My middle child has just entered the purgatory of Year 6. Despite the school’s best efforts to maintain a creative breadth, it’s a tough year to avoid the perils of narrowing and shallowing energies onto a small group of level 3-4 borderline pupils, and a small subset of tricky literacy and numeracy concepts and skills. The looming grammar, punctuation and spelling tests (all of which are already embedded within SATs) will probably worsen this situation, despite the hugely significant yet little-publicised 4% national rise in English and Maths SATs results this year. (I am not sure why or how this happened. Better teaching? The long term benefit of the literacy and numeracy strategies? Even greater fear of the consequences of under- performance? Not grade inflation, surely? However it happened, well done to all those Year 7s and their Primary teachers out there.)
Even if the effort is bringing returns, as these pre-adolescents prepare for a world that isn’t only about ‘accessing the secondary curriculum’, it feels like primary schools are increasingly resigned to surrendering their values and broader aspirations when year 6 kicks in. I have spent parts of the last few weeks talking to Primary heads about various issues. I presented to NAHT’s primary committee about our proposed Grand Curriculum Designs programme, which will launch in January. I have also talked to headteachers in Suffolk about creating new Solutions Groups to explore family engagement and transition issues.
Through our work in Suffolk, we are developing a framework for an entitlement to work-related learning from 5-16 – but are starting with primary schools. By the age of 11, what kinds of work-related learning should young people be exposed and entitled to? This is not about helping young people to decide their career route – in fact it may helpfully do the opposite, shaking up young people’s aspirations so they no longer know what they want to do, as they finally understand how many options are out there. The current attempts by both parties, outlined in Matthew's blog yesterday, to revive the status of technical and vocational education (the latest in over a century of similar efforts) needs to start younger, changing the attitudes of children and their parents before views about futures become entrenched.
Over the autumn, we will be working with employers and educators in Suffolk to create a new framework. We want to develop a ‘guarantee’ in Suffolk which involves learning about, through and in work. This isn’t about making our 11 year olds employable – although I personally wouldn’t have a problem with 10 or 11 year olds doing a few hours of paid work per week. It’s about helping young people arrive at the cusp of adolescence with a greater sense of both realism and excitement about the pathway they will make for themselves – getting under the bonnet of the working world they walk, scooter and cycle by daily.
Despite some good initiatives (for instance through Hackney Inspire and Bristol’s My Future, My Choice), and some terrific attempts within schools (including Bosmere First School’s careers fair for 5-9 year olds), there is some reticence to think through how our primary pupils should engage with the world of work. The previous government’s curriculum review, whilst relatively expansive, was silent on this issue, as was the Cambridge Primary Review. Unsurprisingly, the new national curriculum review has no time for distractions such as these.
The reluctance may be related to a fear of seeing education, and especially primary education, through the reductive lens of ‘education for employment’. It also threads back to a historical guilt about the idea of young children working, whether in our own industrial age or in current times across the developing world. Images of chimney sweeps and trainer-stitchers may have coloured judgements and exaggerated our discomfort about children’s relationship with the workplace.
These learning opportunities will be especially important for pupils who live in communities where far fewer people are working regularly, or are in insecure, unskilled jobs. But such exposure is crucial for all. I want my own children to know that you don’t have to leave for work in a suit or cycling shorts; that starting your own enterprise is tough but not that scary; that it’s not only their dad’s job that sounds weird, boring and difficult to explain to your mates. If my eleven year old could be offered useful work experience for one afternoon a week in one of our local shops, I would take that over any improvement in her understanding of subjunctives.