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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


The future of primary education in England: a response to recent discussions

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 20 June 2024

Girls in a primary school classroom talk over laptop screens. Credit: Phil Meech for UCL IOE.

Credit: Phil Meech for UCL

John White.

I agree so much with the arguments running through the four recent blog posts on primary education from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy. Today, curriculum and pedagogy are dominated by assessment requirements. This explains why so much of the curriculum is about knowledge acquisition and regurgitation – and, as Alice Bradbury’s piece points out, why so many pupils are bored or anxious about their Sats performance. Children are, after all, active, inquisitive, creative creatures. They need a curriculum, pedagogy and assessment system befitting these qualities.

My own primary schooling was during the war and in part child centred. But in 1945 I was in the first cohort of entrants for the 11+ exam. In my childhood nightmares Bush Elms Senior School was half hidden in a mist. If I had failed, that’s where I would have gone – starting work at 14 without any chance of gaining a qualification (the School Certificate was taken at 16, so even when the school leaving age was raised in 1947 to 15, children at secondary modern schools could not take it). Today’s selective system is more subtle. Success and failure are not a clear-cut dichotomy but lie on a continuum. Some students get further in the examination stakes than others; some achieve precious little.

A central aim, if not the central aim, of the school curriculum is maintaining a hierarchical workforce. Its vehicle is the assessment system. Some school-leavers go on to higher education and enjoy sought-after careers. Others find work commensurate with their mediocre GCSE results. The rest make do with jobs at the bottom of the pile. Curricula built around more easily examinable content, league tables and parental choice all contribute to this sorting process.

Part of the greater subtlety of today’s selective system as compared with the 11+ lies in obfuscation. If you turn to government documents to find the aims of school education, you are directed, in a phrase based on Matthew Arnold, to respect for ‘the best that has been thought and written’. Shaping the workforce as a central driver of government policy is hidden beneath fine sounding but unhelpful language like this.

The official line on the egalitarian credentials of school policy is also misleading. It states that the system is based on, and provides, equality of opportunity for all. Everyone can reach the heights; it is up to them if they do or not. This is an unfeeling policy. Despite appearances, it is also inegalitarian if one understands ‘equality’ in its more humane interpretation as ‘equality of respect.’ It is shameful that, while some are praised for their good exam results – bringing with them as they do the prospect of a well-paid job and a comfortable life – many learners are seen as constant failures at school and likely, after it, to end up in the precariat.

As Dominic Wyse says, an incoming government needs to base school education on better-thought-through educational aims. In my view these should be about equipping everyone for a life of well-being that embraces helping others, too, to lead such a life. The other-orientated side of this points, among other things, to concern about climate change and education for democratic citizenship. Vocational aims also have a place, but not in the way described above. They should inter alia provide a thorough acquaintance with the world of work and possible future trends, including, now, of course, a greater reliance on AI, plus, on my reading at least, moves towards work-reduction, a basic universal income, and more worker involvement in management.

I have claimed elsewhere that a life of well-being is built around whole-hearted and successful engagement in worthwhile activities and relationships pursued for their own sake. It is in primary school that children should be exploring its foothills. Yana Manyukhina is right in her advocacy of intrinsically motivated activities attuned to children’s natural curiosity, in place of work seen as ‘a mere pathway to achieving future success’. Emily Ranken pursues a similar line of thought in her plea for experiential learning.

We take it as read in a society like ours that a life of well-being is built around personal autonomy. In older societies one’s partnerships, the kind of work one did, where and how one lived were laid down by tradition. For us, choice, guided by practical reason, is a sine qua non. Personal autonomy, like engagement in intrinsically motivated relationships and activities, is something which can only be acquired via a lengthy process of induction. This is why the opportunities for choice that the blog authors emphasise are so vital.

To come back, finally, to assessment. Like Alice Bradbury, I see every reason for advocating its formative version – and exclusively so at the primary level. Teachers have to know how children are progressing, what obstacles stand in their way, and how these can be overcome. At the end of secondary school, there is also a case for assessing their achievements so far as a way of seeing what routes they can follow in post-school education. But traditional exams are a poor way of doing this, it seems to me, as compared with cumulative profiles or records of achievement.

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