After a long standing struggle between learner-centred and standards-led aims for primary education, two papers for the Primary Review note the emergence of a hybrid

Can schools be both learner-centred and standards-led at at the same time? Two papers for the Primary Review describe the emergence of such a hybrid from the century-long struggle to define the aims of education.

Personalised learning

A paper comparing approaches in six countries – Scotland, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, France, England and Wales – over the last 40 years observes the struggle has been between calls for:

  • a flexible and autonomous system shaped around the needs of children
  • an emphasis on standardisation and centralisation shaped around meeting the country’s political and socio-economic goals.

Now, though, say authors Shuayb and O’Donnell, ‘there appears to be a realisation across countries that in order to achieve excellence, academically and vocationally, education requires a degree of personalisation; emphasis on the individual, the child.’ This hybrid view of primary education has emerged in all six countries, where policymakers currently seek at the same time to:

  • children for their economic role in society
  • identify their individual strengths and weaknesses.

Economic pressures

Both papers describe the influence during the 1960s of child-centred philosophies which advanced the need for holistic and rounded education that cared for children’s diverse needs. In England, the 1967 Plowden Report advocated:

  • individualisation
  • by discovery
  • independent learning
  • an integrated curriculum
  • the involvement of schools in their local communities.

These developments were attacked from the beginning because, it was argued, they did not foster the skills necessary for a changing economy. They were brought to a halt in England as a result of the anxieties generated by the economic recession that followed the oil crisis of the 1970s.

Struggling to emerge
The confused nature of this struggle between the two sets of aims is evident in the fact that the National Curriculum which emerged from the 1988 Education Reform Act was depicted as designed to achieve the child-centred goal of ‘promoting the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils’. However, the actual result was to shift to an education ‘based on the needs of society and the economy.’

Similarly, while the publication in 2003 of Excellence and Enjoyment: A Strategy for Primary Schools was welcomed as an attempt by the government to distance itself from the target-focused culture of education during the 1990s, the focus remained on standards, assessment and excellence.

Indeed, the paper notes the explicit statement of education minister David Miliband in 2004 that personalised learning did not mark a return to child-centred education, but was an educational strategy:

  • focused on school improvement
  • using information and communications technology
  • making best practice universal.

Statutory aims

In the second paper for the Primary Review, educational philosopher John White sees last year’s publication by the QCA of a revised curriculum for KS 3 and 4 as a harbinger of hybridisation. This first ever set of statutory aims for the curriculum seeks to enable all young people to become:

  • successful learners, who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve
  • confident individuals, who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives
  • responsible citizens, who make a positive contribution to society.

The review of the primary curriculum, now under way, suggests that similar aims will be mandatory for earlier stages too. ‘What distinguishes the 2007 aims from their 1999 predecessors,’ White says, ‘is that they now have the force of law behind them and have been designed so that curriculum subjects have to bring their own aims and programmes into line with them.’

White suggests two possible consequences of having statutory aims to shape the school curriculum:

  • a school’s success being judged not primarily in terms of test and exam results, but by how far it meets the person-centred requirements embodied in the aims
  • schools being more imaginative in breaking away from conventional curriculum patterns.

See Aims and Values in Primary Education: England and Other Countries by Maha Shuayb and Sharon O’Donnell and Aims as Policy in English Primary Education by John White