Sir Michael Wilshaw, who is “keen to start commenting more regularly on different aspects of our education system” (quiet at the back), has launched a series of monthly commentaries. He has used his first commentary to applaud the improvement of England’s primary schools. Quoting the rise in both KS1 and KS2 SATs results, and the increase in the number of good or outstanding primary schools, Sir Michael concludes that “we have real grounds for great optimism here”.
This welcome recognition of the success of our primary heads, teachers and pupils is just the latest in a string of similar recent articles and reports. In a recent interview with the TES, Professor Chris Husbands, former director of the Institute of Education and now vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, expressed his belief that, “In England, what we have got right, by and large, is primary education. You’d struggle to find better primary schools in the world. We know what really good primary schools look like and how to get them.”
And a report published in September by the London School of Economics (LSE) suggested that the success of London schools is largely due to improvements in school quality, in both the primary and secondary phase, rather than the result of specific initiatives such as the London Challenge.
So what is it that we’re getting right?
For Sir Michael, it’s all about the basics. A key factor, in his opinion, has been “the greater emphasis on the structure of language in the primary curriculum and its focus on ensuring that all pupils get a solid grounding in the basic knowledge, understanding and skills that form the foundation of children’s learning”. Examples of this focus on the structure of language include the increased emphasis on phonics and an insistence on higher standards of grammar and punctuation from the earliest years of primary school.
Professor Husbands takes a different tack. For him, the success of England’s primaries stems from the provision of “a genuinely rich curriculum that encompasses both academic and emotional skills”.
The LSE report focuses on the “dramatic reversal of fortunes” demonstrated by the particularly good results of more disadvantaged pupils in London schools. London primary schools succeed in transforming a group of children who are at a similar level or behind their peers outside the capital at the age of three into a cohort which outperforms their peers by the age of eleven. Around half of this difference, the evidence suggests, can be attributed to child, family and school characteristics (such as London children’s different ethnic make-up), but a significant proportion appears to be the result of what happens to those children at primary school.
The report is not able to pinpoint precisely what it is that London primaries do to achieve their disproportionately high results, but hypothesises that it is likely to be a combination of national policy interventions in areas such as inspections, choice and competition, and London-specific changes such as the transfer of control of education from the Inner London Education Authority to London boroughs.
Clearly, there is no room here for complacency. Not every school is reaching the high standards achieved by the very best, and not all desirable outcomes can be measured. And the different interpretations of these success stories suggest that we are still some way from developing a collective understanding of why most of England’s primary schools are doing well, and how we can share and spread good practice (not to mention how we can ensure we don’t undermine this progress with future changes).
In a system in which it often feels that the stick is employed more than the carrot, though, it’s important that we stop and recognise the often excellent work being done by school leaders, teachers, parents and children in schools up and down the country. We should take a moment to savour Professor Husbands’ praise for primary education in England, to recognise the difference many schools are making to the lives of the most disadvantaged children, and to share Sir Michael’s ‘great optimism’ that we can continue to grow from the solid foundations we have built.