Primary headteacher David Dixon applauds many of the changes that the Key Stage 3 review heralds, arguing that many of them will bring about practices already embedded in the best primary schools

When the National Curriculum (NC) emerged in the late 1980s, it soon became apparent to primary teachers that it was content heavy. In the early years of assessing child achievement and attainment, there were literally hundreds of ‘tick boxes’ to show that this content had been covered. Primary teachers still think it is content heavy, despite some pruning done by Ron Dearing’s team in the year 1993 and others since.

However, as time has gone on, the emphasis has switched from ‘thou shalt cover all content’ in favour of ‘professional judgement’ as to what content should be covered and perhaps more importantly how it should be covered. This is exemplified by the Excellence and Enjoyment initiative which positively encourages teachers to gear the curriculum to the needs of the children in a creative and motivational way.

Within this, the laudable social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) has shown that the government now recognises that there is more to the curriculum than the 3Rs. Also, the literacy and numeracy strategies have become more flexible and better able to be part of a more cross-curricular approach to learning.

Catch 22
Nevertheless, there are ambiguities if not downright hypocrisies in the system because of the elephant in the room known as SATs league tables. Some schools can be in a ‘catch 22’ whereby they are deemed to be under-performing, therefore they are forced to adopt a ‘back to basics’ approach to improve test scores.

This can be counter-productive by demotivating the very children who need to be ‘helped’ by improved test scores. Often, it is the schools who have reached a certain acceptable level of SATs that can then relinquish many of their curricular shackles and push the boat out with the Excellence and Enjoyment approach.

I have seen the same situation in the secondary phase. If a school is underperforming according to the easily measurable outcomes and/or has an unsatisfactory Ofsted inspection, they are hands-tied when it comes to looking for more creative solutions to their plight. If they end up in a continued spiral of decline, their capacity to improve further diminishes as staff  leave, rolls fall and budgets shrink.

A top-down strategy
Getting back to the content-heavy curriculum, one of the main complaints from primary teachers was that the NC was originally put together by subject specialists largely from the secondary and higher education sectors. The accusation was that it was literally a ‘top-down’ strategy, whereby the requirements of GCSE and A-levels were tracked back through the age ranges right through to the earliest years of primary school.

Logically, one could not fault this approach, because once set up, a child would progress through the key stages and be rigorously assessed along the way so that they ‘seamlessly’ arrived at university or, at the very least, college. This would make Britain (well England) great again and stop our decline in the industrial league tables. But, as we have seen, things have not quite worked out that way.

The warning signs have been there for all to see. After the first few years of pleasing improvement, SATs results have plateaued, causing the government to miss its targets. In response to pressure from advisory and inspection services to ratchet up targets, primary teachers used their ‘increased discretion’ (sic) by narrowing the curriculum in order to ‘teach to the test’. This had diminishing returns and government targets were still not reached. Upper Key Stage 2 children became more demotivated.

In my experience, after the novelty of Year 7 wore off, many of the less academic children with teenage hormones pulsing through their veins fell off the ladder, hence increases in exclusions, deterioration in mental health and continued under-achievement. The seamless transition from Key Stage 2 to 3 for many became an anathema.

Views of students
I speak regularly to a group of Year 10 students. When they mention school, what winds them up the most is when they feel they are not being ‘treated with respect’. Another bugbear of theirs is that they are not given a reason for undertaking tasks other than a blanket comment such as: ‘You need to do this or else you won’t get a decent GCSE grade’.

Some of them quote what teachers say to them and it betrays a woeful lack of emotional intelligence on the part of the adult. They are regularly humiliated through sarcasm and other put-downs. Sanctions are often punitive for relatively minor misdemeanours and rewards are not valued because they lack consistency and status. Assemblies are boring.

The timetables do not take into account the balance of activities that occur during a particular day. So, for example, there may be several lessons in a row that require students to do a lot of note taking, each one becoming more tedious that the last. They get herded into the canteen for lunch and spend a long time in frustrating queues being harassed by dinner staff. Where is the quality of pastoral care found in most primaries?

Although one should always take teenage comments with the proverbial pinch (if not sack) of salt, one can see that students who are emotionally fragile can literally be pushed over the edge by some of this, leading to chronic introversion or anti-establishment behaviour. There is certainly something to be concerned about, for behind these comments, as exaggerated for effect as they may be, lies an uncomfortable truth: schools can damage students.

Primary advantages
But back to the curriculum… Despite the narrowed curriculum, most half-decent primary schools have at the very least been able to contain troublesome and/or non-academic children. This is partly due to their stage of development. Teenage angst in its many and varied forms poses new challenges that are only just emerging at the end of Key Stage 2. Also, most primaries are much smaller institutions and class teachers can form understandings and bonds with children more easily than their secondary counterparts.

Primaries can also be more flexible in that if a lesson is going well, a teacher can carry on for longer, or conversely if it going badly, cut it short and do something completely different. The primary ethos sits more readily with catering for the needs of the ‘whole child’.

Although it is a cliché and generalisation to say that primary teachers teach children whilst secondary teachers teach subjects, there is still more than a grain of truth in this. The motivation of teachers in the respective phases can be very different. Secondary colleagues of my acquaintance can often be passionate about their subjects and it was this passion that spurred them into wishing to teach it.

Primary teachers by their very nature have to be ‘generalists’ and although most do have a ‘specialist subject’ on their CV this was not the driving force behind their reason for wanting to teach.

My background is in middle schools. The first post I had was in a large 9-13 school which was housed in an ex-secondary modern. The staff was a strange mixture of primary, secondary and middle trained. The school was run like a secondary, with complex timetables, lesson bells and quite a lot of subject specialist teaching.
However, it worked very well because of the interaction between the staff from very different training and motivational backgrounds. As a person literally in the middle, I appreciated the qualities brought to the job by both primary and secondary colleagues and the practice of each type of teacher was influenced by the others. Secondary trained teachers seemed to sugar their subject zealotry with more ‘touchy-feely’ primary practice. Primary colleagues appreciated the expertise of the subject specialists and picked up new skills in curriculum areas in which they were unsure.

Best of both worlds
Middle school trained teachers like me had the best of both worlds from the word go. The rite of passage from the primary to secondary phase was very smooth because it happened under the same roof. This approach is being revisited from the 3-18 schools which are starting to emerge.

Of course, my middle school experience is tinged by nostalgia and it occurred prior to the National Curriculum. I had to quit this sort of school because of the lack of career opportunities. One bugbear I always had was that the subject specialists always seemed to get the promotion and I was used as a jack of all trades ‘utility man’ across the school. I was forced into the primary sector because I was in effect a ‘general teaching specialist’!

As we know, middle schools and their feeder first schools have or are being largely phased out in favour of the traditional primary/secondary split. The writing was on the wall once we had a National Curriculum. Secondaries started to complain that they did not have enough time with the children before they entered exam courses; the implication being that middle schools were not feeding them adequately prepared students for the rigours of secondary life (they still say that about primary schools).

Heartening changes
Notwithstanding the rather gloomy scenario described so far, it has been interesting and heartening to see the changes to Key Stage 3. From my understanding of it, one of the chief aims has been to introduce more motivational, hands-on learning. It is also designed to encourage more inter-departmental cooperation so that some cross-curricular themes can be addressed through a number of subjects with more flexible timetables.

Training for staff has included the appreciation of learning styles and of different ways of teaching, ie a move away from the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide from the side’, ably abetted by the creative use of ICT and the arts.

In addition to this, secondaries have been exploring ways in which they can become more ‘user friendly’. This has included looking at the physical environment and an appreciation of what psychological effect this can have on the students. They are also looking at how to improve relationships with students through more effective tutor groups, mentoring and teaching styles. When undertaking tasks, students are given specific and immediate reasons for doing them to provide a constant ‘What’s in it for me’ factor. All this also fits the ‘individualised learning’ agenda.

Although I do not wish to gloat, a lot of this has been around a long time. It is known as ‘good primary practice’. When I worked for the London Borough of Haringey in the middle to late 80s, their corporate motto was ‘Progress with Humanity’ (for some reason they dropped it ages ago). You can also read it as ‘Progress (verb) with Humanity’. I think it sums up what the education process should embrace regardless of school or Key Stage. Children/students are human beings taught by human beings – we forget this at our peril.

One should not be too scathing of the National Curriculum. It has helped to focus minds on difficult issues surrounding school improvement. But unless serious contradictions inherent in the system are properly addressed, no Key Stage will be properly fit for purpose for all students.