Volume 1 (The Report)
Volume 2 (Research and Surveys)
published in 1987 on Plowden's twentieth anniversary.
AH Halsey and Kathy Sylva
The Oxford Review of Education articles were prepared for the web by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 3 January 2005.
© Copyright 1987 Carfax Publishing
Page numbers are from the journal.
PHILIP GAMMAGE originally trained as a primary school teacher, then taught in London for several years before becoming involved in teacher-training. Since then he has taught in Australia, the USA and Canada and spent many years on the staff of Bristol University. Currently he is Professor and Chairman of the University of Nottingham School of Education. He has written about the OECD/UNESCO interest in Early Childhood Education and Care, the work in England on Sure-Start and Early Excellence and about cross-national comparative studies.
He can be contacted by email and found on the website of the South Australian Department for Education and Child Development.
ABSTRACT Starting from the premise that much of the Plowden Report was misrepresented and, at times, misinterpreted, this paper briefly charts some of the actual changes personally observed over the last twenty years or so. It suggests that Plowden's inspirational qualities should not be overlooked, whilst stressing that actuality consists of continued whole-class teaching together with the conventional addressing of 'basic' subjects. The 'consistent conservatism of our schools' is referred to within the context of comment that, rather than having failed, unfortunately Plowden was not sufficiently followed or adhered to. The paper reminds how much there is of real value in the Plowden Report, how much good, wide-ranging advice is contained therein, and how much of its criticism of the education service would be apposite today. Current DES preoccupations with curriculum 'delivery' are discussed in the light of practical constraints and of recent findings from research; and, whilst acknowledging the weaknesses inherent in certain suggested styles of classroom organisation (associated with Plowden), the paper concludes with a balance sheet on present primary schooling. The suggestion is that primary practice may be considerably healthier than is normally represented despite a general paucity of funding and scarcity of resources.
THE PLOWDEN REPORT
A party game which is beloved of old and young alike is called 'Chinese Whispers'. The rules, as we all know, are simple. One starts the sequence by being given a message to pass on ...
'Finding out' has proved to be better for children than 'being told'. Children's capacity to create in words, pictorially and through many other forms of expression, is astonishing. The third of the three R's is no longer mere mechanical arithmetic, French has made its way into the primary school, nature study is becoming science. There has been dramatic and continuing advance in the standards of reading. The gloomy forebodings of the decline of knowledge which would follow progressive methods have been discredited. (CACE 1967, pp. 460-461)... and as it is passed from neighbour to neighbour it becomes distorted, perhaps ending ...
I believe the pundits have been trying so hard to dissolve early difficulties that they have emasculated primary education and given the child a completely false impression (if a very cosy one) of what lies ahead. Much of this nebulous teaching is carried out under a plea for 'self-expression' in the
mistaken idea that children should not be compelled to learn anything unless they are ready and willing to do so.'Reality' depends upon at which end of the sequence of beliefs you lie. Clients and workers often differ. As Katz once remarked:
One of the most salient aspects of the field of early childhood education is the sharp divergence of views among workers and clients concerning what young children 'need' as well as how and when these 'needs' should be satisfied (1977, p. 69).
English primary education is no different from early childhood education in general. Moreover, as Katz also has said, in education ideology is frequently employed as a substitute for theory, such that beliefs, misrepresentations and 'oughts' are frequently taken as indicators of what is actually there. This would certainly seem to have been the case in England since the late 1960s. The rhetoric of politicians and the conventional wisdom of the journalist's 'man in the street' seem to have combined in an act of faith which avows that schools have failed; moreover, that, in the case of primary schools, they have failed because they were too 'sloppy', 'progressive', 'child-centred', 'ill-disciplined', and so on. The facts, like those in Chinese Whispers, have become thoroughly distorted.
But, what are the facts - and how might one represent some 23,000 primary schools in England and Wales (working in our devolved, somewhat idiosyncratic system of 105 different LEAs) as though they were some single, uni-dimensional force? The broad issues may be fairly easily identified. But how one describes them, how one interprets, has much more to do with one's own values.
In 1956, as a trainee primary teacher at Goldsmiths' College, I ventured on my first school practice in south-east London. I was to be sent, my tutor said, to a 'fairly straightforward' streamed primary school of about 300 children. From notes, I see that the school was basically an 1880s School Board Elementary Building, with various additions, including a modern annexe (hut). The children sat at individual wooden desks - which, incidentally, are becoming fashionable again. I was to have the 'B' stream, a group of 36 nine year olds. This was about the average size for a primary class in those days. Most of my work, as befitted a first practice, consisted of taking small groups for basics, of occasional stories with the whole class, and one or two complete class lessons whilst supervised by the teacher. For both the group and whole class work, I was to set out a fresh sheet in my school practice file. On this sheet were to be recorded details of the lesson plan, namely: context, aims, methods, materials, resources, apparent results and subsequent reflection and criticism. The last was often augmented by detailed and percipient comment by the visiting tutor from the college. In those days third year children were beginning to work up to the eleven-plus 'scholarship' and their school work came increasingly under the shadow of the need for test facility and practice. I was instructed not to disturb this routine.
Thirty years later, in 1986, I carried out certain external examining duties, in the course of which I visited some twelve or so primary schools; six in inner London, six in South Devon. In the former case the students were postgraduate primary course students; in the latter BEd students. Both groups were on final practice. In all cases the
student presented me with lesson plans in almost identical format to those prepared by me some thirty years earlier. The children, however, were not streamed in any of the schools visited. Moreover, only one class was as large as 36 children and most were thirty or a little under. I saw no desks, only tables, with shelves beneath, from which the contents spilled regularly. I saw somewhat less whole class teaching. I think I detected generally less formal an atmosphere - a greater warmth, perhaps, in teacher-pupil interaction. But I saw the same friezes on the walls, the same projects on water or flight, the same examples of stories about 'my family'. True the obligatory 1950s nature tables had given way, as a rule, to a 'science/technology cum how-does-it-work' corner. There were brighter, more cheerful reading books available, most usually coded for ease of self-selection by the children. But buildings seemed to have deteriorated, to be in generally urgent need of decoration. Text books looked more imaginative, perhaps more carefully matched to presumed level of child ability. Writing was normally with ball-point pen or pencil, usually in some semi-cursive or modified Marion Richardson style. I saw nothing of the italic writing which had become such a vogue when I started teaching.
In the late 1960s I became a lecturer in education in a now defunct college of education. As a tutor I visited many schools in Kent, London and Norfolk (school practice pressures were so great in those days that several London colleges were allocated rural areas for certain periods of school practice.) During my visits I observed:
(a) the gradual disappearance of whole class streaming and its replacement by within class grouping (often a disguised form of streaming by ability);This middle period was, of course, the era of the Plowden Report. I recall the excitement I felt on obtaining my first copy; I had queued at HMSO to get it. Here it was; the distilled deliberations of a Committee that had spent over three years collating and reflecting on primary practice. The blueprint for primary education for all (or of the 95% in state schools) had arrived.
Yet, even then, and especially as we discussed its content with teachers and lecturers, there was some sense of deja vu as regards the curriculum organisation and practice. It is commonplace nowadays to say that Plowden legitimated 'good' practice where it could find it. Apparently it could not find that much. It still would not. Some 10% of schools may, by the early 1970s, be taken to have been substantially Plowden
orientated. But, almost by the time of publication of the report, there was much to counter any 'heady' child-centred or overly process-orientated approach to childhood education. A year earlier, in the USA, the Coleman Report (1966) had already provided considerable challenge to any beliefs that schools really mattered; and only six years after the Plowden Report the effects of recession, the decline in the birth rate and the criticisms of the Black Paper writers were strong.
Having said that, it is clear that Plowden has been an important lode-star. It has been a principal aid of navigation for heads, advisers and teacher trainers alike. It epitomised much that seemed desirable; it focused, often in near cliches, on the values that a significant number of early childhood educators seemed to hold. It had somehow clarified the ideas of the nineteen-forties that primary education really did differ from its charity status and from its elementary roots. It neatly echoed Dewey, even Froebel. It had come at a time when LEAs were changing the titles of inspectorial services to advisory ones. It took advantage of the longer, more rigorous three-year training of primary teachers (post 1963). It even expanded some school architects' horizons such that imaginative, attractive work-spaces might become a reality; (1) though one should, in the UK, in no way confuse the architecture of open-plan schools with the central values of Plowden-style teaching and learning. Such confusions are part of the North American scene, not here.
That decade of the 1960s was not merely fashioned by belief, changed titles, or declining streaming, however. Very significant proportions of the educational service's finance were being directed towards primary schools, 'with tenfold increases in money terms occurring between 1960 and 1974' (Cohen and Cohen 1986, p. vii). But hard on the heels of optimism came criticism, then retrenchment. The tone of the 1978 DES Report on primary education is quite unlike that of the Plowden Report a mere decade or so earlier. Moreover, it is clear that despite the widely held beliefs of a 'revolution' in primary practice, no major improvement was apparent to HMI. The picture is rather confusing in that the popular press and some of the Black Paper writers bemoaned the lack of attention to the basics, whilst the reality was of a usually conventional, probably competent addressing of the basic subjects, with, on the whole, relatively small attempts at imagination, width, and integration (that key-word for Plowden's followers) affecting the rest of the curriculum.
Thus, so far, one might safely say, over thirty years or so primary classrooms have looked remarkably the same. There is still much 'straightforward' class teaching. The Black Paper writers should be delighted. Perhaps a paper on the consistent conservatism of our schools and their laudable attention to 'telling children what to do' is now called for? Of course there are changes; not least, that calculators, microprocessors and small pieces of 'scientific' equipment are much in evidence. But Headington primary school's 'free discipline' of the 1930s (Bent 1966) was probably considerably more adventurous than that evident in the London schools I visited this year; and, if Plowden gave birth to a child, perhaps it was not so much the monster depicted by some as simply an ill-nourished waif, an orphan left too long in the cold, a child maltreated, then banished. Certainly, I suspect that is how many primary heads would see it, for not only could they not always get staff to follow Plowden practice, they suffered ill-informed criticism and abuse for implementing things which they had not delivered, and which lay outside their power to deliver! Some might also aver that the 'Plowden is a failure; let's move back to the basics' cries came from politicians and others and were merely convenient euphemisms for 'do it cheaper', as Morrell of ILEA has suggested. There are others, also, for whom Plowden has not failed.
Only when the attitudes and relationships are right within the school and within the larger community will we achieve our educational goals. There has been no rise and fall of the open school in the correct sense, nor has there been a 'back to the basics' effect in our schools (How could there be when the vast majority of schools have never left the basics?) Rather there has been, as happens always in change, a small movement forward followed by a consolidation period that only the foolish would call a regression. (Bond 1986, p. 11)There is, too, much in Plowden that has been all-too-conveniently forgotten. It was the Plowden Report which recommended many of those basic changes in record keeping which have quietly taken place during the 1970s (see paragraphs 435, 448 and 451, CACE 1967). It was the Plowden Report which outlined the dangers in teacher trainers having too little recent and relevant school experience (paragraphs 973, 976, 977). It was Plowden which emphasised the desperate need for developments in maths teaching and maths teacher training (paragraphs 647 to 662). Recent government pronouncements make the shortage of maths teachers sound like a new phenomenon! Indeed, returning to the actual Plowden Report, rather than to writers on it, is remarkably refreshing and one is struck by two main features:
(1) the wealth of good, wide-ranging advice (and assertion) from all sections of the education service and from the community,
In the latter respect alone, it provides a sad indictment of government after government. It argued for nursery provision - yet we know that in 1986 nursery school provision for our three year olds is below 25%. It criticises the poor state of buildings and resources - yet HMI could talk of a 'grim environment' in many schools in 1985. (DES 1985a, p. 29) It reminds us that
outstanding primary school buildings can support teachers in their use of modern methods, raise the standards of children's behaviour and change their attitude to school and win the enthusiasm of parents. (CACE 1967, p. 391)It recommended the abolition of corporal punishment, focused on the need for a combination of individual, group and class teaching, insisted that graduate entrants to the profession should be trained, emphasised the importance of and the right to continued in-service for all teachers. There seems so much sanity in the Plowden Report; no simplistic 'contingent' view of education is expressed in it. Plowden is not just about education 'getting the country somewhere'; it is about the quality of life enhancing experiences for all young children. Its weaknesses, though, are self-evident. Whilst there is much in it of optimistic assertion, of what should happen, rather than what did, there is also much 'woolliness'. The results of the survey to categorise English schools undertaken by HMI on behalf of the Committee hardly bear critical scrutiny. As Simon has pointed out, they are 'vague categories' and definitions, 'that it is difficult to make much sense of'. (1986, p. 13) Nevertheless, the Plowden Report, for all its infelicities, its looseness, its minor internal conflicts, was visionary and cohesive to some clear purpose in that it took the ideology of 'being on the child's side', of child-centred approaches, as central to the purpose of good education. It was not the Committee's fault that they were overtaken by economic, political and social events almost before they had published. Perhaps one should recall, as Simon does,
(1986) the swift demise of streaming, not predicted by Plowden, quite the contrary, but certainly hoped for and extolled. In that respect alone, and perhaps aided by demographic circumstances, the Report was the flag-bearer of real change.
Others have written on how well the myth of a 'primary revolution' was created and perpetuated, of the unfortunate coincidence of student unrest, of the publication of the Black Papers, the subsequent devastating impact of the Tyndale Affair in 1974, and of Callaghan's Ruskin College speech of 1976, how the subtle and seeming congruence of these events has been melded into an image of primary school failure. Yet, today, judging from the growing support for the National Association for Primary Education (NAPE), which seems to espouse broadly Plowden principles; judging from my own personal experience of examining primary teacher training courses throughout the country, there are still many who see Children and their Primary Schools as a broadly valid statement of how things should go on. It is remarkable how the Plowden Report is clung to. Despite a period of almost continuous change for the teacher training institutions, massive closures, plummeting morale, constant criticism of their curriculum, continued and major resubmissions for validation by CNAA or university, one notes that the Plowden Report has remained a powerful force in prescribed student reading.
Of course time has passed, and with the benefits of hindsight we are wiser. We know, too, that education is particularly prone to swings of the pendulum, that it is essentially political, that movements grow and die in relatively short periods of time, that terminology is especially slippery and that the right well-turned phrase, like 'management by objectives', or 'computer literacy' can attract vast resources by encapsulating the mood of the time. We know also that, in primary and early childhood education much damage has been done by careless labelling, by the use of such terms as 'formal' or 'informal'. Yet I suspect that, whatever else Plowden has done it has, over the years, reminded primary teachers that at best education is (a) not merely instruction, but is an interactive process, a case of 'doing' and 'undergoing' as Dewey would have it; and (b) a continuous, growing, dynamic process. Neither of these two is surprising. Writers from Whitehead to Piaget have constantly referred to them. They are essential features of real education. Furthermore their discussion occurs with great regularity in both initial and in-service courses for teachers. Presumably, therefore, teachers and teacher-trainers think them important.
The British Psychological Society submission Achievement in the Primary School: evidence to the Education, Science and Arts Committee of the House of Commons states that certain clear trends in the 'application of psychology to primary education' have emerged over the last twenty years:
1. Children are more able intellectually than previously acknowledged and this ability develops by actively interacting with the world;
It would be churlish to point out that such 1986 'trends' had been mentioned (though not quite in that form) in the 1967 Plowden Report. But whilst the Plowden Report exhorted primary educators to make more contact with parents and peers it did not have the benefit of knowing quite how such features might work. Whilst it might aver the benefits of nursery education, the actual advantages anticipated were, in those days, less well documented. Even that massive American conglomerate exercise 'Head Start' was only into its third year. Nowadays we know that there is evidence to show that appropriate pre-school experience can have a powerful and pervasive effect upon child achievement in subsequent stages of schooling. Turner (1980) and many others have claimed that the child's abilities to capitalise on primary schooling depend as much on self-confidence as on 'intellect', that such self-confidence is itself the result of interactions with a sympathetic and helpfully exploratory environment, one which confirms the child in seeing his own causality as an essential feature in it all.
Thus far I have tried to set out some of the context of Plowden, some of its weaknesses, some of its vision. I have emphasised that it has been a convenient scapegoat, a 'catch-all' for often ill-informed criticism and abuse of English primary education, yet an important beacon for many in the profession. Its philosophy was not new; it over-emphasised what Eisner has called the fallacy of process, perhaps to the detriment of content (Eisner 1974, p. 78). It echoed Dewey and our own pioneers of the early thirties (Isaacs). Its research bases leave much to be desired. But, withal, it remains read by many, is still inspirational and encapsulates what seems to many as the fundamental logic of starting from the child.
THE PRIMARY CURRICULUM SINCE 1967
Currently the primary curriculum covers a range of children aged from a little under five years to marginally under twelve. Two stages of education, therefore, are embraced by the term 'primary'; and many would point out that the Plowden ideology, if such a one can be identified, took root more firmly in the infant curriculum stage than in the junior one. As Davis testifies, and there are many other examples which go back to the early 1900s, teachers, especially infant teachers, experimented with the curriculum well before Plowden. One such teacher
developed a 'free day' from her frustration with time constraints which limited the exploitation of interest-based methods. Her children did not appear to be taught to read, but she read with them a great deal, and her class became more successful on the reading tests regularly administered by the head than those in parallel classes. (Davis 1986, p. 11)Certainly Piaget's view that play is a primary means of learning (Piaget 1951) was a well-established feature of much Froebelian Infant teacher training during the last century. It had clearly found its way into the accepted orthodoxy of teacher trainers and heads alike by the time of the 1931 Primary Project. The value of play, of 'free activity', of the 'integrated day' even, were well known curriculum tenets for many English infant teachers of the 1950s.
'Curriculum' is itself a generic term. Lawton (1984) points out that it is a metaphor for a 'course to be run' and that in turn it has accrued many metaphors which epitomise particular value orientations and approaches, e.g. the balanced curriculum (diet), the core curriculum (plant). Such metaphors also abound in early childhood education. The term 'Kindergarten' itself conjures images of children in need of tender
nurturance. I have come across many infant teachers who maintained, in the best Froebelian tradition, that children grow towards the light of knowledge; though one of the best educational solecisms I met was a final year Froebel primary student who wrote, 'Children must be nurtured forcefully'. How true, some might remark!
It is unwise to separate the curriculum from its modes of classroom organisation, since the latter tend to have a profound effect on the former and are themselves reflections of beliefs about the desirability of certain approaches to learning, such as individualisation or group cooperation or competition. Thus one views the impact of particular systems of organisation as major exemplars of curriculum development and change; one such being the apparent popularity of vertical or family grouping. During the late 1960s College of Education students were sent to particular LEAs to see how it was done. (I recall two such trips made from my college in 1967).
It is commonplace nowadays to say that the 1970s provided a period of unique and concentrated attention, documentation and advice on the primary curriculum as a whole. From the mid-1970s primary schools began to have to respond to a much more 'official' and centralised view of the curriculum. Whilst qualitative differences still abound, one suspects that, by the mid-1980s, primary schools have become more similar than at any time since the late 1940s. It is no longer possible for the primary head to shape and set the curriculum with quite the freedom that he or she could in the past, even with or without the constraints of the eleven plus (which, incidentally, still exists, in at least four local authorities). The language of the 1960s - and even of the very early 1970s - was one of expansion, of diversity, of optimism and reform:
There seemed to be a mood abroad that suggested that the curriculum, teaching styles, materials and modes of assessment needed to be more flexible, more suited to the individual child. (Gammage 1986, p. 67)Since then, as Lawton has put it (1982), the door to the 'secret garden of the curriculum' has been firmly pegged open and at least one result of such exposure has been a plethora of curriculum documents from the DES, which has itself created a problem of information overload for many teachers. Notwithstanding that major interest shown by the DES this last fifteen years or so, the English primary school still reflects the freedom congruent with a devolved system of LEA organisation; and composition, emphasis on certain forms of graded post or area of responsibility, practice and teaching styles are critically affected by the values held by the head teacher. This freedom to alter organisation, though less than in earlier times, is still great in comparison with that obtaining in many other countries. Such differences were clearly indicated in the DES (1978) primary report and by the subsequent, now published, HMI reports on individual schools. Indeed, the 1978 survey (which was a sample of 542 schools) revealed marked inconsistencies in the curriculum and argued for greater uniformity and consistency. In 1979 the DES Report Local Authority Arrangements for the School Curriculum set out LEA replies on areas of the curriculum considered by the DES as central to greater effectiveness and uniformity. Since then and the Schools Council (1981) survey, the DES has published Curriculum 5-16 guidelines which made the collective responsibility of LEA and school much clearer in respect of both the curriculum and its assessment. In the last eight years, and particularly since the (then) [Sir Keith Joseph] Secretary of State's Sheffield speech of 1984, the DES has moved towards a broadly agreed national framework of curriculum objectives which are thought desirable. DES papers have exemplified a belief in greater control, uniformity and specialisation in the curriculum, even at the primary level. The DES
talks of curriculum delivery (still thought to be an inappropriate term by many primary educationists) in the 1985 Middle School Survey (1985b, p. 73) and talks of the necessity, now common practice in primary education, for statements on the school's principles, aims and content to be available to parents. In 1984 the Chief Inspector suggested to a conference of primary teachers that 'ideally every primary school should have nine teachers for the nine subject areas' (areas of experience, DES 1985c) now thought appropriate to the curriculum. This, whilst being perfectly congruent with recent DES preoccupations, is antithetical to the essentially generalistic class-teaching ambience which had dominated primary education since its inception and which was lauded in the Plowden Report.
Since the ill-informed 'backlash' criticisms of the Plowden Report, that is, from about the early 1970s, assays of primary education have been constant, for the most part detailed, and frequently in considerable agreement. Observations range from those of Eisner in the early 1970s through those of the NFER by Barker Lunn (spanning twenty years) to the most recent ILEA reports of 1985 and 1986. The last study (ILEA 1986) details not only cognitive but also non-cognitive outcomes of primary schooling, such as self-perceptions, attitudes, and these, as the British Psychological Society emphasises, are of concern:
We are concerned, too, that education should promote the development of social competence and satisfactory personal relationships. Various research reports [cited] from individual case referrals to large-scale analyses of school effects on achievement have shown the importance of taking such a broad view. (BPS 1986, p. 123)Central to reports, official surveys and individual research has been the 1978 Primary Report. In this the HMIs observed that primary teachers accorded high priority to literacy and that, overall, national reading standards, though notoriously difficult to assess, appeared to be rising. All classes of seven and nine year olds made use of graded reading schemes, and spelling tests, multiplication tables and comprehension exercises were much in evidence (and still are, cf Barker Lunn 1984). Notably 85% of schools sampled had schemes of work on language. But matching work to ability was least clear in the case of the more able children. In this respect it is interesting to refer to Bennett et al some six years later. In their study of the quality of learning environments for a sample of 'top' infants (six and seven-year olds) they say
In reality therefore high attaining children received less new knowledge and more practice than their low-attaining peers. This is the opposite pattern to what might have been expected with the probable consequence of delays in progress for high attainers and a lack of opportunity for consolidation for low attainers. (Bennett et al 1984, pp. 213-214)The findings of both Boydell (1975) (in her work prior to the Galton et al ORACLE study) and Bassey (1978) confirm the worries originally expressed by Eisner (1974) that group work did not seem to involve much of the interactive planning or focus envisaged in Plowden, and that
Sustained conversations in which children explain and develop their ideas and arguments may be relatively uncommon. (Boydell 1975, p. 128)Such observations are confirmed by the ORACLE study (Galton et al 1980) and by Mortimore et al in the ILEA study:
Many teachers used groupings when organising their classrooms, especially in the 'basic' areas of the curriculum. Collaborative work, however, was not frequently seen, although there was a slight increase as pupils moved up the school. (ILEA 1986, p. 13)Likewise, individualised learning has presented similar problems of organisation for the primary teacher such that
The extreme liberal romantic model of children purposefully learning through self-initiated activity breaks down, except possibly in the hands of the exceptionally talented teacher. It entails a high order of adult-child ratio, and therefore quantity as well as quality of interaction if extension rather than repetition is to be gained from the child. (Golby 1986, p. 57)This is not to suggest that many primary teachers do not strive to provide individualised work and the opportunities for group projects and, occasionally, peer-led learning. It is simply to remark that most studies of the last decade emphasise that, whilst group work exists and individually matched assignments are not uncommon, the vast majority of class time (up to 70%) seems to be spent in standard, teacher-originated, whole-class teaching. There are some differences to be observed throughout the primary age range, however. For instance Kutnik found that
Teachers in the middle and later years of the primary school maintained several behaviours similar to teachers of younger pupils. But they also became more formal and more subject-oriented ... Coincidentally, the children started speaking and interacting more spontaneously with one another ... (and thus brought) a drastic increase in warnings and directions by the teacher. (Kutnik 1983, p. 95)Despite the general congruence of viewpoints there are some minor conflicts and paradoxes in what is said to exist or said to be desirable. From HMI and other sources there have been suggestions that a certain narrowness pervades the primary curriculum and its organisation. Yet at the same time as lauding width and integration (a dominant theme in the Plowden Report), many, especially HMI, see forms of 'specialisation' as leading to more consistent child achievement prior to the age of transfer at eleven. In 1981 HMI wrote that there was no evidence that concentrating only on the basic skills would raise attainment, rather that their observations suggested that such improvements more often took place in wide programmes of work whereby language and maths skills could be applied in various contexts. (DES 1981, p. 17) The Middle School Report (DES 1985b) commented that both specialisation and 'the carrying over the certain skills' were important. Significantly, too, it noted that material resources did seem to affect the quality of school work (p. 75). It is perhaps from Barker Lunn (1984) that we get the clearest picture of what actually goes on in primary schools. She notes that a large proportion of time was spent on very 'traditional' basic subject work, the rules of number, computation, the use of money. This chimes well with the ILEA report of 1986 and tends to confirm the view that what goes on has not really changed that much since 1967. There is no shortage of documentation to confirm such an overall view (see especially Cohen and Cohen (1986) and Richards et al (1985, vols 2 and 3). Any amalgamation leads one inescapably to make the following broad generalisations for the period 1967 to 1986:
(a) despite Plowden's recommendations on group work, interaction within groups is
much less marked than the mere physical/spatial disposition in the classroom might indicate;Thus overall the current state of English primary education would seem to be as follows.
1. Little evidence of declining standards; if anything a rise in reading standards.THE FUTURE
The late 1980s is a period of high unemployment, surplus school places even at primary level, deteriorating buildings, more voluntary finance around the 'edges' of the state system (and consequent inequalities of provision) and of a fairly demoralised teaching profession. But it is also a period of a slightly increasing output of primary teachers (yet again), a period when primary school rolls have temporarily stabilised, a time when all new primary teachers are graduates and a period when home and school links have never been as strong. For the foreseeable future the benefits of good nursery education will be denied to three quarters of our children, despite the fact that the impact of nursery schooling on subsequent primary education has been well demonstrated. (In 1986 we had 22% of our three and four year olds in school, with such
variations as approximately 1% in attendance in Wiltshire and 48% in Cleveland). In a continued period of high unemployment, the teacher may well benefit from the increased availability of parent time and a renewed awareness of the actual benefits of parent and 'lay' adult involvement in class and school activities. Such involvement has been shown to be particularly efficacious, especially in the helping of low-progress readers. Particularly serious attempts will be made to involve more parents from minority groups.
Despite closures of surplus schools, an especially feared and damaging enterprise for local politicians, it seems likely that British primary schools will remain relatively small on average (about six to seven staff covering both infant and junior stages.) The birth rate and social/economic features are such that primary schools will have to continue to employ some form of mixed age cohorts in the majority of cases. The covert effects of grouping by ability, often a disguised form of streaming within the class, are likely to persist, however. Primary schools are now required to state explicitly what they are about and the 1986 Education Act enables governors and parents to be involved in oversight of the curriculum. Thus the marked improvement in parent-school/community interchange seems ensured. Curriculum leadership, the current 'flavour' of DES preference, is likely to be encouraged, and the change in in-service patterns from 1987 will undoubtedly lead to increasing focus on school-related, 'problem-solving' courses for LEA selected staff, rather than past patterns of choice which were dominated by individual teacher perceptions of need or of career enhancement:
I do not want a 'paper' qualification but need courses which would improve my performance in the classroom. (Atkin and Houlton 1986, p. 21)There seems little likelihood of any major change in the curriculum or in its 'delivery' (current DES term). Individual, class-set, basic in-seat work, often from work cards, will persist as the staple diet of the day, though it is clear that many teachers will continue to operate a range of organisational practices within their one class. But the research messages of the last decade or so do seem to have made an impact, and many primary heads seem well aware that, whilst Plowden advocated group work and interaction, there are limits to its effectiveness. The BPS, referring to work of Bennett and Desforges (1985), said:
Experimental evaluations have shown that more time is spent working and more work is completed when children sit in rows than when seated round tables. Certain forms of work, in particular the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills, require more individualised organisation, whilst work involving communication skills requires group organisation. Thus achievement in basic skills is more likely to be promoted within formal classrooms. (BPS 1986, p. 122)Planning the curriculum in terms of its implied conceptual development for children, rather than in terms of 'house-keeping' (low noise, cleanliness, etc.), is another aspect of classroom organisation and style which certainly has been advocated by teacher trainers of recent years. There is greater awareness, too, that, whilst flexible, vertical grouping has its problems in terms of the range of work provision necessary, the competence of the top infant is greater than had perhaps been previously assumed. Several good software programmes which take this factor into account and which actively expand conceptual understanding (e.g. which allow children to compose their own music, complete with elaborate harmonies, and to recognise the processes
involved) are available and are likely amongst other things slightly to ameliorate the general shortage of musical expertise in the classroom. Evidence suggests very active use of microprocessors in areas of language, geography, history, music, maths, science and technology, and whilst the 'delivery' in science remains fairly low (as opposed to official emphasis), modest computer literacy and minor technological understanding are likely to continue as fairly secure features of both infant and junior departments.
Fundamental lessons have been learned since Plowden, many of them related to concerns discussed by that Committee itself. Techniques of class-recording have been thought through more thoroughly and have been aided by the published reports of the Assessment of Performance Unit. Articulation between age groups and the planning of progression are much more to the fore and more likely to be high on the agenda of staff discussions. The DES curriculum guidelines, for all their weaknesses, have proved useful debating ground and have signalled sharper attention to areas considered fundamental in the curriculum. Staff appraisal is now well-established in some LEAs and is gathering strength. The roles of graded post holders as essential curriculum leaders is now commonly established. Primary teachers have a longer initial training; also they have significantly higher A-level scores on entry to college. All this would suggest that the profession of primary teaching is in relatively good shape for the 1990s. Certain external factors, however, may give rise to alarm; low investment in building maintenance; relatively low cost per child in comparison with our neighbours in Europe. On the other hand, we may be getting excellent value for money. 'British teachers cost the tax-payer very much less than those of our major European neighbours.' (Williams 1986, p. 4)
My own opinion, after some thirty years associated with primary education, is that primary schools benefited enormously from the inspiration of Plowden, have suffered from grandiose claims and equally wilfully inaccurate criticism, but are, withal, entering these latter years of the century as a trifle dull, yet more humane, more cohesive, more aware that process and content need carefully relating, yet still providing integration through topics and projects and still concerned to commit the child to perspectives of learning which admit the importance of enthusiasm and enjoyment.
(1) In the late 1960s and early 1970s architecture students at the University of Bristol carried out many exercises in 'progressive' school design. I attended meetings with the students at which I and various local head teachers expounded Plowden 'principles' in respect of the school and class environment.
ATKIN J & HOULTON D (1986) Qualified - but what next? a survey of primary teachers' views on award-bearing in-service courses (Nottingham, University of Nottingham School of Education).
BENNETT N & DESFORGES C (eds) (1985) Recent Advances in Classroom Research BJEP Monograph (2) (Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press).
LAWTON D (1984) Metaphors and the curriculum in: W TAYLOR (Ed.) Metaphors of Education pp. 79-90 (London, Heinemann).