Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools (1992)

Three Wise Men Report (complete)

Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools: A discussion paper (1992)

London: Department of Education and Science 1992
Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.

Notes on the text


In 1991, with a general election looming and Labour ahead in opinion polls, education secretary Kenneth Clarke decided that a return to streaming and more formal teaching methods in primary schools would be a popular campaign policy for the Conservatives.

On 3 December 1991 he announced that he had commissioned Robin Alexander, Jim Rose and Chris Woodhead (pictured, left to right) to produce a discussion paper on Curriculum Organisation and Practice in Primary Education. It would be published by the end of January 1992. The time of year and the choice of three men to write it led to its becoming popularly known as the 'Three Wise Men Report'.

Robin Alexander (1941- ) had been educated at the Perse School and the universities of Cambridge, Durham, London and Manchester. He had taught in schools and colleges before becoming Professor of Education at Leeds (1977-95) and Warwick (1995-2001). He went on to hold a variety of posts at Cambridge and York, and became Director of the Cambridge Primary Review in 2006.

Jim Rose had trained as a teacher at Kesteven College in Lincolnshire. He had held several primary school posts, including two headships, and had worked on the Nuffield Science Project at Leicester's School of Education. He had joined HMI in 1975, becoming Chief Inspector of Primary Education and then Director of Inspection for OFSTED. He retired in 1999, but was later invited to lead several reviews, including the 'Rose Review' of the Primary Curriculum in 2009.

Chris Woodhead (1946-2015) had attended Wallington County Grammar School in Surrey and read English at Bristol and Keele. After holding a number of teaching posts, he had moved into teacher training, becoming a tutor on the Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) course at Oxford. His later career included administrative posts in Devon, Shropshire and Cornwall; he was chief executive of the National Curriculum Council (NCC) from 1991 to 1993, and of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) from 1993 to 1994. In 1994 he was appointed head of Ofsted.

Written in just one month, the report certainly caused much controversy. Teachers who had been brought up on Plowden regarded it as an attack on their most dearly-cherished values and practices. The two reports shared some things in common, however. Both were products of their age - Plowden, the progressive sixties; Alexander, Rose and Woodhead, the new age of National Curriculum subjects and testing. Both, too, were widely misquoted and misrepresented.

Whether the publication of the Three Wise Men Report affected the outcome of the election (the Conservatives narrowly won) is open to debate. It was certainly not, as Clarke had hoped, a resounding endorsement of traditionalist views.

The report online

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Anything added to the text by way of explanation is shown [in square brackets].

Summary of the report's conclusions and recommendations

  • there is evidence of falling standards in some important aspects of literacy and numeracy;
  • Piaget's notion of 'learning readiness', as set out in the Plowden Report, is dubious and the progress of primary pupils has been hampered by the influence of highly questionable dogmas;
  • the teacher should be an instructor rather than a facilitator;
  • teachers should use a range of organisational strategies including individual and group teaching, but there should be more use of whole class teaching;
  • while there is a place for well-planned topic work, more emphasis should be put on the subjects of the National Curriculum;
  • pupils should be grouped by ability in subjects (setted) rather than as a whole class (streamed) but teachers must avoid the pitfall of assuming that pupils' ability is fixed;
  • many primary teachers are not equipped to teach subjects effectively and there is an acute shortage of specialist expertise;
  • there should be greater flexibility in the deployment of staff as specialists, generalists, semi-specialists and generalist-consultants;
  • there should be more specialist teaching in the upper years of Key Stage 2;
  • initial training, induction and in-service training should all take account of these needs;
  • heads should set and monitor INSET policies, should lead by example, and should teach;
  • the National Curriculum should be regularly reviewed to ensure that it makes appropriate demands on pupils of different ages and abilities and that it is manageable in terms of the time, resources and professional expertise available in schools.

The 1992 Three Wise Men Report and the above notes were prepared for the web by Derek Gillard. The report was uploaded on 5 March 2007; the revised notes on 20 November 2012.

Three Wise Men Report (complete)