Revised primary curriculum designed to create independent learners was key to recent success, says Northern Ireland Minister

Janet Downs's picture
John O’Dowd, Northern Ireland’s Minister of Education, attributes the success of Northern Irish pupils in recent international reading and maths tests to a revised primary curriculum which was designed to create independent learners.

O’Dowd says this success can be attributed to initiatives such as Count, Read and Succeed and a greater emphasis on numeracy and literacy in the teacher-training colleges.

The revised primary curriculum was influenced by the Montessori method which encourages children to follow their own interests within a structured environment. Teachers have been supported by investment in training and an increase in the number of assistants. They’re no longer expected to work in isolation but to collaborate. Teachers’ work is enhanced by help and resources from CASS (Curriculum Advice and Support Service).

And it was important to get the support of parents – one way was posting YouTube videos showing classroom activities.

The revised curriculum was designed to:

1 Emphasise skills instead of content: Teaching focuses on the attainment of skills rather than covering set content.

2 Distribute leadership. Northern Irish teachers who take on extra responsibility are paid accordingly.

3 Foster a culture of self-evaluation. Teachers are expected to evaluate their teaching and share good practice. Successful strategies can be broadcast on an online TV Channel set up as part of The Every School a Good School initiative.

4 Encourage professional development.

5 Invest in Information Communications Technology (ICT). The Department of Education in Northern Ireland (DENI) has invested over €668 million (£470m) in ICT infrastructure via the C2K programme.

The test results may have been encouraging, but headteacher Mario Gribbon, principal of St John the Baptist Primary School, Portadown, warns against complacency. He is also concerned about the difficulty young newly-trained teachers face in finding jobs.

O’Dowd admits that external factors such as budgetary constraints could threaten recent achievements. He recognises that “social deprivation is still a barrier” and wants to focus on areas where attainment is stubbornly low.

Northern Ireland’s idea of a primary curriculum contrasts with that proposed by Michael Gove. Gove’s proposals, says Colin Richards, former HMI and a primary sector specialist adviser to Ofsted, sideline key concepts and the development of personal qualities in favour of “stuff” underpinned by “restricted approaches to early reading.” It will make nonsense of a “broad and balanced curriculum”, he said in an impassioned plea to save the primary curriculum in England.

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