Broadening their horizons

25 January 2016

L89_PrimaryChoir_pic WEBSummer 2015 saw the publication of the results of a trial, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), into the teaching of philosophy in primary schools. Teachers in 48 schools were trained to lead discussions on philosophical issues such as truth, fairness and bullying. Children in Years 4 and 5 were invited to discuss questions such as: ‘Should a healthy heart be donated to a person who has not looked after themselves?’ or ‘Is it acceptable for people to wear their religious symbols at workplaces?’

The evaluation found that the programme improved children’s confidence, patience and self-esteem. Perhaps more surprisingly, it also appears to have had an impact on academic outcomes with children following the programme, improving their progress in reading and maths by an average of two months over the course of a year, compared with their peers. What’s more, these effects appear to be most pronounced for disadvantaged children.

‘Orchestral music-making’
A similar effect was recently noted by two schools working on projects with Opera North. Windmill Primary School in Leeds took part in the company’s In Harmony programme, which aims ‘to inspire and transform the lives of children in deprived communities, using the power and disciplines of community-based orchestral music-making’. Children in the school spent up to three hours each week on musical activity and some also attended Opera North’s after-school sessions. Most children learned to play an instrument, and all of them sang. Bude Park Primary School in Hull took part in the company’s sister programme Singing School, with children receiving up to three hours a week of singing and performing arts sessions.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NfER) evaluation of the projects cites ‘positive effects on children’s self-esteem, resilience, enjoyment of school, attitudes towards learning, concentration and perseverance’. In addition, the evaluation identified ‘some perceived impact on parents and families, including raised aspirations for their children’.

As with the philosophy programme, the projects appear also to have had a positive impact on children’s attainment in the ‘core’ subjects. At Windmill Primary School, the proportion of children achieving Level 4 in their KS2 SATs in reading increased from 78 per cent in 2014 to 99 per cent in 2015 with corresponding increases in writing (76 to 87 per cent) and maths (73 to 93 per cent). Bude Park saw its KS2 reading results increase from 80 per cent Level 4 in 2014 to 96 per cent in 2015 and its KS1 maths results increase from 81 per cent to 96 per cent.

Should we be surprised by the findings from these two studies? They certainly don’t fit the current rhetoric with its emphasis on ensuring that children master the ‘basics’ before being let loose on anything else and its insistence that the best way to raise standards is to relentlessly teach (and test) core knowledge.

Common assumption
The Cambridge Primary Review, the most comprehensive enquiry into English primary education for the last 50 years, argued strongly against the common assumption that standards in the basics are best secured by concentrating on them to the exclusion of all (or most) else. On the contrary, as the review’s final report clearly puts it, it is time we ‘started taking notice of the evidence on the necessary relationship between standards and breadth. The evidence may be politically counter-intuitive but it is also well-established, consistent and unequivocal.’

I saw a fascinating example of this approach in practice during a recent visit to a school in a deprived area of London. The school, which takes children from four to 18, prioritises peaking and listening skills across the curriculum and designs rich, multi-layered approaches to learning. I watched a group of Year 1 children passionately debate whether it’s better to have one good friend or a broad group of friends, and listened to a Year 9 group eloquently discuss the causes of the Cold War while working on sculptures of Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

Such rich learning experiences are far from uncommon in our schools. It can be tempting, however, for school leaders and teachers to bow to the relentless pressure to improve pupils’ performance in the ‘basics’ by narrowing the curriculum and focusing on a closely defined set of core skills and knowledge.

The results of the EEF’s philosophy trial and of Opera North’s music programmes serve as a timely reminder that providing children with a broad, rich curriculum shouldn’t be seen as counter to helping them to achieve strong results in English and maths.

On the contrary, broadening our own, and our pupils’, thinking is key both to developing confident, rounded human beings and to achieving high standards in the ‘basics’. We don’t need to, and we shouldn’t, choose one over the other.

Julie McCulloch is ASCL Primary Leadership Specialist and a member of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust board.