths and science are ‘the essential building blocks of education and the foundation of our system of school accountability’, it is therefore important that government ‘sets out in detail what children should be taught and when in the Programmes of Study for these subjects’. We are, however, promised much shorter Programmes of Study for other subjects, in order to ‘give primary schools greater flexibility to set high expectations for these subjects and tailor their school curriculum to bet meet the needs of their pupils’.
So what, then, will make up these ‘essential building blocks of education’ and what, crucially, will primary teachers and children be required to do differently from September 2014?
The key shift in government policy on reading has in many ways already happened, with a non-negotiable focus on phonics having been signalled through countless DfE speeches, and through the phonics match-funding programme. This is further reinforced in the draft Programme of Study for English (RIP ‘literacy’), with a clear dictate that phonics should be emphasised in the early teaching of reading to beginners, that pupils in Year 1 should practise their reading with books that do not require any strategies other than decoding, and the instruction, repeated in the Programme of Study for every year, that children who are still struggling to decode need to be taught to do so urgently through a rigorous and systematic phonics programme.
Phonics isn’t the only way in which the government plans to introduce greater rigour into the English curriculum, however. There is also a clear emphasis on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the English language, particularly grammar and spelling. The level of grammar children will be required to master is often more challenging than in the current curriculum with, for example, Year 4 children needing to be able to use fronted adverbials, Year 2 children to be able to talk confidently about suffixes, and Year 5 children about modal verbs. In terms of spelling, the draft Programme of Study includes a long appendix of words children should be able to spell by the end of each year, as well as the spelling rules and guidelines they should be taught.
The emphasis on exposing children to a range of genre that featured so strongly in the National Literacy Strategy has now gone. Genre such as myths and legends, letters and instructions are mentioned in passing, but are no longer linked to specific years as was the case in the NLS.
Finally, there is the focus on debate and recitation that met with such approval in the press. Children ‘should be competent in the arts of speaking and listening, making formal presentations, demonstrating to others and participating in debate’. In Year 1, children should learn by heart and recite rhymes and poems (although, as Michael Rosen has mischievously pointed out, unless the poems are fully decodable children mustn’t be allowed to actually read them…), in Years 3 and 4 they should participate in discussions about books, and in Years 5 and 6 they should take part in formal presentations and debates.
The emphasis on earlier mastery of the ‘nuts and bolts’ that can be seen in the English curriculum is even more pronounced in the draft Programme of Study for maths. If everything in the draft makes it through to the final version, maths in primary schools will get significantly harder. Many things will now need to be taught one, two or even three years earlier than is currently the case, and Year 6 now includes a raft of content which was previously not touched until Key Stage 3.
It’s impossible here to pull out everything that’s been brought forward, but examples include:
- Year 1 children will need to be able to recognise, name and write ½, ¼ and ⅓ as parts of an object, shape or quantity (this was in Year 2 in the National Numeracy Strategy, and even then only looked at ½ and ¼);
- Year 2 children will need to know addition and subtraction facts to 20 (previously only to 10);
- Year 4 children will need to know their times tables to 12 (previously they only needed to know their 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10 times tables);
- Year 6 children will need to recognise binary numbers up to 15, add and subtract mixed numbers and fractions with different denominators, calculate the areas of parallelograms and triangles and be introduced to algebra – none of which is currently in the Primary curriculum at all.
Overall, there is a much greater focus on developing written calculation skills (such as column addition and subtraction) early, and on knowing maths facts (e.g. times tables and number bonds) off by heart.
Many of the trends seen in the English and maths draft Programmes of Study are also present in science. The familiar emphasis on knowledge can be seen here as a greater focus on scientific content rather than on enquiry and investigation. As in English and maths, much of that content, including magnetism, the digestive system and respiration, will be taught much earlier than in the current curriculum. And the focus on encouraging children to develop the meta-language of a subject also continues here, with a strong emphasis on naming, labelling and describing scientific phenomena.
Julie McCulloch and the Pearson Primary team