It was a moment when, listening in the audience, I found myself saying internally: ‘Hold on a minute: that’s not right.’ Or, at least: ‘Hold on a minute: that is debatable, at best’.
The event was a conference this week in central London at which a well-known figure from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was making claims about the links between pupils’ scores in international tests and their countries’ future economic growth rates.
But the statement at which my ears particularly pricked up did not come from Andreas Schleicher of the OECD. Nor was it on the conference’s main subject matter: the widely-reported if fishy-sounding claim that the UK ‘would gain £2 trillion’ by raising test scores by a few points.
No, it came from another high-profile education figure, on the issue of breadth versus ‘basics’ in the curriculum.
Amanda Spielman, one of the founders of the 31-school Ark chain of academies who is also the chair of England’s exams regulator, Ofqual, said that it was nice to see the OECD acknowledging that schools sometimes needed to focus on the ‘basics’ of English and maths, even if, she implied, this had to be at the expense of other subjects.
Ms Spielman said: ‘There is a trade-off between breadth of curriculum and a focus on the achievement of these basic skills.’
Reiterating, she said: ‘Here is one of those areas of policy where there are trade-offs, and being explicit that there are trade-offs helps the discussion.’
Here, I thought, was a startling repudiation of the view of the Cambridge Primary Review, among other evidence sources.
And, sure enough, here, on page 493 of the Review’s final report, is its warning of a mistaken ‘policy-led belief that curriculum breadth is incompatible with the pursuit of standards in “the basics”, and that if anything gives way it must be breadth … Evidence going back many decades, including reports from HMI and Ofsted, consistently shows this belief to be unfounded. Standards and breadth are often positively related, and high-performing schools achieve both,’ says the report.
So I pressed Ms Spielman on this. Alongside questioning whether her comments were in line with what research said, I put it to her that while I, personally, had enjoyed both English and maths all the way until the age of 18 at school, the thought of having to take time out of my other subjects for extra lessons in these ‘basics’ would not have been attractive.
She then qualified her position, in two ways. First, she said it wasn’t a case of removing any subjects other than English and maths completely, but of merely sometimes needing extra lessons in those subjects. This was particularly the case when working, as Ark in many cases does, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
That sounded fair enough, but the question (or non-question) as to whether children need to do well in literacy and numeracy – they do – has always seemed to me to be different from the one of exactly how this is to be achieved. Is the answer more lessons in these particular subjects? Or is it using the rest of the curriculum creatively to ensure that those basics are mastered, while children’s interests are nurtured and these other subjects are pursued as ends in themselves?
I have never seen that answering ‘yes’ to the first question means the answer to the second has to be ‘yes’, but this seemed to be the implication of the comments.
Ms Spielman’s second way of expanding on what she said was to argue that she was speaking specifically about secondary education, rather than primary. I emailed her for extra information after the talk, and she told me:
‘I was not saying that the primary curriculum should be more limited than it is now…what I was saying is that there are times when there is a clear risk that a child will not reach a satisfactory level of basic education, however that is defined. For example, a child coming into secondary school working three years below expectations might typically fall into that category. The secondary school has to decide how to educate that child to the best of their abilities, using all the information at their disposal.
‘One option is to stick with a “standard” Key Stage 3 curriculum, in which the child’s achievement in all subjects is likely to be constrained by their relatively weak literacy and maths, even with ameliorating “interventions”. A second option is to adopt the “depth before breadth” model used by Ark, which prioritises basic education (and prioritising here does not mean abandoning the rest of the curriculum) … A third option is to set an “alternative” curriculum that aims to develop the student in areas that do not require high levels of literacy/maths.’ The implication was that Ms Spielman and Ark favoured the second option. She said this was in line with the OECD’s stress that all children should achieve at least ‘basic education’.
Expanding still further to stress that she was talking about secondary and not primary, Ms Spielman said: ‘I completely agree with Cambridge Primary Review in principle: when the school is doing a proper job, there should be no need for trade-offs: the problems arise when the preceding phases of education have not been good enough. Primaries have the opportunity to get it right from the beginning; secondaries don’t.’
All this is very interesting, I thought. Many, I guess, might commend the Ark approach as reported here. I am not a teacher, so I do not have first-hand experience of any of these approaches.
But two things are, perhaps, worth saying. First, it does seem true that Ark is prepared to devote more time to literacy and numeracy, at least for some pupils. Curious to find out more about Ark’s ‘depth before breadth’ stipulation, I looked it up on Ark’s website and found the following: ‘When pupils secure firm foundations in English and mathematics, they find the rest of the curriculum far easier to access. That’s why we prioritise depth in these subjects, giving pupils the best chance of academic success.’
The site adds: ‘We also dedicate more time to literacy and English than other schools to encourage a love of reading and develop fluent communication skills. We have two programmes that focus specifically on phonics teaching and early spoken language skills.’ There is no mention of this applying only to secondary schools.
This suggests to me that the issue of whether some or all pupils need more time to be spent on literacy and numeracy is very much a live one, and is therefore worth debating. Does the amount of time spent on the subjects matter, I wonder, or is it better to concentrate on teaching quality in existing timeframes for these subjects, while maximising curriculum breadth? I’m not sure, but the Cambridge Primary Review evidence suggests this would be worth debating.
Indeed, evidence is relevant both from the United States – where in 2011, as CPRT’s Robin Alexander reported during the UK government’s national curriculum review, a commission advising the White House showed that many studies found links between pupils’ greater involvement in the arts and higher reading and numeracy test scores and increased engagement with school, with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds seemingly benefiting especially – and from the UK, where a report published last month by the National Union of Teachers said that England’s accountability regime was pushing schools to ‘offer a narrow education at the expense of a broad and balanced curriculum’. Both of these reports, in common with the Cambridge Primary Review, would seem to raise questions about the ‘trade-off’ thesis.
Second, and coincidentally, over the weekend a friend from an arts background told me that she recently visited an Ark primary, which educates many disadvantaged pupils, and had been put off by a ‘literacy and numeracy above all else’ approach. My friend worried about creative subjects losing out as a result. The idea that this might be the case would, no doubt, be denied strongly by Ark. But her child will nevertheless not be attending the school.
As I put it to Amanda Spielman at the conference, is there a danger of setting up a divide between schools using perhaps narrower curricular methods in disadvantaged communities, and more rounded offerings from schools with a more middle-class intake? After all, do not leading schools in the independent sector pride themselves on their rounded curricula?
Whatever the answer to these questions, with Ark arguably the most successful of England’s major academy chains, and its methods therefore perhaps likely to be influential in the future, it seems now might be a good time to revisit this debate.
Warwick Mansell, now one of CPRT’s regular bloggers, is a freelance journalist and author of ‘Education by Numbers: the tyranny of testing’ (Methuen, 2007).
Warwick Mansell is right. The argument that standards in ‘the basics’ are incompatible with a broad and rich curriculum was rejected in the Cambridge Primary Review final report on the basis of both children’s educational needs and evidence from inspection and research. This is why CPRT’s eight priorities include this: ‘Develop a broad, balanced and rich entitlement curriculum which responds to both national and local need, eliminates the damaging division of status and quality between core and non-core, and teaches every subject, domain or aspect to the highest possible standard.’