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New Primary Curriculum sees a comeback for the 'Three Rs'

18 June 2012

Plans to restore rigour in the key primary subjects of English, maths and science were set out by education secretary Michael Gove last week. The draft Primary National Curriculum Programmes of Study for English, maths and science are more demanding than the existing National Curriculum and are intended to align England with those countries that have the highest-performing school systems, notably the USA, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The aim of this latest proposal from the Department for Education is to raise standards in basics such as reading, grammar, fractions and basic scientific concepts, so that children can be equipped for more advanced work once they start secondary school. The programmes of study published last Monday will, however, be open to debate between those who consider the proposals too demanding, and others who believe they don't go far enough. Some re-drafting of the plan is therefore likely before it is introduced into primary schools from September 2014.

The 'Apostrophe Preservation Society' will no doubt be warmed by a proposal to promote correct use of the apostrophe at the earliest stages in a child's education; on a more serious note, there is to be a greater emphasis on basic arithmetic ability and the acquisition of scientific knowledge. The teaching of art and design, design and technology, geography, history, ICT, music, and physical education across all the primary years stays the same.

The draft Programmes of Study for English, maths and science are published in the wake of a report by an expert panel, chaired by Tim Oates, which made recommendations on the framework for a new National Curriculum, and a parallel report by the Department for Education which identified the key features of curricula for maths, science and English in high-performing jurisdictions. Michael Gove responded to the report in an open letter, which can be read here.

The general tenor of the letter, particularly the pledge to keep design and technology (D&T) and ICT in the National Curriculum for primary schools in England, has been welcomed by the engineering profession's voice on education and skills, Education for Engineering (E4E). But E4E also wants to see D&T and ICT retained in the secondary National Curriculum, believing that schools will focus on Core and English Baccalaureate subjects at the expense of the former.

E4E chairman Dick Olver thinks this is exactly the right signal that Michael Gove should be sending to schools. “We support the government in getting the basics right, but we need much more focus on technology through all levels of education if the UK is to ensure a sustainable recovery for the economy,” he said in response to Michael Gove’s letter. “The UK needs to prepare young people for a future deeply embedded in technology and the provision of excellent teaching of both D&T and ICT in primary and secondary schools is crucial to this aspiration."

E4E pledged its support for government in its attempts to develop the appropriate curricula, noting that it is widely acknowledged that improvements are needed. The draft Programmes of Study for English, maths and science (applicable to England only) can be downloaded here.

Meanwhile, the latest CBI/Pearson Education & Skills survey of 542 organisations employing around 1.6 million people, has identified 61% of firms dissatisfied with the abilities of school and college leavers, claiming they have not developed the self-management skills they need for work while at school. The persistence of this finding suggests that there are structural issues within our schools that need to be addressed if we are to ensure every young person gets a good start in life, says the CBI.

CBI director-general, John Cridland says that with the right start at school, our young people can go on to have successful and fulfilling careers and have a strong base from which to learn more at college, university, or in the workplace. “But levels of educational attainment are rising fast in many leading and emerging economies, so in the UK we must ensure that our education and skills system can continue to compete at the cutting edge,” he says.

Pearson's UK president, Rod Bristow concedes that the connection between education and the world of work is critically important. "Employers and all of us working in education have a big task to address that connection properly," he says. "Despite improvements in the past decade, employers want to see an even sharper focus on literacy and numeracy, beginning at primary school. Literacy and numeracy are the basic building blocks that help young people learn other subjects, get on in life and find rewarding work.”

Mr Bristow does, however, strike an optimistic note in that the best and brightest firms are continuing to invest in education, work with schools and colleges and maintain their own investment in training. Employers recognise that they have an important role to play helping students and schools understand what skills are needed for working life. More than a third of those surveyed have increased their engagement with schools in the past year (+39%), while just 7% have reduced it, giving a balance of +32%.

Recruiting staff with strong science, technology engineering and maths (STEM) skills will help underpin the UK’s ability to compete and achieve growth in many major sectors like manufacturing, construction and engineering. People with STEM skills are recruited at every level from apprenticeship entry (43%), technicians (40%) and graduates (53%). But 42% of firms struggle to find the STEM talent they require.

Businesses are well aware of the need to take steps to grow the talent pool of STEM skills, with 64% taking some action to encourage young people to pursue STEM subjects. 42% of organisations provide high-quality work placements, 39% engage with schools to encourage pupils to study STEM subjects and 35% provide STEM apprenticeships. More than two-thirds of employers (68%) think the government can help future shortages by better promoting science and maths in schools, especially post-16.

The 2012 CBI/Pearson Education & Skills survey can be read in full here.

Les Hunt

Reader comments:

From Mr Ed Neale:
While it's encouraging to see the Government restoring a more rigorous curriculum back into schools and returning back to the basics of a sound education, I can't help feeling that the point is still being missed somewhere.
The best performing economies worldwide at the moment are those that are preparing their students for a career in the real world and focusing on providing the basics that are needed. Step forward India and China, whose students are, by all accounts, already light years ahead of our own. China in particular is a good example of a country that is tying its education system into national priorities.

Our mistake has been to retain an over-academically-focused education system that is now largely unfit for purpose. Ignoring, or at least downplaying, the value of vocational subjects has done huge damage not only to the UK's economy and competitiveness but has also ignored the potential talents of students who are better with their hands than their brains. Effectively, being non-academic has come to mean being a failure. It is scary to think how many of the thousands of young people who are currently unemployed could have valuable talents that have gone unrecognised under the present educational system.

While businesses are undoubtedly justifed in bemoaning the poor quality of students, it is disingenous of them to lay the blame wholly with schools. Many teachers have come straight from university and do not possess business or commercial skills. Even if they do, their hands are tied by a curriculum that has not allowed them to fully exercise their talents.

The best way for businesses to get the quality of students they need is for them to get involved in children's education as early as possible.

If the UK is to fulfil the Government's ambition of becoming a leading hi-tech manufacturing economy then the education system needs to be radically overhauled not only to produce young people who are geared up for it, but also to ensure that the more vocationally-minded students are not left by the wayside. 

For this to happen means that the Government and business need to work much more closely together than has previously been the case - waiting for either party to produce the answer on their own will not work.

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