Tag Archives: primary

Another damned expectation

I think one of the most useful qualities a headteacher can have is the ability to leave concerns behind at work. It’s never perfect – as I’m sure my family would attest – but if as a class teacher you find it hard to stop thinking about work in the evenings and weekends, then headship will only add to that challenge.

This weekend’s publication of a plan for music education feels like it was deliberately sent to test that ability.

True, you could say: never look at the news at weekends and never check your emails, but it’s not realistic. And so, early on Saturday morning I was presented with yet another document from the DfE telling me I’m failing. For that is how it feels.

Schools are different, so whatever you do, there will always be some school doing something better. Indeed because of the sheer volume of schools, you can usually guarantee that literally anything you do in a school will be done better somewhere. But as a head, so long as you can look at your own school and feel confident that you’re doing everything you can to offer the best deal on your priorities, you can live with that knowledge.

It becomes much harder when the government handpicks a small selection of examples and then tells every school in the land that what was the exemplar is now the expectation. It becomes an impossible task.

A couple of the case study examples in the new music plan talk about £20,000 annual budgets for music education in their schools. I just don’t have that money available. When I looked, half of the schools mentioned receive over £1000 more per pupil than my school: if someone put an extra £300,000 into my school next year, rest assured I’d find £20,000 for music!

Some of the (mostly urban) schools appear to be full, or even over subscribed. If each of my classes of 26 or 27 suddenly became 30, I might have another £60,000 in my budget which could certainly help music provision. But short of attempting to poach children from neighbouring villages or encourage more baby-making locally, there aren’t many options on that front.

None of which is to criticise what those schools achieve. The sharing of their practice is to be welcomed. We can always learn from other schools’ approaches, and can always strive to match those offers. But it’s not a level playing field.

So for government documents to state things like

The case studies included with this plan illustrate how excellent music education is being delivered now across the country within existing school budgets

is at best, unhelpful, and in truth disingenuous. Yet the DfE has chosen to all but insist that schools now create plans to bring their music curriculum up to the standard on offer in those schools.

Or, in fact beyond it. Even in their exemplar schools, not every one of the DfE’s bullet point list is met. Now you might argue that it’s important to be aspirational, but at what point are we setting people up to fail?

Music isn’t the only priority in schools. In the current climate, the massively underfunded need for recovery from the pandemic often tops the list; the near collapse of mental health services places a huge cost on schools both in terms of time and funding; demands for 90% attainment in English and maths will absorb both time and money. And neither of these things are in plentiful supply.

There isn’t a primary head in the land who wouldn’t like to give every child the opportunity to become proficient at piano. But for many, their first priority is ensuring that every child is fed, in a safe home, attending school in the first place, and hopefully mastering the basics that will set them up for their next steps.

None of that will be improved by a music development plan. Yet now school leaders will be forced to take time and money for other priorities to focus on this.

It’s demands like this that make me wonder how long the job is sustainable. Not because I don’t want to improve music education, but because I’m tired of constantly failing.

I’ve failed to get every child to attend school regularly.

I’ve failed to get 90% of my school working at the expected standard in maths.

I’ve failed to provide enough curriculum time for whatever subject Ofsted has lately pronounced upon.

And now I’ve failed to ensure that my school has enough practice rooms for music.

Never mind the fact that it doesn’t have enough space to provide calming spaces for all those children who need them because a special school place can’t be found for them. Never mind the fact that we don’t have enough teaching spaces to deliver decent interventions for those who desperately need to catch up. Never mind the fact that half of school leaders’ time is taken up with plugging the gaps left by failing local authority children’s services.

Now I must write a plan for how I’m going to create new practice rooms. Oh, and remove some teaching time from another subject to make room for more music lessons. Quite which subject they think we’re teaching too much of, I don’t know!

For me, this is the stuff that makes the job intolerable. I don’t mind there being SATs or an inspectorate. I can live with having to balance a challenging budget so long as it’s enough to pay for the basics. I can even cope with being on call on Christmas Eve to fill the gaps in the government’s pandemic strategy. But I’m tired of constantly being told to do more.

It’s exhausting to be told time and again that because one school has managed some accomplishment in some tiny part of their overall role, that we must now all do the same and more “within existing school budgets”.

When my time comes to jack it all in and walk, it won’t be the behaviour, or the parents, or the SATs that push me over the edge: it’ll be another damned expectation.


Primary Roll Call – ‘Leaders & Thinkers’

Last year I wrote a post entitled Primary Tweeters to follow in 2014. They are still good recommendations, but a year is a long time on Twitter – and blogs. Alongside a parallel post by Jo P, I have decided to offer a brief update of some highly recommended twitter users and bloggers for primary teachers to follow. Mrs P’s post (Primary Roll Call – Classroom Ideas) focusses more on the teachers who offer practical and inspirational ideas for the classroom; mine is more about those who work at leadership and strategic levels. Of course, many could easily feature on both lists, so do check out both!

In no particular order, my 10 recommendations are:

Dame Alison Peacock
Alison is headteacher of the Wroxham School – widely known for it’s learning-without-limits approach that saw levels disappear some time ago. She tweets, blogs and speaks with much sense as a headteacher and system leader.

Dr Richard Farrow
Never one to shy away from debate, Rich has a clear vision for what education should be about, and speaks without fear favour on a range of issues across education. He is a Y5 teacher in Stockport and tweets and blogs regularly.

The Primary Head and Old Primary Head
These two are the Batman and Robin, the Dangermouse and Penfold… the Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee of Tweeter, and of the Westcountry one presumes. Both engage on big issues, but also neither are afraid to shy away from the smaller ones. Both are headteachers, and both blog (The Primary Head / Old Primary Head) and tweet (@theprimaryhead / @primaryhead1) frequently with good humour.

Chris Andrew
Chris is a deputy head in London, and notably has begun his Ofsted training this year. He has a well-rounded view of education and is hopefully tackling the behemoth from the inside! He tweets and blogs/re-blogs.

Mr Chadwick
I’m a big fan of Mr Chadwick’s. He talks sense about primary education. In a world where much is too woolly, and where debate too often descends into petty argument, this man presents sensible thought, with reason and calmness. He tweets at @mr_chadwick

Tim Clarke
Another headteacher – this time from Hampshire – who engages regularly online. He has been a great support to me and others in matters relating to the new curriculum, and must be a great head to work for in many ways. He both tweets and blogs.

Tim Head
Maybe Tim’s have a tendency to be decent fellows? This one is a Computing leader in the Midlands – but don’t let any of those things put you off! I’m firmly in the anti-tablet and pro-drywipe board camp, but still this man offers much of interest and debate. He tweets with a shameless profile image.

Bill Lord
Bill is another Head – and another decent one it seems. He is frequently seen engaging with policy and strategy matters, and yet remains keenly interested in the nitty-gritty of teaching literacy and the like. He tweets and blogs.

Rebecca Stacey
Another headteacher – fairly new to it, having moved just slightly from London to Cumbria! She is another who blogs regularly, again on things that matter in the day-to-day classroom both technological and otherwise. She tweets and blogs online.

BONUS PICK – Since Jo got to pick a bonus, I’m going to add someone who doesn’t quite fit into the main category, but is well worth following: Sean Harford is due to taken over from Mike Cladingbowl as National Director for Schools at Ofsted, and so will doubtless be of great interest to many primary folk. He tweets at @HarfordSean

Finally, don’t forget to check out Jo’s post – she also tweets (and pins!) regularly. For other leaders and thinkers, you can take a look at my Twitter list. And of course, follow me!

Why is secondary education so expensive?

No teacher is ever happy about the amount of money spent on their school, but I was interested to see these figures shared by Guardian education editor Richard Adams today:

[tweet https://twitter.com/RichardA/status/530404555868348416 hide_thread=”true”]

It once again raised a question that I have long wondered about: why do we accept that secondary education costs so much more than primary?

I don’t have any more detail on the figures (yet), so it’s hard to know exactly what is being compared here. It could be a substantial difference in pupils numbers if comparing compulsory primary to compulsory secondary, particularly given the bulge in primary numbers at the moment, but either way it must almost certainly represent a greater number of primary school pupils for 75% of the cost of secondary.

Now, I’m not arguing that there should be no difference. I do recognise that there are some additional costs in resourcing secondary schooling, but are the costs really so much greater that the sector warrants an additional 33% or more spending?

When I queried this on Twitter, various possibilities where put forward, of varying degrees of justifiability to my mind, such as:

  • Exam boards costs
    This seems reasonable to me, although I cannot believe they account for much of the difference
  • Equipment (especially for practical subjects)
    Again, I agree to an extent. However, many of these costs are rarer spends, and are then spread across hundreds of pupils. Primary schools, on the other hand, often have to buy resources for relatively small numbers (and I challenge anyone to look at the costs of resources such as Numicon without their eyes watering)
  • Staffing
    This is the big one, understandably. And clearly secondary schools need more staff, but do they need so many more staff than a typical primary on a “per head” basis? And it’s true that they have larger staffs and so more leaders per school, but does that still hold per pupil? For example, one secondary head can often be responsible for 2000 students, a number that would commonly be shared between up to 10 primary heads. Similarly, an admin team might necessarily be larger for a large school, but are the costs necessarily higher than the equivalent admin support across 5-10 primaries? And if so – why?

It is true that small extra costs here and there soon add up, but what if the discrepancy hadn’t previously existed? Would so many secondary teachers have TLRs compared to primary colleagues?

Take for example a smallish 800-place secondary school without sixth form. It wouldn’t be uncommon for there to be a TLR for a Head of Year post – or perhaps someone on the Leadership scale, and perhaps even a deputy head of year on a TLR. Alongside this it would be normal to have Heads of department on a range of TLRs, and in many cases second in department and other roles.

Now take an equivalent size of primary school. Again, it might be common to have paid heads of year, although often on the lowest TLR. These same staff would be expected to take on curriculum leadership roles, too. And often on a far fuller timetable than their secondary colleagues.

Is that because such roles are inherently more costly in secondary schools, or just because the money is more easily available for it?

I genuinely don’t know the answers. There are almost certainly costs of secondary schools that I haven’t considered. There are probably some diseconomies of scale that counter some of the presumed economies. But can any of that really justify spending 33% more on secondary pupils than their primary counterparts?

I have deliberately avoided getting into the details of post-16 and pre-compulsory education. I recognise that there are greater costs involved at either end of the system, particularly on the literal number of staff required, but I’m not persuaded that those factors affect the bigger picture substantially.

Doing Less, But Better: KS2 Writing

Rob Smith (@redgierob) of Literacy Shed fame today posted a simple enough question on Twitter:

As is so often the way with such simple questions, a can of worms was soon sprung open. This is not the first time that Rob and I have had to agree to disagree, and the pattern is fairly similar. I’m generally of the view that less is more. Less movement, less change, less jumping about, and much more time spent on a single focus.

For that reason, when talking about the teaching of Writing, I am a fan of looking at longer blocks on a common theme. I’ve written before about a mastery approach, and here I want to expand on how that might look for a single unit.

The norm for the past few years in primary schools has been to teach a new text type each week. Rob even suggests getting 3 ‘longer’ pieces of writing a week from Y4+ children. (To be fair, he defines these as being an A4 side, not necessarily a full ‘extended’ write). Now, I’ve no particular aversion to extended writing, but I do worry that we can begin to value quantity over quality, and our need for quantity can lead to a race through the text types again.

I’ve taken a typical weekly plan from a TES download (no names, to protect the innocent!) and it follows broadly the following structure:

  1. Identify features/layout of a newspaper
  2. Review and write headlines
  3. Difference between fact and opinion
  4. Brief intro on connectives before starting draft
  5. Complete writing (focus on openers?)

Now, none of these are particularly problematic features of the sequence, but look at what’s missing: were is the discussion of punctuating speech? Where is the examination of how to write an effective closing (surely one of the most challenging parts of article writing?) How much do children understand about how to embed quotations in a text?

I would much rather complete a unit like this over a couple of weeks, focussing on various elements in the build-up before completing a single extended piece at the end of the unit. It would seem reasonable to start with the unpicking of the various elements of a news article first (Alan Peat has some good resources on this). Then we might examine in close detail how the 5Ws are included in the lead of the article, and practise this skill with some familiar contexts. Developing the main body is often a challenge for students, since they feel they’ve covered everything in the lead, so focussing on what content makes it interesting, and how it might be included comes next. This would seem a sensible time to practise using a variety of subordinate clauses, including embedded clauses, to ‘cram’ as much detail as possible into the article, since this is a journalistic norm. By now we’d already be approaching the end of the first week, and I’d be tempted to try another shorter piece of writing – perhaps a couple of paragraphs – to practise these skills.

The following week might begin with some sort of activity that provides the content for newspaper writing. In one example I’ve taught, we had a hot-seating type affair where the students interviewed an ‘astronaut’ recently returned from space. Thus, a lesson was spent on looking at open and closed questioning, and note-taking to capture responses, and a later lesson on the task of the press conference itself. Now we felt ready to begin to prepare the articles. We had our content ready, quotations on hand, and a good background of the structure and features of newspapers. A lesson mid-week spent on drafting the articles gives an opportunity for self-, peer- and/or teacher assessment, before building on feedback to make improvements. Often this is the stage at which children realise that their newspapers articles simply ‘end’, and so it’s a good opportunity to focus on how we can build cohesion across the text by linking the beginning and end, or by reflecting/considering the future. Or it might become clear that the cohesion throughout the text is lacking in many children’s work, because of a lack of understanding of, or use of, cohesive ties/discursive markers, thus providing an opportunity to re-teach this and for it to be used instantly in a context.

Of course, the exact content you’d need throughout the unit would vary by the group and its previous experience. You might need a focus on the use of consistent/relevant tense (a tricky one in newspapers, actually), or on selecting appropriate vocabulary, or specific punctuation elements, or organising paragraphs, or all manner of other skills that are required to produce an even half-decent attempt at a complex piece of writing. None of those can be taught simply through practising the main writing. They require active teaching, and meaningful practice before they can reliably be used. The reality is that no piece of writing is easy to produce at any standard of quality without a close examination and practice of its constituent parts.

Thus, my approach might – on a very generic level – look something more like:

  1. Unpick features of the text
  2. Teach an aspect of structure then draft an opening
  3. Teach an aspect of grammar and practise out of context
  4. Use the grammar aspect in a context not related to the final piece
  5. Practise a brief version of the text type, to use as a feedback opportunity
  6. Use a reading/S&L activity to prepare for writing (e.g. Talk for Writing)
  7. Gather the necessary information for the content of the text
  8. Draft the text
  9. Teach an aspect picked up from the first drafts
  10. Use the first draft to mark and then edit/improve

It’s obviously not fixed like that, and would vary depending on the type of writing you’re doing and the context, but it allows a good deal more consolidation of the key skills that build into writing the main text, without requiring many long pieces of writing. It breaks down the skills into more manageable chunks so that they can begin to be mastered before being applied. Of course, mastery may well be a long way off, but by spending a little more time on core aspects, hopefully the chance that they might be retained is increased!

I fear that all the time we focus on quantity and production of writing, we run the risk of repeating the problems we already face in maths, where children march through content and somehow reach secondary school without securing the basics of things like number bonds.

As usual, I find myself repeating my mantra: Do less, but better.

The Level 4b myth

The current government has made no secret of its intention to “raise standards” in the curriculum, and to expect higher attainment at the end of Key Stage 2. We have been told that the old Level 4 threshold was simply not demanding enough, and that from 2016 the new floor thresholds will be for 85% of children to reach the new higher standard.

Importantly, we were also told that the new higher standard would be broadly similar to a 4b under the current system. Now, setting aside the fact that 4b doesn’t really exist, this already meant – as Warwick Mansell pointed out in his excellent NAHT blog – that around 1/5th of schools would then fall below that threshold.

However, what has never been fully explained is how this new ‘level 4b equivalent’ will be arrived at. The floor standards will be based on the percentage of children attaining a scaled score of 100 or greater on the new tests. In theory this ought to represent attainment in line with expectations; that is, meeting the attainment targets set out in the curriculum. Only, of course, with the new attainment targets that simply means knowing/doing everything that’s set out in the Programme of Study.

In that case, it ought to be clear from the new Programmes of Study that the expectations are broadly in line with the old Level 4 attainment targets, with occasional increases to reflect the raising of the bar from ‘scraping a Level 4’ to achieving a secure Level 4.

Is it quite clear from a comparison of the old attainment targets and the new Programmes of Study that this is simply not the case. Below are three documents in which I’ve compared the three core subjects Programmes of Study against the old attainment targets in detail. In each case it is clear that the new Programmes of Study are significantly more demanding.

The Level 4b Myth – English

The Level 4b Myth – Maths

The Level 4b Myth – Science

When I started to write these documents, I broke the old Level 4 attainment targets down into separate statements, and then drew comparisons. In fact, on reflection, I’d have been as well to take the level 5 statements, since the new Programmes of Study for Y6 are far more akin to the old Level 5 content. Take this highlighted example for Level 5 Number & Algebra:


I have highlighted those statements which match the new expected outcomes for Y6. In fact, the only statement which isn’t highlighted is about calculator use. Likewise, this Level 5 statement for Writing:


In fact, the Level 6 matches up to much of the new Y6 content:

It certainly seems unfair to argue that the new expectations are in line with Level 4b. There is clear evidence of a substantial rise in expectations at KS2 (for which, no doubt, the DfE would make no apology), but it certainly isn’t reasonable to state that it is a rise to the middle of the previously-expected band.

Of course, there is every possibility that the department will ensure that the thresholds for the new tests will be sufficiently low for them to be able to indicate equivalence to 4b by percentage terms – but that will do nothing to help schools with assessment and tracking towards end-of-key-stage outcomes. Yet another concern of the scoring system being completely unknown until after the tests are taken.

How many schools could reasonably expect 85% of their students to reach this new higher standard? If – as I suspect – the new standard is something closer to the current level 5, then how many schools are achieving anything close to this amount? Warwick Mansell found that around 1/5th of schools were failing to attaing the 85% L4b+ standard. By my estimates from the most recent performance tables exactly 6 schools had 85% or more of pupils achieving L5+ in all three subjects. Even by reducing the requirements to 75% achieving L5+ only 13 schools meet the grade.

Something here has got to give. Either the floor standard, or the way in which attainment is judged will need to be lowered if the floor threshold of 85% achieving 100+ is mean anything.

There are still many unanswered questions!

Key Objectives Assessment Grids

Just as term ended, Tim Clarke (@tim_jumpclarke) sent me an excel spreadsheet he had created to record assessment against the key objectives for Maths and Writing and Reading.

mathskosheetAfter a few emails and a bit of tweaking, we’re releasing what will hopefully be a useful tool for schools choosing to use the Key Objectives approach. For each subject there is a spreadsheet covering all year groups (although it would, of course, be possible to combine sheets from different files to put, say all the Y5 pages into one document).

For each subject and year group, there is a list of objectives and a grid into which the numbers 1, 2 or 3 can be entered (representing, say ‘Working Towards’, ‘Achieved’ and ‘Exceeded’, or whatever such terminology as you choose to use). The cells change colour, and importantly the summary at the foot of the column does too, to represent the number of points scored. The percentage values for these can be set for your school. (The default is that 50% of points awarded turns orange; 75% turns green)

The files can be downloaded from here:

NC 2014 Mathematics key objectives markbook

NC 2014 Writing key objectives markbook

NC 2014 Reading Key objectives markbook

(The booklets of key objectives are available on this page)

For those schools considering a mastery approach to mathematics, I have also created an adapted version into which the value 2 is deemed to be “mastered”. The totals at the bottom of each column in this case calculate the number of objectives which have been deemed to be mastered, changing the colour according to the percentage of objectives mastered (rather than just by an average of point scores). This version can also be downloaded:

NC 2014 Maths Mastery objectives markbook

Primary Assessment: Assessment Innovation Fund winner reviews

When the DfE first announced its Assessment Innovation Fund, I began to wonder whether any schools would yet be in a position to share an assessment scheme for a new curriculum that had only been in the public domain for a few months. Fortunately enough schools were able to start the process, leading to 9 being chosen to disseminate their work.
Only three of those schemes are intended for use in primary schools, although of course some of the secondary and special schemes are likely to be adaptable.

At this stage, only some elements of each of the schemes have been released, but as Ofsted release their views on how assessment without levels will be tackled in inspection, I thought it timely to offer some sort of review of what is on offer.

Learning Ladders (Hiltingbury Junior)

NB: Since the time of Writing, Hiltingbury have withdrawn from the funded AIF scheme, although the materials are still available via the link below.

This scheme focuses on the core subjects of Reading, Writing and Maths, offering booklets of objectives linked to the new National Curriculum, organised into categories, and then graded by year group. The Reading and Writing booklets are already available, designed to be printed on A4 and covering the whole of KS1 and KS2. I understand that adapted separate booklets for younger and older pupils will be available later.

Writing Ladder exampleAgainst each objective (or “rung”) are three boxes to be signed/dated by the teacher when a child has shown that they have met the objective. The school suggests that once the objective has been signed three times then it can be considered to be ‘achieved’.

The booklets have been professionally produced with robot characters in both colour and black & white versions, allowing schools to conceal the year-group labels (not to mention saving on colour copying costs!)

The school has also entered into the partnership with SchoolExplained to produce an online system both for adapting the booklets, and for recording assessment online. This will be sold to schools from around £700

When considered against the ‘7 questions‘ test it fares very well, particularly in its usefulness for sharing with children. It also does a good job of keeping objectives to a manageable number, although it remains to be seen if they’ve done the same for maths. Perhaps my only concern is the stipulation of seeing things three times. This is a common approach in primary schools with APP and I’ve always found it a touch too formulaic. Sometimes 3 times is not enough, sometimes it’s an excessive demand. I’d prefer to see objectives simply left as un-highlighted until the teacher decides they’re achieved, or perhaps just a two-stage process of working on/achieved?

More information and the free booklets can be found at www.learningladders.info

Skills Passport (Hillyfield Primary)

The Hillyfield scheme appears to focus on the foundation subjects, which is likely to be a lesser concern for primary schools in the immediate future, although the information released suggests that maths may also be covered.

Skills Passport exampleAs with the Learning ladders, the intention is to provide a single booklet for all students throughout the compulsory primary years to record progress across subjects. In this case, rather than rungs on ladders the skills are set out in a passport style to be stamped by the children once they have been achieved.

The initial drafts of the passports have been made available and are not as attractive as the Hiltingbury Learning ladders. However, they are in editable Word format, and so could be adapted to each school. They include some useful features such as a glossary of vocabulary for subjects. Perhaps because these are intended for foundation subjects, the objectives are only organised by Key Stage rather than year group, although if it has been adapted for core subjects then this may be different. It isn’t clear from the fund information provided whether core passports will be created.

As with Hiltingbury, the school has said that it intends to make an online version available in due course. However, as Sam Hunter of Hiltingbury Junior has stated: that’s an expensive operation not easily funded by the £10,000 AIF grant.

When considered against the ‘7 questions‘ test it fares very well, particularly in its usefulness for sharing with children. It also does a good job of keeping objectives to a manageable number. I did notice that the objectives in the current passports are not as clearly linked to the new National Curriculum content, although again in the case of the foundation subjects this is much harder to do.

It would be interesting to see how this model could be adapted using the key objectives documents I have set out for Writing and Maths.

The first sample booklet is available to download from: www.tes.co.uk

Learning Ladders (West Exe College)

Another ladder offer, this time from a secondary school. According to the DfE release the school has collaborated with primary schools to create a cross-phase system. However, at this stage it seems that only Secondary materials have been released.

West Exe Ladder modelThe model is very different from the Hiltingbury ladders, focussing more on a link to Bloom’s taxonomy. It appears that the intention is to provide a common format for ladders for each subject and key stage. This suggests that subjects will each be broken into 6 levels across the key stage, ranging from ‘Remembering’ to ‘Creating’. Criteria for each level are based on existing materials and grade criteria.

The model also shows individual assessment grids, although again these are clearly aimed at KS3/4 at present. It’s not clear how easily this model could be adapted to suit work at primary level, nor how the criteria could link clearly enough to the National Curriculum, particularly for content-heavy subjects such as mathematics.

The documents clearly avoid the meaningless subdivision of content to an extent, although there is a risk that the reliance on Bloom’s taxonomy could lead to a focus on “creating” at the expense of the important skills of “remembering” and “understanding”. It’s also not entirely clear how well this model could work at primary level. These grids have clearly been designed for able readers as would be reasonable to expect of most secondary students – it remains to be seen whether the partnership managing this model manage to produce a useful and effective approach that would work in primary schools.

First release information from the West Exe model is available at www.tes.co.uk

Information about assessment systems is being collated in various places, including the useful website http://assessmentwithoutlevels.com/


A mastery model for Writing: moving away from the text type treadmill


Are we deceiving ourselves about cohesion?
(Cartoon from xkcd.com/724)

I wrote back in the autumn of 2013 about how I found the endless march through text types to be ineffective in really securing children’s skills in Writing. I have spoken at several events since about how our perception of a joined-up curriculum in primary schools may not be conveyed as well as we like to the children we teach. We often build our writing tasks around a common topic or text and describe this as building a coherent curriculum, but too often the cohesion is in the topic, and not in the skill of writing. I have likened this in the past to trying to build a wall with bricks simply by dropping lots of randomly-shaped bricks and hoping they’ll fall into place.

This year, I have tried to improve on this model by bringing greater coherence to the curriculum for Writing. That doesn’t necessarily mean moving away from thematic teaching, nor necessarily moving away from using the text types. However, my intention has been to adopt some of the principles of the mastery model that I discussed in my original blog: focussing on fewer aspects of writing for a greater length of time.

Initially, this was based on identifying common strands through the units we were intending to teach (see details in first blog). Later, however, I began to adapt the text types we were using to ensure that we spent longer focussing on common strands. The idea here was to group the text types together slightly to ensure that we spend longer focussing on common features rather than racing through the various types hoping that some of the content we threw at the children would stick!

Our initial model ended up looking something like this:

Writing Mastery model

Click to download PDF version

Over the course of the year we continued our usual units of study, with writing tasks adapted to focus on some common themes. Generally I would say that this has been a successful approach. I’m not convinced that it made any substantial difference to our progress in Writing this year, but I do think that the children have been – and will be – able to retain more of their knowledge of each of the genres, and so will be able to draw upon that knowledge more effectively in the future. One of my concerns of the race through the text types has been the lack of retention of the main features, meaning that almost every unit of work becomes a revision unit rather than developing further skill, at first at least.

As I approach the new year, however, I think there is more that could be done to develop this cohesion within and across year groups. Traditionally many schools have repeated the structure of the old Literacy framework by trying to get through many text types in each year, re-visiting regularly. My preference is to group the text types such that over the period of 6 weeks there are opportunities to learn and employ some of the key features. This has led me to a model based very loosely on the GCSE writing triplets:

Mastery Writing model

Click to download PDF

I realise that this clear division into fiction and non-fiction blocks will fill some teachers with dread. Many teachers have a preference for one strand or the other, and so find the through of a whole half-term without their favoured type quite daunting. I can understand this, but our focus has to be on providing the most effective curriculum design to help our students to retain the key elements of learning.

The advantages of this approach are hopefully evident at least in part. By focussing on some common areas over a half-term, there are opportunities for students to experience, employ and adapt the various features and techniques being taught. Significantly, it will be possible to share with parents more detail of what is being covered in Writing, since the focus will be narrower. This also allows us to use target-setting more effectively, as students are able to learn from early pieces in the half-term and apply the target in the next piece. This replaces a system where too often children (particularly in upper KS2) have writing targets which are not particularly relevant to the text types/genres being taught.

Obviously this is just a broad example which doesn’t link directly to any topics or themes that are being taught. As with all models, it wouldn’t be possibly to transfer it wholesale from school to school because it would work best when properly aligned with the wider curriculum. However, hopefully it may provide an interesting discussion point for schools thinking about tackling the content of the new curriculum?

Comments welcomed!

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.


Reading, Writing & Maths Key Objectives (new curriculum)

The Key Objectives for Reading, Writing, Maths and Science for KS1/2 can now be found in the Free Resources section.