What should the primary curriculum really look like?

Or: What is the point of teaching them all this stuff anyway?

I’m firmly of the belief that a majority (perhaps the large majority) of primary teachers share the same view: that we force-feed the kids in our classes a diet of breadth over depth because the curriculum, or the tests, or Ofsted, or SLT’s demand it. I think most primary teachers – particularly in infants and lower juniors – find themselves teaching things that they think are being delivered ‘too soon’ for the children in their care.

This is not an argument for the molly-coddling of children, or the lowering of standards. Rather it is an argument for a rationalisation of what we try to teach.

Coming from a middle school background, I have long wished that the 9-13 Middle Schools of the 70s had really taken off. I wish that the National Curriculum from its first inception had been built around the three main phases of first, middle and upper schools. Then, we might perhaps have had a different approach. Perhaps not in 1988, but maybe by now we might have recognised that very little really matters in the curriculum for children under 9 unless they are already confident with number and language.

I raise this point because of a brief discussion I had with Heather () on Twitter this evening. She quite rightly pointed out that starting to teaching persuasive writing in Year 1 didn’t seem to be contributing to a significant growth in the transferability of such skill at GCSE level. And if the skills aren’t transferable after 10 or 11 years’ teaching, then what’s the point? My response was both complete agreement and disagreement.

I disagreed because I think the point of teaching persuasive writing at KS1 is not to enhance the persuasive writing skills of 16-year-olds. In fact, I think the only purpose for any form of writing at KS1 is the practice of the basic skills of writing itself: the building of sentences; the use of capital letters; the simple formation of the symbols. However, I agree that expecting the teaching of varied genres at KS1 to have much impact on the ability of children to write for different purposes is frankly erroneous.

So, what then, is the point of any such work?

Looking back at the three-tier model, I’d be quite happy to see a curriculum substantially different to the one we have in place at the moment. This links in with Michael Fordham’s (@mfordhamhistorypost on an altered Secondary curriculum (which is well worth a read). In it, Fordham argues that English as a separate subject (as distinct from Literature) ought to be removed from the curriculum and its various aspects be properly addressed in domain-specific subject lessons. A genuine approach to Literacy across the curriculum. I’d be happy with that model, and what’s more, I think that it should be balanced by the inverse approach at first school age.

Given the choice, I’d happily see a three-tier curriculum (as in first, middle and upper stages) that broadly followed this pattern:

First School (age 5-9): Only English, Maths and Modern Languages would be statutorily prescribed programmes of study. All other subjects currently in the National Curriculum would become part of required areas of study (Arts, Humanities, Sciences, etc.) which were intended to provide breadth of experience and support the core subjects. Physical Education would also remain statutory, with no programme of study.

English and Maths programmes of study would be re-shaped to focus on Literacy and Numeracy. That is, all children would be expected to focus on developing oracy, and reading and writing basics (comprehension, building sentences, vocabulary, paragraphs, etc.), without concern for genres or required areas of study.That’s not to say that children wouldn’t meet other genres, or contexts, but that these would merely be to support the core teaching aims, rather than becoming additional goals in their own right.

Similarly, in Maths the requirements would focus largely on number work with relatively brief forays into shape as appropriate. To be fair, the new Maths curriculum has moved a good way towards this. I have often heard many secondary maths teachers say they’d be happy to teach Y7s who came to secondary secure with number bonds and tables and relatively little else. I’d agree, but think we could move to that sooner. Let’s have all 9-year-olds ready for the next level.

By removing the requirements to study particular programmes of study in all areas, it ought to be possible to move towards a system where the current Level 4 expectations could be met by the majority of 9-year-olds, rather than 11-year-olds. As Mark McCourt (@EmathsUK) said this weekend at the maths conference: Maths is like Jenga – pupils don’t fail because of weaknesses in the blocks at the top!

Middle School (age 9-13): The current subjects of the National Curriculum would remain, although English and Maths would be radically re-shaped to reflect the changes in the first school range. English could now begin to focus more on literature, although as Michael Fordham suggests, ought not to need as much curriculum time as at present (often 7.5+ hours a week in primary schools) as literacy should be mastered by age 9. There would still be study of language and some genre-linked ideas, but the shift towards domain-specific writing should be reflected in a shift in timetabled hours. I would argue that Middle Schools used to do this, until the KS2 SATs demanded that they narrow their timetables to focus on meeting the odd demands of the tests.

This model should leave more time in this phase for the study of subject knowledge. It would be far more sensible, for example, to begin a study of chronological history at age 9 and maintain it until at least age 16, rather than the current 7-14, and would be far more successful if students had already mastered the required literacy skill. Of course, this also would be combined with the middle school approach to specialism. We should expect all teachers of first school-age children to be expert in the teaching of early reading, writing and mathematics. We simply cannot expect that to apply right up to the age of 11 any more. It isn’t working.

Upper School (13+): The model that Michael Fordham suggests seems to make a good deal of sense to me here. By this stage children should have a broad experience of all the subjects, underpinned by their ability to access and use texts and a secure knowledge of number work. Ideally I’d argue for greater breadth until the age of 18 as well


Of course, none of this is rocket science. Indeed, most of it fits with what many primary teachers already think: if we spent less time ploughing through genres, or tackling history concepts with 8-year-olds, we could focus more on the things that really matter, and give those kids the freedom to access all matter of higher level material as they got older. Surely that’s got to be better than the current system which tries to build all curriculum areas from age 5… and too often leaves interventions at 16 to try to plug the gaps the system leaves?

Addendum: I ought to note that it wouldn’t necessarily be a requirement to change the whole system to a three-tier model. But I would argue quite strongly that expecting any primary teacher to be an expert in all areas of the curriculum up to Y6 level is never going to provide us with the best system; middle schools present a good solution to this; specialisation in small primaries is much harder.



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8 thoughts on “What should the primary curriculum really look like?

  1. heatherfblog 15 June 2014 at 8:47 pm Reply

    My first impression is that I like this a lot! My only thought is that the need to teach content (for general comprehension) is important at all ages, including with the youngest. However, I’m not sure this is incompatible with what you are suggesting anyway.

    • Michael Tidd 15 June 2014 at 9:23 pm Reply

      I think my view is that no particular content is so vital as to be necessary to deliver to 7-year-olds. If the whole curriculum is built around those core skills, nothing stops good teachers selecting excellent material and content for context. It’s the dictation of content coverage that is stealing time from the important stuff at the moment that I dislike.

  2. mrlock 15 June 2014 at 9:48 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. Debbie Hepplewhite 16 June 2014 at 12:06 am Reply

    Michael – I agree with you. Well said.

    I’ve been speaking up against national testing/assessment of genre writing for Year Twos for many years.

    It’s not that some children – many – can’t achieve level 3 in genre writing (oops – no more levels – but you know what I mean), it’s that the basic stuff as you describe – mastering punctuation, capital letter requirements, handwriting, solid reading, writing and so on – is so fundamental that Year Two teachers are left in a dilemma as to what best to spend their time on – grooming in higher order skills – or focusing on basic skills but thoroughly enjoying the literature and other language activities.

    I spend my life aiming for teachers to focus on basic skills not according to a time-table – but according to need and common sense – not tick-boxing either.

    The stronger the foundations for your first tier, the greater the knock-on effect from there on in.

  4. ChrisN 16 June 2014 at 12:07 pm Reply

    This is essentially how I was taught as a child in the U.S. (a long time ago), in what was an excellent school system. In elementary school the focus in years 1-3 was primarily on maths and literacy, with plenty of time for the teacher to read aloud, and lots of art, craft and music. In year 4 we started learning specific subjects, and after that we all had 3 different teachers in Years 5 and 6, (specialising in English, history/social geography, and science) while all of them did maths with their home group. This prepared us for further subject specialisation when we moved to junior high school in year 7. High school started in year 9, and was the first point at which setting was done. So I think this post makes a great deal of sense!

    Regarding the 3 tier system, my main objection is that in my daughter’s English middle school year 7 and 8 are weak in many ways, because the school continues to use methods more appropriate for year 5s. So the high school gets poor results in English because they have no way of requiring their feeder schools to actually get the kids up to speed with academic writing in years 7 and 8 – yet they are held responsible for GCSE results!

    • Michael Tidd 16 June 2014 at 6:03 pm Reply

      I think that the problem you outline is one of the accountability system rather than the three-tier model of itself. But I do recognise the issue.
      I’m not familiar with the US model, but it does certainly sound like it has merits!

  5. sarahfreck 11 August 2015 at 6:15 pm Reply

    I like a lot of your suggestions here. I certainly see the results of “too much too fast” amongst many of the students I tutor.

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