147 countries look to the UK for inspirational primary education ideas – Cambridge Primary Review shows the way

Janet Downs's picture
147 countries have accessed the website of the Cambridge Primary Review looking for an alternative way of reforming primary education which goes beyond high stakes testing, a narrow curriculum and education privatisation. Chile is the latest eager to learn from the Review.

Professor Robin Alexander, director of the Cambridge Primary Review, recently met Chile's Minister of Education in Santiago and gave an extended television interview introduced by the Chair of the Senate Education Commission. Robin's two-part Nuevas Miradas interview can be downloaded here. Below is a summary of some of the issues raised in part two.

Collaboration, sharing resources and building supportive networks between primary schools and the primary and secondary sectors will increase the expertise of existing primary teachers, Robin said. But an emphasis on high stakes testing and league tables works against that. Such measures encourage competition between schools – competition reduces collaboration. But collaborative schools meet the best interests of the child more effectively than when schools compete.

Information technology (IT) is a powerful tool when used appropriately, Robin explained. IT supports learning and teaching – teachers collaborate on-line and exchange ideas. IT encourages professional development. But it’s important to stress that children shouldn’t spend their lives staring at a screen. The most important tool in learning, Robin said, was talk. Talk helps the brain develop, helps understanding develop.

The most effective teachers, Robin believed, were those who had deep subject knowledge combined with enthusiasm, a capacity to provide constant assessment which informs their teaching, and who interacted effectively with their pupils. Robin complained that questioning in the classroom was often restricted to “closed” questions which only have one right answer. Such questions don’t test understanding. What is needed is more open discussion which probes answers to reveal misunderstanding and encourages deeper understanding. Talking underpins literacy – oracy and literacy go together. It was a tragedy that talk in the classroom was seen as something to be discouraged.

Successive government policies which concentrate on curriculum, assessment and pedagogy are misdirected, Robin said. The focus should be on reforming teacher training and inspection. Teacher training needed to recruit from a higher standard of graduates . It should ensure trainee teachers develop skills in teaching their subject and understand the methods and principles of education. Inspection in England was heavy-handed. Questions needed to be asked whether inspection should be punitive or supportive. Punitive inspection created a climate of fear but supportive inspection helped schools improve.

Experts from the worlds of art and industry had much to offer schools, Robin said. Out-reach work brought pupils into contact with enthusiastic specialists – this enhanced learning. However, this did not mean that anyone could teach. Good teaching was not easy.

The most effective reform, Robin explained, was gradual and incremental. It built on the evaluation of previous reforms and didn’t just throw the whole system up in the air where it would end in pieces.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 10/12/2012 - 16:43

All good stuff. For more on the importance of talk in learning see the work of Mortimer and Scott formerly at Leeds University, and their book, 'Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms'. This is much more widely relevant than the title suggests. Also Shayer and Adey's 'Cognitive Acceleartion' programmes and the 'Developing Mathematical Resilience project of Sue Johnston-Wilder and Clare Lee (Warwick and Open Universities) all stress the importance of talking and discussion in the classroom.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 13/12/2012 - 15:28

More solid support for this. See, 'Rushed maths leads to superficial learning'.


This is really important. It underlines my hypothesis that the 'school improvement' brought about by the league table system is actually depressing standards. It follows from this that the 'most improved' schools are likely to be depressing standards the most. Depressingly OfSTED colludes in this process by basing its judgements on league table driven 'improvement' data and then seeking to find justification for the judgements that have already been made. How do we know that ANY school improvement, even that celebrated and welcomed by Fiona in Camden, is not actually reducing real educational standards and making our kids dimmer in the process?

The system is not just broken it is malign. It is driven by perverse incentives that are driving teaching and learning ever faster in the wrong direction.

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