Changes in Primary Education
1972 – The year I started teaching
Well, I must confess that I started teaching in 1972 at a time when seating pupils in groups was deemed to be ‘the thing to do’. In truth, the Plowden era was upon us and discovery learning was the order of the day. In fact, most teachers sat pupils in groups but very little collaborative learning was encouraged.
1988 – The year of a National Curriculum in primary education.
Since that time, 1988 has always been the stand out year. It was, of course, the first year that a National Curriculum had found its way into primary education. I was fortunate to have been a Headteacher for seven years leading up to 1988 and I can say without contradiction that headship was the best job ever. Not just because accountability was non-existent but because, as a school leader, I led the teaching and the curriculum. Schools focused very much on what was right for the pupils, well some did. In truth for every exciting and great school there was probably twice as many poor schools that relied heavily on commercially produced materials such as the famed ‘alpha and beta’ maths.
It was genuinely a coincidence that I left headship in 1988 to become a ‘school adviser’ in the Greater Manchester area. Whispers of an inspection system filled the air and of course the famous subject folders began arriving at each school (one for each teacher for each of the fourteen subjects that was outlined in the new National Curriculum). I remember one Headteacher, who was at the end of his career, was determined not to open any of the boxes that arrived at his school. I, in my role as his adviser, was desperately counselling him to at least let his staff know what the contents were. In his day, he had been a remarkable Headteacher but he didn’t agree with a subject driven system and was determined not to change. On a subsequent visit, I remember him greeting me with a wicked smile and saying that he had, at last, found a use for the boxes that kept arriving. With that, he took me into the staffroom and showed me how he had created a coffee table that stretched the whole length of the room. The new coffee table was of course the boxes covered with an appropriate table cloth.
Significant changes in primary education
The reason for this nostalgic look into the past is that I believe we are now going through the second most significant change in primary education since the implementation of that first ever National Curriculum. The concept of ‘deeper understanding’ rather than a race through the sub levels has inevitably raised additional issues. Teaching and pedagogy have been put under the microscope once again. It is inevitable that the principles of metacognition have come to the fore. The fact that we are asking our learning to have greater resilience and take greater control of their learning is asking school leaders to question if their current way of monitoring of lessons is appropriate.
It is clear that pupils’ ability to ask each other questions rather than just seek answers is very much part of the current curriculum’s requirements. We need learners to be: focused on the processes involved in learning; to be able to articulate their successes and their difficulties in mastering the intended learning: and, to evaluate their own and others’ work against given criteria. This in turn, should mean that lesson observations should focus more on the learners than the teaching. The quality of questioning; the way learners behave as critical friends, the development of their reasoning and thinking skills are a few areas that need to be under the microscopic view of the observer.
Whenever I currently enter a classroom, my focus has shifted to the following five areas:
Once these have been highlighted, senior leaders can begin to outline what excellence in learning might look like and then what part each phase has in promoting this quality of learning. If we look at the first of these ‘pupil to pupil questioning’ we may have statement such as:
- Working with a partner, or as part of a small team, pupils raise questions about their learning as a matter of course.
- Pupils frequently raise questions about their learning and are not inhibited to ask these in front of the rest of class.
- Pupils’ questions are very open and include: ‘What if…?’; ‘Why do you…?’; and ‘How would you ..?’ style questions.
- Questioning is an embedded feature at all levels in the classroom culture.
- Pupils recognise that raising questions is an important part of their learning.
- An ethos has been established where asking questions is more important than giving answers.
- Pupils always make their thinking explicit through their questioning.
- Pupils consistently generate questions which promote higher order thinking.
- Pupils start new learning by focusing on big questions and then generate other questions related to the main one.
- Pupils ask perceptive and insightful questions and develop relevant hypotheses.
- Pupils independently identify questions and problems, justify their interest in them, and critically consider whether they are worth asking and solving.
If these statements become an important part of the monitoring for excellence, we can then start to consider what we would want each phase to emphasise. For example, a real focus on getting learners to express questions and to work together to agree the best question to study in early years leading to raising questions as part of their research in Years 5 and 6.
A new and exciting approach to primary education
It is my belief that we are not only entering a different approach but a very exciting one, that every school should be striving for. Embedding the principles of meta-cognition, particularly pupils’ ability to raise their own questions, has been a major contributor to considerable improvement in the schools that I work with from disadvantaged areas. Creating a curriculum that demands greater levels of thinking and reasoning is undoubtedly the answer. That’s why I am more excited than ever about the changes in primary education and about still being involved in young people’s learning for almost half a century.
Continue the Conversation about changes in primary education.
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Learning Challenge Curriculum Website
Progression in the National Curriculum
How to Assess a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum
Clive is a former headteacher and inspector, having inspected over 200 schools. His school gained a National Curriculum award and was featured in the Times Educational Supplement, one of three schools recognised for their quality practice.
He was awarded an OBE for his services to education in 2007.