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In the hands of a new government: the future of primary education in England

By IOE Blog Editor, on 4 June 2024

This is the first of four blog posts about primary education from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (HHCP) at IOE. Each post addresses key points that are included in a new HHCP briefing paper written to inform debate about education in England as we approach the general election. The four posts are:

      1. In the hands of a new government: the future of primary education in England.
      2. Children, choice and the curriculum.
      3. Hands on learning: a progressive pedagogy.
      4. Assessment in primary schools: reducing the ‘Sats effect’.
Teacher leaning over to check on a student as they write at their desk.

Credit: WavebreakMediaMicro via Adobe Stock.

Dominic Wyse. 

Children from age four to eleven have a natural thirst for learning, and a quickly developing capacity for independent learning. This is a golden opportunity that must not be squandered by a national curriculum and pedagogy and assessment systems that fail to reflect the best evidence we have. While we have heard some welcome proposed manifesto promises about early years, secondary and further education, primary education is in danger of being neglected. 

England’s national curriculum, statutory guidance on pedagogy, such as that on literacy, and statutory assessment systems reflect a level of control by government that is unprecedented in the history of curriculum development in England, and which is an outlier internationally. The agency of all actors in the system needs rethinking.

Children in primary schools are capable of so much more than the current national curriculum requires, but children’s agency needs to be actively and explicitly supported through a renewed primary curriculum and associated pedagogy and assessment if children’s capabilities are to be fully realised. Teachers as professionals should have much more agency, particularly over decisions about pedagogy, in order that they can more effectively support the diverse needs of the pupils they teach.

At the root of the problems with the national curriculum is its particular knowledge-based approach. The current aims of the national curriculum are, we argue, ideological and ill-defined, and inappropriate for the context of the world children are living in and will live in. As we set out in our briefing paper, backed up by a review of the evidence base, far too much emphasis in the current national curriculum is devoted to aspects such as learning grammatical terms, mathematics times tables, or how to do well in statutory assessments such as the Phonics Screening Check – while far too little rigorous attention has been given to a holistic view of the child and their needs, and how this should be represented in a genuinely broad, balanced and coherent curriculum. Judging by the best evidence we have on primary learning, some areas, such as creativity and oral language development, are woefully under-represented.

England’s curriculum is no longer broad and balanced, it is narrow and insufficiently suited to the diverse population of children in school today and in future. It is a curriculum of compliance. We need bold revisions to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment to unlock the intrinsic motivation, aspirations and creativity of our future citizens so that they reach for the stars. England was once a place renowned worldwide for its creative primary education – that is a global competition worth winning again.

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3 Responses to “In the hands of a new government: the future of primary education in England”

  • 1
    Helen Moylett wrote on 4 June 2024:

    I agree that far too little rigorous attention has been given to the whole child but let’s acknowledge that we have an early years curriculum that should do that for the first year that children are in primary school. The last thing we want any new government doing is ignoring the Early Years Foundation Stage in England or the Welsh, NI or Scottish EY frameworks.

    Thre has been unrelenting pressure on early years to become more like NC. The DfE claimed a mandate to ‘reform’ the EYFS based on the 2017 DfE Primary Assessment Consultation not on any form of birth to five sector consultation. Nobody responding to that consultation, which included questions on the EYFS Profile and Reception Baseline Assessment, asked for changes to all the Early Learning Goals(ELGs) or a re-write of all the educational programmes for children from birth to five; but the government went ahead anyway. If a full review had been suggested to the whole sector, and managed democratically, we might now have an improved EYFS statutory framework. Instead we have something DfE keeps claiming is ‘reformed’ but is actually a limited and limiting document that fulfils DfE’s objective of making Early Learning Goals align with Year 1, rather than one which builds the framework on development pathways from birth informed by the EYFS principles and recent relevant research.Nonetheless it still allows practitioners to be child cenred in their teaching and play is still in there!
    We have a chance with a new government to properly review the EYFS and to remember that early years teaching is not a transmission process, feeding knowledge into children’s minds with children as passive receivers. Children must do the learning work, and the educator’s role is to work with the process of learning itself. The learning behaviours and dispositions known in the EYFS as the ‘Characteristics of Early Learning’ are still a statutory requirement and could be the basis of any currciulum as they are lifelong learning skills. Why not try ‘bottom up’ instead of ‘top down’ for a change?!

  • 2
    Rosemary Davis wrote on 4 June 2024:

    Brilliantly argued and makes the case for a fundamental review of the National Curriculum.
    To do this, a hard look needs to be taken at the current premises about children, their development and needs.
    The current curriculum and the assumptions underlying it presuppose a passive child, not the active learner who possesses a voice and has agency.

  • 3
    Dominic Wyse wrote on 5 June 2024:

    Absolutely agree that early years is both important and has a far from ideal curriculum. You will see in our briefing paper that for the longer term we recommend a review of the whole curriculum so that early years through to secondary is coherent in one national curriculum. This must avoid inappropriate top-down ‘school-ready’ pressures but also needs to bring together curriculum and assessment into a coherent whole. Such a review would have to seriously address our existing key stages and make proposals that command consensus.