Category Archives: middle schools

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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I’m not quite like the rest of you…

I’m a middle school teacher by training and trade, and that makes me different. It also makes me part of a rapidly decreasing breed and has always left me feeling a bit separated from other things going on in schools.

I have been a great fan of Twitter this past year or so, and have found it informative, educational and useful in many ways, but increasingly I’m also becoming aware of a further divide between the two sectors of our system: primary and secondary.

The divide manifests itself in many ways. Firstly, I try to keep up to speed with a fair few blogs. I notice that blogs from primary teachers are rarer, but also that they tend to take a different tack. There are far more blogs from primary teachers about displays, or resource ideas, role play areas and the other paraphernalia of the primary classroom. Naturally these have their place, and I am grateful for those teachers who are expert in these areas and from whom I might learn a thing or two. But they’re not the things that get me animated about my profession.

Increasingly, my awareness of secondary teacher blogs is their focus on research (with debate of varying quality), the ‘big issues’ of teacher improvement, observation, use of data and effective leadership. I think these are important issues, but often what applies for a teacher of sixth-form Sociology is less directly relevant to the teacher getting their head round how best to teach column addition.

What concerns me most is the lack of overlap between these two. Not only because as a middle school teacher I am always concerned about the lack of understanding between the two sectors, but also because of the divergence of the profession more generally.

A classic example is this tweet this morning from @johndblake:

I happen to agree. Up to a point. But there is a massive difference between, say, the secondary school RE teacher who has perhaps 400 students to teach each week at various stages of their education career, and the primary school teacher with a class of 24 8-year-olds with whom she spends over 20 hours a week. The data just cannot have the same impact for those two people. The difference between the two sectors is hugely significant in this case, and a lack of understanding between the two can lead to disagreement, argument and too often a lack of respect, without furthering the case on either side.

This is why I worry about the prevalence of secondary teachers both in twitter, blogs and more widely – or rather the dearth of primary colleagues.

I have been reading Hattie’s Visible Learning lately, and while I recognise the value of much of what he says, it is harder for me to translate that thinking into primary practice than it might be if I were considering my GCSE History class. And I don’t see widespread discussion of those ideas among primary teachers as I do our secondary colleagues.

Lastly, let me stress that this is not to argue that primary teachers are not thinking of these big issues; merely that they are not finding their way into national discussions in the way that they seem to be among secondary colleagues.

I have seen several people comment about the need to get more teachers engaged in twitter and its surrounding debate. I couldn’t agree more, and the case is especially strong for recruiting more of our primary colleagues to tackle these issues in the many different ways they affect us.

And so it begins again…

It’s undoubtedly going to be a week of ‘back to school’ posts. Teachers often talk about having two starts to their year, but actually I think there’s something deep inside of all of us, dating back to our childhoods, that we all mark the arrival of September at least subconsciously.

Of course, for millions that will be because it marks the time of returning their own children to school. For some that will be a first day at nursery, for others the transition to high school, and for thousands more a move to a new teacher.

It’s a strange moment. Most adults recognise the anxieties and doubts that accompany starting a new job. Few recognise that for their children each new academic year can bring some of that same trepidation. And to an extent, the same is true of many of us as teachers.

This year, I become a primary school teacher. I’ve always been one really, but have denied it, having spent several years teaching Year 7 in middle schools. From September I will be teaching Year 5, and I can’t remember the last time I had so many doubts about starting a new year. Something akin to imposter syndrome which raises the question of whether I’m really capable.

I suspect there are some doubts among those coming into my class, too; a reputation for strictness precedes me. It’s not a reputation I mind, but it’s also some way off reality. But, of course, reality doesn’t exist during August… only the perception exists.

The suspicion, therefore, is that my own doubts are equally unreal. But like many other teachers up and down the land, it won’t stop me thinking of them late at night, or waking up with a start with them floating in my mind. Because one reality is that it’s a job that constantly demands both attention and self-examination.

Every September starts, for me like so many others, with a long list of aims: to do some things better, to introduce new ideas, to keep on top of something else… the list can go on. But for the most part they all boil down to the same thing: to be slightly better this year than I was last year.

For me, this year, that will involve tackling new curriculum at a new level, but also considering the reading I’ve done over the summer – especially Dan Willingham’s excellent tome – and wondering how it will change my ways of working.

Maybe part of that nervous fear is not so much about being an imposter as it is the fear of not quite living up to the image of the teacher I want to be. And if that be the case, I feel certain that the fears are quite real: I won’t be, not this year.

But maybe I’ll be just a bit closer than I’ve been before?