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The end of the Rose Review?

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By John CoeGeneral Secretary of the National Association for Primary Education

John Coe discusses the future of the primary curriculum, following news that the Rose Review has been removed from the Children, Schools and Families Bill

John Coe

On 6 April, the Opposition refused to support several sections of the Children, Schools and Families Bill and torpedoed the adoption of a new primary curriculum in 2011. More than two years of meetings, the writing and submission of evidence, the visits to schools and conferences, the CPD courses, the publication and discussion of Sir Jim Rose’s Review upon which the new curriculum was to be based; all gone for nothing. And, what about the many schools where teachers eager for reform have already begun to implement the Rose recommendations? Is their work wasted, too?

Poised as we are, just weeks away from the General Election, the air full of the ear-splitting clash of political rhetoric, teachers must keep their nerve and remember the wise advice of Sir Winston Churchill who faced issues of life and death on a daily basis. ‘Keep buggering on’, he said. And, so must we. The children demand it and they, not the politicians, are our first concern.

Teachers in charge

Let’s remind ourselves of the professional freedoms we have.

Schools control methods of teaching and pedagogy. Yes, that’s right. Not the DCSF, the QCDA or Ofsted, but every teacher in every class. Even in the days of the National Strategies’ attempts to direct our teaching, the Strategies were not statutory.

Schools control teaching content that is additional to the statutory curriculum. The National Curriculum is dying fast and we must wait to see what emerges after the election. Of one thing we can be certain: the new primary curriculum will be slimmer and more manageable and will rest on decisions taken by teachers alongside their children.

Schools control how the curriculum is organised, the timetable, the weekly teaching hours, the organisation of teaching groups (for example, if you don’t like setting because it lowers standards, then you are free not to do it) and, of course, the learning resources used. So far not even the most dictatorial of governments has attempted to impose state textbooks.

We are indebted to Sir Jim Rose for these reminders of our professionalism. They are set out in paragraph 2.9 of his Final Report.

‘At every level between the ages of three and 11 we must seek to achieve greater flexibility so that children’s needs can be taken more into account. There must be more for children and less for the system’

The Rose Review

It is important that the next government, whether red, blue or yellow, accepts that the Rose Review was rooted not only in reliable and valid research, but also in existing practice in successful schools. The advice offered to the Review by teachers and their associations was broadly in line with the final recommendations. We advocated a substantial reduction in the level of prescription and in the amount of content of the current programmes of study. More opportunities for cross-curricular work and the flexibility for schools to adjust to the circumstances of children’s lives were sought. There was clear opposition to the tightly defined requirements of the National Strategies and this has been acknowledged by their phasing out. Similarly, there was advice that the spirit and much of the content of the Early Years Foundation Stage should be extended into the primary curriculum.

It is perfectly understandable that the Rose Review was warmly welcomed by the teaching profession and there is disappointment that political manoeuvring has prevented it being carried into law. But, there is always a gap, at times a wide gap, between what is prescribed by legislation and what actually takes place in the classroom. We must continue to develop and strengthen our practice in readiness for the new bill we can anticipate will appear later in the year.

Putting children first

At every level between the ages of three and 11 we must seek to achieve greater flexibility so that children’s needs can be taken more into account. There must be more for children and less for the system. It cannot be helped – there is a bureaucracy in primary education. Key stages are decided by chronological age but they relate only approximately to the personal development of individual children. The bureaucracy insists that all children, unless educated at home, should attend school full time from the beginning of the term following their fifth birthday. This means that the part-time option of the Foundation Stage can be extended to the reception class whenever parents and teachers judge that this is best for a child.

Play should be reasserted as the prime and most effective way of learning for four and five year olds who, in other European countries, do not attend school. A too early attempt at formal education can often be counterproductive, resulting in confusion rather than learning. What Rose describes as high-quality, play-based learning could well find an appropriate place in Year 1.

A place for phonics

Perhaps one of the most contentious recommendations made by Sir Jim Rose concerned the use of systematic (synthetic) phonic work as desirable for children ‘by the age of five’. Although this, somewhat startling, statement was tempered by an affirmation that phonic work should always be a matter for principled professional judgement and assessment, a majority of early childhood specialists continue to have reservations. We have always used phonics in teaching reading to beginners, but conscious of the need for meaning to be implicit in the printed word have preferred to deconstruct into phonic elements words already within the sight vocabulary of the child. Furthermore, the PIRLS (2006) International Report into reading reveals the disquieting fact that while our children are among the world’s best at decoding, they scored poorly on attitudes to the skill and lacked awareness of its value to them – the result, perhaps, of a concentration upon phonic gobbledegook at too early an age. The emphasis on word-attack skills has raised reading scores, but at the expense of human attributes that go towards making a ‘reader’ rather than merely a child who is able to decode. It would be wise to leaven an early diet of phonics with experience of real reading that brings pleasure and reward to young readers.

‘The inspectorate has long recognised the advantages of a wider and richer curriculum and has found that this has no adverse effects on test results, rather the reverse’

Topic teaching

A substantial proportion of the respondents to the Rose Review’s call for evidence expressed a wish for more cross-curricular, theme-based teaching and the integration of basic skills within a topic approach. This was reflected in the Review’s recommendation of a reconfiguration of the primary curriculum into areas of learning, in addition to discrete teaching of traditional subjects. Subjects would of course continue to exist as valuable tools for professional planning and evaluation, but would be encountered by children as strands running through child-centred learning.

Almost certainly the strongest guarantee that the report’s recommendations will be implemented despite the loss of the Education Bill is that such practice already exists in a sizeable number of schools. Children are studying through topics, often based upon the immediate environment and are demonstrating success. A minority of schools (nonetheless, growing in number term by term) have shown enterprise and confidence in their greater use of the children’s direct experience and the teaching of the skills arising through that experience. They have developed such a curriculum in defiance of the test-driven school life that too often has resulted in damaging consequences arising from the publication of league tables that rank schools’ performance in English and mathematics.

The inspectorate has long recognised the advantages of a wider and richer curriculum and has found that this has no adverse effects on test results, rather the reverse. As long as 13 years ago in a publication drawing on the Ofsted database they affirmed: ‘Schools which did well in the test also provided a broad and balanced curriculum. On average schools awarded a high grade for curriculum balance and breadth score better results than those who offer a curriculum which is narrow and restricted.’ (Ofsted/DfEE, 1997) Sadly, over subsequent years the market forces pressure resulting from a misplaced reliance upon test scores as a measure of overall success has taken over in too many schools. But, the growing minority are vitally important – they show us the way ahead. Sir Jim Rose did not invent areas of learning. He was able to make his recommendation knowing that it was in keeping with enlightened professional judgement and successful practice. The schools provide a solid platform for the implementation of a new primary curriculum. Legislation can follow later.

Looking to the future

Professor Robin Alexander, Director of the Cambridge Primary Review, has called for a national debate regarding the long-term future of primary education. There never was a competition between Rose and Alexander. The former was given terms of reference restricted to current government policies. His recommendations were for the immediate future and he went as far as he dared – even managing to question the continuation of the soon-to-disappear SATs. Alexander’s much more substantial three-year review is a completely independent examination of the condition and the future of primary education in the longer term. So, while we go on in our schools, not allowing the political rejection of the Education Bill to deter us, we must at the same time debate the analysis and the recommendations of the Cambridge review. Robin Alexander has secured funding (charitable not government) to bring together all those who wish to look radically at every aspect of our work. Best of all, the new network, the Cambridge Primary Network for Creative Teaching, will, as its name indicates, focus on the innate creativity of every teacher so long inhibited by political insistence on conformity. Rose has been denied but the future remains full of promise.

Both the Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum and the Cambridge Primary Review are available online.

Discuss the Rose Review and the future of the primary curriculum in our forum.


  1. Christopher Jarman
    on 26 April 2010

    First Rate Stuff

    John Coe has pointed out the inescable truth that whatever governments or ofsted or local authorities say or decree, the teacher in the classroom is supreme. No reputable research or report is wasted if it reflects the professional views of those in charge of schools and classrooms. Teaching is a profession where the buck stops at the classsroom door. Teachers will do what is right and what their professional judgement calls for.

  2. Ian Greenwood
    on 13 April 2010


    “Even in the days of the National Strategies’ attempts to direct our teaching, the Strategies were not statutory.”

    Indeed they were not, Mr Coe, but woe betide any school failing to implement these strategies to the letter, for that was the standard applied by Ofsted, thus making them statutory in all but name.

    At the same time you laud the EYFS approach, even suggesting it might be applicable in Year 1. And this is statutory. I find some inconsistency here.


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