P1070105It is always hard to return from something like last week’s European adventure – there is an emotional intensity in working with colleagues in other countries that does not travel back into school. And anyway, this has been a bizarre week.

We started off with a lettings request from an outside party to use our hall for a funeral. Images of a hearse approaching the back of the hall in full view of the residents across the road were slightly alarming.  In the event, the responses were equally bizarre. The diocese’s intial response was to make sure we turned the heating down. Then, apparently, they had to get someone to ask the bishop – schools not being favoured places for funerals, surprisingly. After that, we had to consider the likely response of a parent to use the hall straight afterwards for a children’s party. The response from the health and safety crowd in the local authority was that their answer would depend on what the bloke died of. A brief escapade into some very black humour indeed was hard to resist. The folk asking said they wanted to apologise for the request being at such short notice. Short notice? Do you even get long-notice funerals? In the end, they found somewhere else to have the ceremony for the poor fellow.

Then, just as that was fading into the background, I had a request from a correspondent in BBC Wales – would I consent to be interviewed, in Welsh, about MK Dons? There are several issues here, the two most important being – is my Welsh sufficiently good I could talk about sport with a correspondent (no!) and am I at all interested in MK Dons (no). Well, I’m not. There are other issues too (How did they track me down? Why would anyone speaking Welsh be interested in a lower league English football team?) but it just added to the general bizarreness of the day.

The same day as the BBC Wales guy, two of us from the leadership team went looking at kitchens. I really have such an interesting life. The kitchens were at a school in Stony Stratford (lovely, intimate, relational, thoughtful catering) and at a new school in MK (not so relational, industrial and just plain scary). All this because we are looking to build our own. You get ideas about what would be suitable, and then you go and see the real thing and change your mind – I am now much more in favour of a small local operation, rather than an industrial approach to food. Not that I was interested in the latter per se, but I thought the kitchen we were going to (and which supplies the food my children eat) might be less like a factory than it proved to be.

P1070108Then we had a team from Santander digging up the old shrubs and ivy in our courtyard until we just had soil left. That was a lot of fun for all concerned, and is the first step to our putting up some greenhouses and raised beds in the courtyard, maybe even some fruit trees. Chickens are being debated by some staff (I have learnt something about chickens by the way – the less experience a person has of keeping chickens, the more enthusiastic they are about the idea of getting some).

Now for some seriousness.

Colin Richards, a former senior HMI, has written an article in the TES last week about the dangers inherent in the new primary curriculum. A fuller article, saying the same thing, and entitled Sleep Walking into the Dark, has been published by the Cambridge Primary Review, and is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the new primary curriculum that is being cobbled together by the orcs in the Department for Education and the “expert panel” set up to look at this. The new draft curriculum is already  published, so we know now that nothing matters except for English, Maths and Science. Colin Richards’ article begins:

Primary head teachers have a great deal to worry about. Their concerns are the stuff of bad dreams. Should or shouldn’t they persuade their governors to go for academy status? If yes, should they go it alone or in a chain or in a federation? How is the new framework for school inspection likely to impinge on their policy, practice and dreams? What are the implications of changes to teachers’ standards and to performance management? What about heads’ pension and job retention prospects in this age of hyper-­‐accountability? With such a range of concerns it is no wonder that many didn’t have the energy at the end of the last school year to express dissatisfaction, let alone despair, at the government’s new plans for the primary curriculum and its assessment. Yet these plans are central to the nightmare that will soon engulf schools. Unless these proposals are opposed and principled alternatives supported, primary heads and their staff will be sleep-­‐walking into the dark, where except in the most exceptional of schools the liberal, humane values of primary education will be finally sacrificed to the soulless “bottom line” of the politician/accountant.

Strong stuff, passionately felt. He argues that the threat is so serious that we are having thrust upon us a completely re-imagined way of doing primary education:

The proposals due for formal consultation towards the end of this year are part of a coherent package which if implemented fully will radically re-­design state primary education in England. The elements are (i) excessively detailed, rigid prescription of content focussed on three subjects only; (ii) an inspection system focused on a very narrow, impoverished view of “achievement” in the same three subjects and (iii) yet-­to-be devised ways of “grading” attainment on content knowledge in the same three subjects. This is a surprisingly “coherent” programme. The threat to English primary education as we’ve come to know and conceive it, both in academies and non‐academies, is very real. A form of neo-­elementary schooling, a defensible but very different conception, is set to be imposed – partly in a sad reflection of an examination-­obsessed state such as Singapore.

The argument is that such a curriculum will be detrimental to children’s wellbeing because:

  • It is a long way from what teachers or children actually want – the thing will be imposed if we get it at all.
  • Knowledge and content will be the key thing – subject knowledge will be up to two-thirds of the assessed material
  • Disadvantaged children will be further disadvantaged by this approach.
  • Reading for meaning will be undermined by the excessively phonic approach to early reading.
  • The testing regime will force children of a certain age to stick with a particular curricular “block”
  • Achievement, now as then, will be defined both by government and OFSTED , as the narrowness of three subjects, and only certain bits of those three subjects.
  • There will be an increase of the proportion of rote learning or surface learning to deep learning and application of learning.

Richards ends the article by saying:

All in all the proposals and the other items in the package represent the most detailed and constraining set of prescriptions ever placed on primary schools exceeding even the demands of the Revised Code of 1862, whose 150th anniversary is perhaps being unwittingly celebrated with the publication of these proposals. Our current inevitably imperfect but appropriately ambitious system of English state primary education is set to be replaced by a still more imperfect, limiting and highly constrained system of neo-elementary schooling. This is the stuff of nightmares which will pose more of a threat to the values and practices (let alone health) of primary head teachers and their staffs than the other pressing worries alluded to in the first paragraph. They need to be fully awake to the danger. The liberal, humane values that inform the work of many primary schools need reaffirming in this new dangerous context. Optimistic, forward-­‐looking opposition is required. A broad coalition (if that’s not a dirty word) of head teachers, teachers, parents, academics, industrialists and community leaders needs to be marshalled to counter the package of measures and to insist on renewed, principled discussion of the aims, curriculum, assessment and inspection of an English primary education fit for the twenty-first century.

This week we have been having a debate amongst the leadership team about how to sell the “basic skills” work we want to foster among children, to their parents. Today a parent asked to remove their child from our school because we do “not do enough testing of spelling and times tables”. This shallow approach to learning is becoming increasingly common amongst parents, as the landscape shifts in educational provision, and parents swallow the lies hidden in the promises. Colin Richards’ scariest point is that this “Neo-elementary” approach has a coherence to it that comes straight from factory farming. It is industrial education in its worst form.

We have to be alert to the dangers of this – basic skills are tools for freeing children to learn, not a means by which we narrow their field of vision and give the message to parents that they are the only things that  matter. We will communicate to parents soon, but we have to find a way of mastering our own reservations and ensuring that the message of skills to support freedom and breadth shine through.

I heard from a colleague this evening a way of approaching it that is both pithy and realistic – we want children to have a love of learning and a love of life, and basic skills are the things that will enable those to grow.

Finally, cycling past Lodge Lake in Great Holm this morning, I stopped to try and capture the beauty of the icy stillness that enveloped the place. The photos don’t do it justice, but here are a couple, to mark the changing of the year and the coming of the first serious frosts.P1070154P1070158

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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  1. […] Richards, senior HMI, on whose excellent work I commented at the end of last year, has produced a short summary of his reactions to the most recent draft primary curriculum from the […]

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