National primary strategy
* The strategy officially comes into effect in England this month
* It brings together the national literacy and numeracy strategies under one broad department
* Consultants specialising in such areas as behaviour, under-fives and ICT across the curriculum, as well as English and maths, will be working in every LEA
* Teachers' judgments about pupils, rather than tests, will move to centre stage in a trial to modify KS1 assessment
* A leadership programme, initially for schools needing extra support, should be available to every primary in time. Funding for about 4,000 "leading teachers" will allow schools to release them from some class time to work with other teachers in other schools
* Beacon primaries, which are few and far between, will be replaced with a leading practice programme
Primary education is in desperate need of a breath of fresh air. Government pressure - to meet targets in English and maths, to teach these subjects in particular ways, to succeed in inspection, to provide lots of written evidence and to do well in league tables - has taken its toll. Increasing numbers of heads and teachers, feeling de-skilled and demoralised, are starting to rebel. More schools have decided to build their work on their own values, rather than external demands. They want education to be fun and rich, and they are concerned about the downward push of formal learning into early childhood.
National test scores, rising since the introduction of the national literacy strategy in 1998, reached a plateau in 2001. Ministers needed to change their message to teachers; the drive for literacy and numeracy standards had to be linked with creativity and a broadened curriculum.
The national primary strategy was launched in May 2003, with the aim of bringing the whole curriculum, leadership, foundation stage, behaviour and other aspects of education together into one coherent approach, with support materials and a range of consultants in every local authority. This new vision is set out in an 80-page document, Excellence and Enjoyment: a strategy for primary schools. It highlights the importance of innovation and creativity, collaborative and bold leadership, and of fun for pupils, not just alongside the push for increasingly high standards in the three Rs, but as essential to it.
But will it bring the fresh air that's needed? Some teachers, such as Sheffield head Huw Thomas, find little that is new. Others welcome the "permission" to be more flexible, and the emphasis on enjoyment. Some heads fear its plans to produce guidance across a wide field of topics will bring yet more prescription, despite the document's talk of openness and consultation. In a scathing critique, Cambridge education professor Robin Alexander condemns its "desire to be seen to be offering freedom while in reality maintaining control". But independent literacy consultant Sue Palmer welcomes its message to "get out of the straitjacket but not back into the woolly pully".
The top headline when the document was published in May was that ambitious government targets for 11-year-olds in England in English and maths would be relaxed. The goal of 85 per cent reaching the desired level 4 or better in both subjects in national tests has become an ambition for 2006 rather than a demand for 2004. Ministers also want more children to reach level 5.
And "realistic but ambitious" targets for each school are to be based on the abilities of their pupils, rather than on national goals, which many see as arbitrary.
The strategy also plans to offer in-service support and written guidance in areas such as the broad curriculum including arts, PE and creativity; leadership and the transition from foundation stage to key stage 1.
Many teachers welcome the heralded freedom as well as the bottom-up approach to target-setting, but they are concerned about the potential for increased workload and yet more change. As well as announcing new initiatives, the document pulls together virtually every government policy affecting primaries. The strategy does not affect Wales, which has its own proposals, published in The Learning Country in 2001 by Welsh education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson. These include plans for a foundation stage for three to seven-year-olds, which would extend the more play-based early childhood curriculum through the infant years.
What are the key messages of Excellence and Enjoyment?
The "central message", says the document, is that teachers have the power to decide how they teach. They are encouraged to "take ownership of the curriculum". Education Secretary Charles Clarke writes: "What makes good primary education great is the fusion of excellence and enjoyment. Children learn better when they are excited and engaged - but what excites them and engages them best is truly excellent teaching, which challenges them and shows them what they can do."
It says schools should develop their own personalities, drive their own improvement, and "think creatively about how they use the skills of everyone in school". They should also strive for continuous improvement in literacy and numeracy, combining creativity with "strong teaching in the basics".
Achieving level 4 at the end of primary school improves not only children's prospects at secondary school but their life chances. Seventy per cent of children reaching level 4 go on to achieve five or more GCSE grades A* to C, while only 12 per cent of those not reaching level 4 manage this.
Why is the strategy being introduced?
Improvements brought about by the national literacy strategy, introduced in 1998, and the numeracy strategy, in 1999, have flattened out. Key stage 2 results stalled for the third year running in 2003, with 75 per cent achieving level 4 in English and 73 per cent in maths. Reports from Ofsted and others show that the most effective schools combine high standards in the three Rs with a broad curriculum.
In fact, many educationists believe increasing breadth is the only way to raise standards further in the basics. NPS director Kevan Collins says schools also need a richer curriculum, including learning, for example, through field trips and role-play.
Meanwhile, studies by academics, teacher unions and The TES show that the demands of the literacy and numeracy strategies, combined with the pressure of targets and league tables, have narrowed the primary curriculum, squeezing out subjects such as art and music. Many teachers and pupils are becoming bored with what is seen as government over-prescription.
A letter last autumn from junior education minister Stephen Twigg, urging schools to raise their Sats scores through special booster classes and other centrally-developed activities, crystalised dissatisfaction with official regulation. The mood in schools began to change, with at least some teachers exercising more freedom and trusting their own judgment. The primary strategy is a response to the need for change, and a way of building on prior achievement.
So what's new?
New elements include a pilot to downgrade the importance of national tests at key stage 1, a change in target-setting at key stage 2 and increased leadership support. Curriculum and training materials are being developed to help promote good behaviour. The NPS pulls together the literacy and numeracy strategies, and links the foundation stage with infant education.
In particular, it will look at the transition from foundation (which is more play-based) to key stage 1 (where formal literacy and numeracy lessons begin). This transition is "too brutal" for many children, says Dr Collins.
"It should be seamless".
The DfES is surveying heads and reception and key stage 1 teachers this month to find out what sort of help they might need to smooth the transition and to resolve what many see as the mismatch between the curriculum for four-year-olds and that for five-year-olds.
Anatomy of learning
Plans for guidance on the whole curriculum are also new. Eventually, there will be a framework, developed in consultation with the profession, for learning and teaching across the curriculum. This will attempt, as Dr Collins puts it, to "reveal the anatomy" of what makes a child a good learner. It will "propose the range of learning skills, knowledge and understanding children should develop as they progress through primary school", says the document. "It will help teachers to map the development of different learning skills against the opportunities offered by the different curriculum areas," and "help schools to shape and define their individual whole-school curriculum". This should also reflect the school's community and the talents and passions of its teachers. Beacon status for primary schools, which has never really taken off, is to be phased out over the next two years, and replaced by a leading practice programme. This will be locally-led and managed through local education authorities.
Leading practice schools will share ideas in specific areas, such as literacy or ICT across the curriculum, and will not have to be all-round exemplary schools. "Beacon schools are about learning from the best. This is sharing," says Dr Collins.
How will it affect schools this autumn?
It will have little impact to begin with, even though the strategy officially comes into effect this month. Schools will set their own key stage 2 targets before local authorities set overall targets, rather than the other way around. They will also be receiving more literacy guidance.
Revised advice on teaching phonics has already been published. Materials on speaking and listening, developed with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, will follow in November, to support an aspect of primary education now considered a top government priority.
One school in four is embarking on a new leadership programme, developed with the National College for School Leadership. In these primaries, the head, deputy and two co-ordinators will work together to develop their priorities. They are being helped by a head from another school, who has been trained as a "consultant leader". The aim is, in time, to extend this pilot to all schools that want it. Schools in the first tranche have been chosen by their local education authorities, perhaps for having a new management team, or facing particular challenges. A total of 890 consultant heads have been recruited, who will work with a group of other schools "to support them in a learning together culture", says Dr Collins.
Who is carrying out all this work?
The NPS brings together the national literacy and numeracy strategies under one broader department, headed by Dr Collins. A former early years teacher who was recently deputy director of the NLS, he was appointed in January 2003. Five national directors have been appointed - for literacy, numeracy, achievement and inclusion, foundation stage, and LEA support. There are 44 professionals and a range of operational staff. Its 2003-4 budget is around £217 million, supported by the Standards Fund, of which £108.8 million is government grant and £108.8 million is matched funding from LEAs.
Across England, 900 consultants are being appointed, with a primary strategy manager in each LEA. These posts are funded until 2006. Existing literacy and numeracy consultants are among them. Each consultant has a specialism as well as general primary knowledge, and they will help schools develop their competence in such areas as formative assessment (which helps children move on), use of ICT, working with three to five-year-olds, behaviour support and speaking and listening across the curriculum. There will also be 4,000 "leading teachers", whose schools will have funding to release them from class to work with other teachers, in addition to the consultant heads mentioned earlier.
How could national tests change?
A quarter of English local authorities are joining a pilot to try out a new approach to national assessment at key stage 1 that puts teachers' own judgments, rather than tests, at centre stage. They will use tests to underpin these judgments about each child's work, rather than having tests and teacher assessment side by side. Teachers can choose from a bank of tests set by the QCA, but these will serve as only part of the information they use in their final assessment. Assessment will be moderated by the LEA.
"This is an important step," says Dr Collins. "It puts the test in a completely different place." It will give parents a broader picture of their children's attainments, in different contexts, he says. Teachers will also have more time in which to carry out the tests.
In Wales, key stage 1 tests were abolished in 2002. Jane Davidson said teacher assessment had proved accurate on its own. And in June this year, she announced an independently-chaired review of assessment and testing arrangements for 11 and 14-year-olds. Some believe it could lead to the abolition of key stage 2 tests as well.
The review process in Wales is to examine the nature and constituent parts of the assessment (tests and teacher assessment) and the suitability of the current tests. The group will work with ACCAC, the curriculum and assessment council for Wales, which has been asked to provide advice to the assembly by April next year about the development of the school curriculum.
A consultation paper will subsequently be published.
In Scotland, pupils aged five to 14 are currently tested using a bank of papers, which teachers administer when they believe the child is ready.
Essentially, they are used to confirm teachers' judgment. But the Scottish Parliament's ruling Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition elected in May has announced plans to abolish national tests from five to 14. The Partnership Agreement for a Better Scotland says the Government will promote assessment methods "that support teaching and learning" and that national attainment will in future be measured through broad surveys of representative samples.
What will happen to league tables?
"Value-added" information will appear on key stage 2 performance tables for the first time this year. This will show how much progress has been made since KS1 in an attempt to show whether schools have performed above or below expectation. The Government is also considering other ways to provide a more rounded picture of a school in the table. One possibility is to include a headline judgment from the school's Ofsted report; but a difficulty is that some reports are five or six years old. Another idea is to offer more information about how schools compare to others in similar circumstances. Neither Wales nor Scotland publishes league tables.
What aspects of the strategy are being piloted?
There are five pilots: behaviour and attendance; bilingualism; interactive whiteboards, early language development, and an early years and parents'
Curriculum and training materials to help promote positive behaviour are being developed with 25 LEAs, starting this term. Additional materials will help schools review their approach to behaviour and attendance and develop whole-school policies, including those to combat bullying. Training materials will progressively become available, and all LEAs will have leading behaviour teachers to work with other staff. There will also be more intensive help for pupils who need it, with parallel support for their parents and carers.
Behaviour is seen as intrinsic to the curriculum in primary schools, and not as a separate issue.
Another pilot begins around December in 20 LEAs to support bilingual learners and make the most of their skills. This two-year pilot will also try to tap the resources of bilingual adults. It will include LEAs that have large proportions of children with English as an additional language, as well as those with small numbers.
Meanwhile, schools in six LEAs have been involved for a year in piloting the best ways to use interactive whiteboards in English and maths in Years 5 and 6, with five more coming on stream this autumn to use them with Years 3 and 4. Interactive whiteboards are giant computer touch screens that you can also write on and or project on to. They are "the first bit of technology that transforms teaching and learning", says Dr Collins. "They change how you teach."
As with any new technology, most teachers need some training to make the most of them, both in terms of their capabilities and how they can enhance subjects. But Dr Collins says they make it easy to help children learn visually, and make it possible to change what is being shown, including video and children's work, without turning away from the class or interrupting the flow of dialogue.
A new early years and parents' project will be working in Excellence in Cities areas to help children and their parents during the transition from foundation stage to key stage 1, focusing particularly on children at risk.
Finally, the strategy will be working with schools to develop support for children who arrive in primary school with poor language skills. Such children may have trouble communicating and forming relationships.
Do I have any say in all this?
Yes. Dr Collins and his colleagues are keen to hear the views of teachers and other educationists, especially on learning skills.
Write to: discuss@primarynationalstrategy. org.uk. More information at: www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/primary/