Fresh new face for world-class education

STEVE DOWNES Another year, another overhaul of England's primary school curriculum.After well over a century of public education, one might have expected governments to have got it right.


Another year, another overhaul of England's primary school curriculum.

After well over a century of public education, one might have expected governments to have got it right.

But even though every radical reshaping comes with a ministerial guarantee to make the system "world-class", it is always followed by another radical reshaping (guaranteed to make the system world-class).

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This one, headed by children's secretary Ed Balls, appears to have potential - at least in winning over initiative-weary teachers and heads.

School staff are tired of feeling pressured into coaching children to pass English, maths and science tests, at the expense of the broader curriculum they are convinced the children need.

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They are also tired of seeing their efforts presented in dog-eat-dog league tables that compare schools with their neighbours, but haven't yet managed to successfully reflect the different challenges they face.

The good news is the 10-year plan for primary schools looks set to include changes that will enable schools to put children through their tests when they are ready - rather than en masse.

The more cynical among school staff - or should that be "wise" - think cost is one of the driving forces behind the changes to the testing regime.

The current process of posting piles

of completed papers to external assessors, who then post them back, is expensive.

Those same cynics also fear that the changes will result in the same workload - but stretched over a longer period of time, thus dragging out the pain.

There are also concerns about putting too much independence and flexibility into the hands of schools. Most schools are judged to be more than capable of taking responsibility for the timing of the tests, but some - particularly those deemed to be struggling - may not be equipped to get it right.

If a school that has been slated by Ofsted for its management and curriculum is allowed to become more independent, the fear is that the children will suffer.

In Norfolk, heads are unsurprisingly reluctant to get too carried away. They have seen more government-

driven initiatives than their pupils

have had hot dinners.

Tony Hull, head of Costessey Junior, near Norwich, said: "We need time to have a look at exactly what the testing changes means. If it takes away some of the anxieties created by the current system for staff, schools, parents and children it will be a good thing.

"But if it means a system where it is not clear when and where you are supposed to be testing, I can see logistical problems. But I'm not completely against the tests, so any change would have to be for the right reasons."

He said the move to compulsory foreign language teaching was "welcome", although it was already part of the curriculum at Costessey Junior.

Steve Kite, head of Edmund de Moundeford Primary at Feltwell, near Thetford, said: "Changing the tests is certainly welcome. So much time is spent in preparing for the tests as well as doing the tests, which impinges on the ability to give reasonable time to the breadth of subjects.

"Being judged on the merits of what you do, rather than when you do it, is a good thing."

Mr Kite was supportive of a com-pulsory foreign language, but added that the traditional languages, like French and German, were not the best ones to concentrate on. He said languages from emerging nations like China and India would be more useful, but added that they would be more difficult to teach.

His biggest fear was that education was once again being used as a "political football".

He said: "Every education secretary wants to make their mark. But then they go off to another department after two years. The system is still too much subject to the whim of government and what's in the breeze at that moment."

The "Balls review" will be outlined in full today. But the pre-briefing briefings have left little to the imagination.

He said he wanted to make Britain the "best place in the world to grow up", and added that 10 years of improvements in education were not enough to cancel out 30 to 40 years of underinvestment.

He said: "We have gone from being below average to above average but it is not yet world-class. It is still not the case that every child is doing well.

"It is still the case that if you are in a poor household or in a disadvantaged community, you do less well. That is not good enough, it is not fair. We need to do more."

Mr Balls is expected to announce an inquiry into the commercialisation of childhood and the impact on children of advertising.

He said many parents were concerned about youngsters being bombarded by adverts and media images that encouraged the "sexualisation" of girls.

A top-level ministerial group will examine links between advertising and under-age drinking and academics will tackle the wider issue of commercial pressures on children and whether they have a negative impact on their lives.

Mr Balls said he would not rule out introducing new regulations on alcohol advertising but stopped short of suggesting a ban on alcohol advertising before the 9pm watershed.

He is also expected to announce free nursery care for children as young as two from poorer families when the children's plan is unveiled.

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