NC06: Memorandum submitted by Professor Robin Alexander, Primary Review


I attach a statement from the Primary Review to the Committee's new inquiry into the National Curriculum.


As we make clear, our statement is less a submission than a preliminary statement. The Primary Review is undertaking its own investigation into the curriculum for primary schools, which includes requirements for the Early Years Foundation Stage and the National Curriculum for Key Stages 1 and 2, but also goes beyond these on the basis that statutory requirements do not represent the totality of the curriculum that schools provide.


The Primary Review has collected a large quantity of evidence on the curriculum and contingent matters and will issue its final report later this year or early in 2009. Meanwhile, it has published a series of interim reports, some of which relate to the curriculum. It is on this published material that the attached submission draws.


I stress that this is far from being the Primary Review's final word on these matters. We are responding at this stage more to set down a marker, and to remind the Committee that we hope to discuss with them these and a much wider range of issues to do with primary education at a later date.





1. Introduction


1.1 The Primary Review is an independent enquiry into the condition and future of primary education in England. It is funded by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, based at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, and directed by Professor Robin Alexander. Its core Cambridge team is supported by 70 academic consultants from 22 universities and by a distinguished advisory committee chaired by Dame Gillian Pugh. The Review was launched in October 2006 and aims to issue its final report in late 2008 or early 2009. Between October 2007 and April 2008 it is issuing 30 interim reports, most of them commissioned surveys of published research.[1] These have attracted considerable media, public and political attention.


1.2 The Review's scope includes ten themes, one of which is the primary curriculum[2]. To each of these themes it applies evidence from a number of sources: written submissions, regional and national soundings, commissioned surveys of published national research, and searches of official data. It makes extensive use of cross-UK and international comparison.


1.3 Because the Primary Review is still assessing its evidence, it is not in a position to make a full submission to the Committee's Inquiry. Instead, we offer this preliminary statement and hope that the Committee will give us the opportunity at a later date to discuss with it our findings and recommendations not only on the curriculum but on many other aspects of primary education as well.


2. The scope and tenor of the Primary Review's evidence on the National Curriculum


2.1 The Primary Review has received a large quantity of evidence on the National Curriculum at the primary stage and on the primary curriculum more widely. The evidence is rich and varied, ranging from transcripts of the 87 regional community soundings with witnesses inside and outside education to the six more recent national soundings with representatives of the teaching profession and national organisations, the 550 written submissions, many of them also from major national organisations, and the 30 surveys and evaluations of published research and other data, many of which bear directly on curriculum questions. From this material it is clear that there is deep and widespread concern nationally on two major issues: (i) the content and balance of the curriculum at the primary stage and (ii) the manner in which it is formulated, implemented and managed.


3. Should there be a national curriculum? (The Committee's remit, item 1)


3.1 Few of those giving evidence to the Primary Review dispute the desirability of a national curriculum of some kind; however, many are concerned about the particular version of a national curriculum which the UK government has chosen to adopt.


3.2 On the basis of both recent experience and international comparisons there is support for a slimmer, less detailed national curriculum which sets out in general terms the scope and content of the curriculum to which all children are entitled, but leaves considerable room both for flexibility in implementation at school level and the addition of a local dimension which can reflect the needs, circumstances and distinctive cultural conditions of particular schools and their communities.


4. Is the current National Curriculum fit for purpose, and how well is it managed? (The Committee's remit, items 2 and 3)


4.1 The current National Curriculum at the primary stage is viewed as overcrowded and subject to considerable pressures from statutory testing and inspection and from a series of 'bolted on' additions which have made it logistically non-viable. In particular, the integrity of the curriculum has been severely compromised by the perceived burden of testing and test preparation and the requirements of the National Literacy, Numeracy and Primary Strategies, especially in Years 5 and 6. These have been ring-fenced while the rest of the curriculum, in effect, has had to take its chances. In many primary schools, according to our evidence, the 1988 Education Reform Act's vision of 'entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum' is no longer a reality at the primary stage.


4.2 In fact, curriculum overload has been a problem for primary schools since the National Curriculum was first introduced in 1988, and the 1993 Dearing review had little impact on this. The problem, though, appears to have been greatly exacerbated by policies and initiatives introduced since 1997.


4.3 The Committee's phrase 'fit for purpose' presupposes clarity on educational aims and congruence between aims and action. At present neither of these conditions obtains. The officially-stated aims for the primary stage, as formulated for the current version of the National Curriculum, are incoherent; further, they may bear little relationship to the curriculum as either formulated or enacted.


4.4 The primary curriculum as currently enacted, that is to say with the impact of testing, the National Strategies and the many policy accretions taken into account, is viewed as excessively instrumental in its intent and scope. The primary curriculum must, without question, establish children's mastery of the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, but there are other skills, understandings and dispositions to be established at this stage which in their way are no less 'basic' to a proper education, and a primary curriculum which neglects these is not fulfilling its essential task of laying the foundations for later learning.


4.5 If the evidence showed that the tests and National Strategies had achieved their purpose of raising standards for all children at the primary stage, their adverse impact on those children's wider curriculum might be accepted, by some at least, as a sacrifice worth making. However, the combined evidence from independent, government and inspection sources does not support this conclusion. Standards have risen, but not as fast or as far as it was reasonable to expect from the massive temporal, financial and political investment which the tests and Strategies have commanded; meanwhile, the long 'tail' of low attainment persists. This unsatisfactory situation raises questions about the reliability and efficacy of the tests, the evidential basis and educational validity of the National Strategies, and the character of the primary curriculum overall. On this matter it is perhaps pertinent to remind the Committee of a consistent finding from HMI and Ofsted reports since 1978: that those schools which achieve the highest standards in literacy and numeracy do so in the context of a broad, balanced and well planned curriculum. Narrowing the curriculum so as to allow unfettered concentration on the basics therefore appears to be counter-productive in terms of outcomes as well as educationally undesirable.


4.6 There is a particular problem at the interface of the Key Stage 1/2 National Curriculum and what precedes and follows it. Transition from the Early Years Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1, and from Key Stage 2 to 3, simultaneously raises questions about organisational/institutional change and curriculum progression. These need urgently to be addressed.






5. Starting points for redefining the primary National Curriculum


5.1 Our published evidence identifies a number of starting points for redefining a national curriculum for the primary phase. They are not mutually exclusive. For example:


· The understanding and skills which are a precondition for successful transition to secondary and subsequent stages and kinds of education.


· The future needs of the economy and the world of work.


· The current social condition of Britain and the pursuit of goals such as cultural cohesion and social justice.


· The larger international dimension of education, in respect not only of global economic competitiveness but also of international interdependence and environmental sustainability.


· Developmental considerations in early and middle childhood and the distinctive kinds and areas of learning which these dictate for children at that stage of development if they are to benefit fully from their primary schooling and grow up as rounded individuals with the capacity to continue learning throughout life.


· Children's lives outside school, viewed both positively in terms of the considerable learning which takes place outside school and on which schools can build, and negatively in respect of undesirable influences and values to which children may be subject and which schools - in as far as they are able - may wish to counter.


5.2 While, as we note, these are not mutually exclusive, their simultaneous pursuit may provoke tensions which should be fully and openly explored in the interests of achieving a balanced education for young children. Further, our evidence strongly indicates that recent policy has tended to pursue the first two of the purposes listed above to the detriment or even exclusion of the others.


6. The likely impact of the Rose Review of the primary curriculum


6.1 The Committee has asked for views on the likely impact of the Rose Review of the primary curriculum. This is a new development so the Primary Review's main body of evidence has little to say about it. Further, at the time of writing the information about the Rose Review's 'prioritisation, sequencing and timescales' requested in the Secretary of State's remit letter of 9 January 2008 has not yet been published.


6.2 Despite this, the Primary Review has already received a number of expressions of scepticism about the prospects for the Rose Review, usually along the lines that its 'root and branch' credentials, not to say its claimed independence, may be somewhat compromised by the very firm steer on a number of specifics which the Secretary of State has given in his remit letter.


6.3 With that in mind, but of course without ourselves wishing in any way to prejudge Sir Jim Rose's enquiry, we remind the Committee that the Primary Review's own examination of the primary curriculum is detailed, thorough, grounded in a substantial body of expert evidence from both national and international sources, genuinely independent and entirely without preconditions. We hope that the Committee will provide us with an opportunity, at a later date, to share and discuss with them our findings and recommendations on the curriculum and other matters concerning the current quality and future direction of primary education in England.


6.4 Meanwhile, we ask the Committee to note that the adoption by DCSF of our own enquiry's name - the Primary Review - in connection with the Rose Review is confusing and unhelpful.[3] We trust that in its own deliberations the Committee will keep the two enquiries entirely separate.







Those which are particularly relevant to the Committee's Inquiry

into the National Curriculum are shown in bold.

The Committee's office has copies of all Primary Review reports published to date.



The interim reports, which are being released in stages between October 2007 and April 2008, include the 29 (initially 30) research surveys commissioned from external consultants together with reports on two of the Review's public consultation exercises: the community soundings (87 regional witness sessions held during 2007) and the submissions received from organisations and individuals in response to the invitation issued when the Review was launched in October 2006. The research surveys are listed below by Review theme, not by the order of their publication. Once published, each report, together with a briefing summarising its findings, may be downloaded from the Review website, Also available on the website are the overview briefings and press releases for each group of reports published together.




Community soundings: the Primary Review regional witness sessions.


Submissions received by the Primary Review.







1/1 Aims as policy in English primary education, by John White, University of London Institute of Education.


1/2 Aims and values in primary education: England and other countries, by Maha Shuayb and Sharon O'Donnell, National Foundation for Educational Research.


1/3 Aims for primary education: the changing national context, by Stephen Machin and Sandra McNally, University College London and London Schools of Economics and Political Science.


1/4 Aims for primary education: changing global contexts, by Hugh Lauder, John Lowe and Rita Chawla-Duggan, University of Bath.




2/1 Children's cognitive development and learning, by Usha Goswami, University of Cambridge, and Peter Bryant, University of Oxford. (Re-numbered: listed on website as 2/1a).


2/2 Children's social development, peer interaction and classroom learning, by Christine Howe and Neil Mercer, University of Cambridge. (Re-numbered: listed on website as 2/1b).


2/3 Teaching in primary schools, by Robin Alexander and Maurice Galton, University of Cambridge. (Re-numbered: listed on website as 2/2).


2/4 Learning and teaching in primary schools: evidence from TLRP, by Mary James and Andrew Pollard, University of London Institute of Education.




3/1 Curriculum and assessment policy: England and other countries, by Kathy Hall, National University of Ireland, and Kamil Øzerk, University of Oslo.


3/2 The trajectory and impact of national reform: curriculum and assessment in English primary schools, by Dominic Wyse, University of Cambridge, and Elaine McCreery and Harry Torrance, Manchester Metropolitan University.


3/3 Primary curriculum futures, by James Conroy, Moira Hulme and Ian Menter, University of Glosgow.


3/4 The quality of learning: assessment alternatives for primary education, by Wynne Harlen, University of Bristol




4/1 Standards and quality in English primary schools over time: the national evidence, by Peter Tymms and Christine Merrell, University of Durham.


4/2 Standards in English primary education: the international evidence, by Chris Whetton, Graham Ruddock and Liz Twist, National Foundation for Educational Research.


4/3 Quality assurance in English primary education, by Peter Cunningham and Philip Raymont, University of Cambridge.




5/1 Children in primary education: demography, culture, diversity and inclusion, by Mel Ainscow, Alan Dyson and Frances Gallanaugh, University of Manchester, and Jean Conteh, University of Leeds.


5/2 Learning needs and difficulties among children of primary school age: definition, identification, provision and issues, by Harry Daniels and Jill Porter, University of Bath.


5/3 Children and their primary schools: pupils' voices, by Carol Robinson, University of Sussex, and Michael Fielding, University of London Institute of Education.




6/1 Primary schools: the built environment, by Karl Wall, Julie Dockrell and Nick Peacey, University of London Institute of Education.


6/2 Primary schools: the professional environment, by Ian Stronach, Andy Pickard and Liz Jones, Manchester Metropolitan University.


6/3 Primary teachers: initial teacher education, continuing professional development and school leadership development, by Olwen McNamara and Rosemary Webb, Manchester University, and Mark Brundrett, Liverpool John Moores University.


6/4 Teachers and other professionals: workforce management and reform, by Hilary Burgess, Open University.




7/1 Parenting, caring and educating, by Yolande Muschamp, Felicity Wikeley, Tess Ridge and Maria Balarin, University of Bath.




8/1 Children's lives outside school and their educational impact, by Berry Mayall, University of London Institute of Education.


8/2 Primary schools and other agencies, by Ian Barron, Rachel Holmes and Maggie MacLure, Manchester Metropolitan University, and Katherine Runswick-Cole, University of Sheffield.




9/1 The structure of primary education: England and other countries, by Anna Riggall and Caroline Sharp, National Foundation for Educational Research.


9/2 School level structures, pupil grouping and transition, by Peter Blatchford, Susan Hallam and Judith Ireson, University of London Institute of Education, and Peter Kutnick, Kings College, University of London, with Andrea Creech, University of London Institute of Education.




10/1 The funding of English primary education, by Philip Noden and Anne West, London School of Economics and Political Science.


10/2 The governance and administration of English primary education, by Maria Balarin and Hugh Lauder, University of Bath.



10 March 2008


[1] The Primary Review interim reports are listed in the Annex to this statement. Those which are particularly relevant to the Committee's enquiry are shown in bold. The Committee's office has copies of all Primary Review Interim Reports published to date, together with briefings on each, overview briefings on the groups of reports published together, and press releases.

[2] The Primary Review themes are: Purposes and Values, Learning and Teaching, Curriculum and Assessment, Quality and Standards, Diversity and Inclusion, Settings and Professionals, Parenting, Caring and Educating, Children's Lives Beyond the School, Structures and Phases, Funding and Governance.

[3] Those submitting evidence to the Rose Review are invited on the DCSF website to use links to 'Primary Review Document' and 'Primary Review Response Form' and to email their submissions to .