Sunday 17 June 2012

Tim Oates lengthy reply to my request for evidence

Here's my letter to Tim Oates, Chair of the Expert Panel that advised Gove in the run-up to the publication of the Draft Primary English Curriculum


Hi Tim

I'd be interested to know where the evidence exists for

1. the claim that  issuing directives like this does anything to raise standards. Dylan's Inaugural lecture appears to contradict this and he offers a great deal of international evidence and his own practice to back that up. (I don't accept the distinction between content and pedagogy). We've had similar documents being issued since 1988 at massive cost, and then junked (see NLS). In other words there are much better ways of working.

2.  the idea that primary children doing this kind of grammar helps them with writing or indeed any evidence that they understand it.

3. the notion that this model of learning in step by step fashion works. (see Andrew's critique of it).

4. the idea that anyone has ever successfully taught the subjunctive to more than a tiny handful of children under the age of 11.

5. the idea that SSP applied 'first, fast and only' achieves higher levels of 'reading for meaning' by Years 5 and 6 than methods  using phonics  in conjunction with other methods. According to Sue Ellis of Strathclyde University, the SSP first, fast and only children are coming through achieving lower results for 'reading with meaning'.

Your argument about no need or no tradition for references on draft documents is disingenuous. Gove has called for responses but how can we fully respond if we don't have the references?!

Here's Tim Oates' reply:


 As I mentioned, there’s a lot of background to the principles behind the review in my paper ‘Could do better’, on the Cambridge Assessment website. Some people criticized the heavy referencing in this paper as ‘getting in the way of the reading’, so I’m not averse to clear linking back to the evidence base. Likewise, the substantial international research, of 18 other nations’ national frameworks, was published at the same time as the EP report (Dec 2011) but has been somewhat overlooked. There are two substantial papers on the DfE website alongside the EP report.

I’ve rattled this response off, with the intention of delineating the research base and some key ideas within the Review – the length of it is not supposed to be ‘battering by volume’ – if you get bored just do a speed read.

Your 1 is very important. Excuse the following long-winded response on this.

Short version re 1: central prescription through a National Curriculum specification of expected outcomes is only a small element of the total arrangements needed to enhance quality of education. And these arrangements need not be controlled from the centre – ie central diktat – international evidence shows the importance of  balanced policy across teacher quality, teaching quality, inspection, accountability arrangements etc. The level of detail of national curriculum specifications varies across the globe, and adoption of the right level of detail is determined by aspects of history, culture, and the degree of restriction imposed by other policy elements.

Long version re 1 – with specific references to the research base - I do not think that a detailed National Curriculum is the sole factor in high quality learning. I have argued that we have, in England, lost the sense of distinction between the purpose of a National Curriculum and the School Curriculum. I have argued that it is a category error to see the National Curriculum as ‘exciting and motivating’. National Curriculum specifications for subjects should not include motivating contexts, or be anything other than a relatively dry statement of essential elements. By restricting the National Curriculum to its proper function, this opens up space for professionalism of teachers, rather than closing it down, since by contrast with the National Curriculum, in the school curriculum it is for teachers to develop exciting and engaging programmes of learning, using variation in contexts and learning approaches to ensure that deep conceptual learning is possible for all children. And I’m very interested in Michael Young’s ground-braking work on ‘powerful knowledge’ – both he and I agree that acquisition of key personal and social capitals is vital for further erosion of the dysfunctional link between social background and educational attainment which has dogged our society. But for this to happen, that ‘powerful knowledge’ needs to be delineated with clarity and precision in the subject specifications. And we mean ‘deep conceptual understanding’ not just ‘facts’. But this means that the National Curriculum subject specifications are thus likely to seem like dull ‘epistemic maps’ of necessary outcomes – in English: understanding and use of metaphor, understanding and use of different poetic forms etc – but whilst this describes important outcomes, the specific experience of learning these and wider goals in a specific school, for a specific child, should be motivating, engaging, exciting, and compelling. The learning experience should be challenging, amusing, enlightening, in turn. This distinction between the National Curriculum and the school curriculum is, I believe, vital.

Dylan and my thinking does not differ at all on the fact that sound national specification of a National Curriculum is not sufficient for genuinely elevating underlying educational standards (and I do mean ‘underlying standards’ not just narrow outcomes oriented towards narrow targets or tests) – it’s something which he and I have discussed fully. It is clear from Hattie’s work, Hogan’s, Alexander’s, James’, McGuiness’, McBeaths’, Pollard’s and many others, that it is teaching quality which is highly determining of the quality of education and quality of outcomes. I am an unashamed constructivist, so would argue absolutely that it is the quality of the enacted curriculum – the lived experience of learning, by a specific child, in a specific instance in time, in a specific context – that determines the outcomes of education. The research on which I have drawn over the years also suggests that we need really good alignment between all the key factors which can be affected (and effected) by policy – curriculum content, teaching development and qualification, funding, inspection, accountability and so on. This comes from the work of Raffe, Archer, Alexander, Green and Schmidt & Prawat. This form of ‘coherence’ in arrangements is not trivial, since it is displayed by high performing systems and absent in those which are low performers or are moribund.  Alongside all these elements of policy (which I refer to as ‘control factors’ since you can do something about them) there of course lie ‘explanatory factors’ – ie the history, culture, and other aspects of a specific society. So…to your question here…do we need such detailed specifications and do they raise quality? If one thinks that a review of the National Curriculum will be the sole thing to enhance education then one is destined to be sorely disappointed. That’s the point of the ‘coherence’ theory – the National Curriculum is one small piece of a very complex jigsaw of arrangements. If the question is ‘do we need a National Curriculum?’ then I would argue (on the basis of the mountains of research I have been through since 1988, with some of the most relevant listed in ‘Could do Better’), for England, yes. More and more countries have developed a national curriculum since 1998 (Finland, France had national curricula for a few centuries before we did) and I’ve looked at many of them. Switzerland is an interesting, rather exceptional case, of a developed country not having a national curriculum, and this is associated with the form of devolved democracy which is present there – a political culture giving an educational governance structure very unlike the one we have in England (Reynolds & Farrell, UNESCO, Fischer). National curricula do indeed assume different forms (structure, content and level of detail), and this variation occurs for many reasons. Some of the variation can be related back to the different things which are used for curriculum control – for example, some nations have a less detailed national curriculum but have other elements of restriction, such as the time to be spent on specific subjects, state-approved textbooks, and so on. In these settings, the national curriculum can often look less detailed, but other aspects of the system are subject to greater restriction than is the case here. There has been a real problem of people only looking at the bits of paper in a system and not looking at the how other elements look in systems with detailed National Curricula (Aus, Mass etc)  and those with ‘framework’ curricula (NZ, Finland).  I recognize that, in terms of other elements,  restriction increased to unacceptable levels in England during the 90’s (ref Johnson, O’Neill, Select Committee, Allen, Gleeson), with dozens of initiatives coming from the State, with few teachers genuinely understanding which are required in law and which are not. This has led to system incoherence (in the technical sense I refer to above….and despite these, work from Massey, Brown, Hodgen, and OECD show that standards have simply not significantly improved in England in the way that they have in other key states, over the same period). So….the level of detail in the current specs…two things: this level of detail has been determined in careful consideration of the other forms of requirement which will be present in the system – and many, such as the Strategies, have been lifted. It’s vital to understand that much higher restriction than this has been used in periods of system improvement in other nations. Secondly, the level of detail in these specifications is not unprecedented, neither internationally nor historically. Note that when Dearing genuinely reduced the scope of the National Curriculum in 1995, the resulting specifications included more words, but were reduced in scope. We have attempted this with the current drafts – fewer things, essential elements, described with greater clarity and precision. And the current consultation is intended to tale reactions on whether we have attained the principles set out at the beginning of the Review. Vital to note that it is not intended that all other subjects are expressed at the same level of detail as Maths, English, and the three sciences. The consultation is designed to take comment on issues such as level of detail, taken in the context of other forms of restriction and specification acting on education.

I’ll take 3 next since this relates to 1. The Secretary of State has decided to consult on year-by-year specifications rather than the two-year blocks recommended in the EP report. The international evidence is quite equivocal on whether, or not, to adopt a year-on-year approach. Singapore uses year on year in some subjects and some phases, and in those subjects where it does not, there exist state-approved textbooks which are almost week on week rather than year on year. Hong Kong, Alberta, Massachusetts all have year-by-year specifications in key areas. And these are high-performing and rapidly-improving jurisdictions. This doesn’t mean that it’s a cast iron case for year-on-year here; I am simply saying that there is evidence for jumping in either direction. So why year-on-year? Answer – clarity in focus on a limited set of essential elements, and help in understanding progression. It’s really important to recognize that there is no intention to change the existing  law - the legal requirement will remain focused on what is to be achieved at the end of each Key Stage. This flexibility must be made much more clear, it is another element of the delicate balancing act between clarity, prescription and professional freedoms.
Under the proposed arrangements an individual school could be one or two year’ ahead, or indeed behind, the requirements of the year-by-year specification. I also entirely acknowledge Andrew’s point (evidenced in Nippold, Hughes et al, Black) that learning is not always linear and to a metronomic beat – the light can come on in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. But the year-on-year structure is an indicative framework, designed to be helpful and supportive, not restrictive. Again, I emphasise that there is no intention to change the law on attainment at the end of the Key Stage being the formal requirement. But there are credible arguments for year-on –year: it presents a clear representation of progression; it allows clarity in expectations; it supports development of the school curriculum through clarity and precision in delineating essential elements.

Your 5: first of all you are entirely right, I am not a Primary teacher of English. But then I am not the author of the English specification, either. My expertise is in policy development and review, particularly in an international context. My role has been to marshal the principles for the Review, chair the Expert Group in its provision of advice to the Review Advisory Committee, and review the extent to which emerging materials are meeting the principles set out at the beginning of the Review. I have ensured that certain processes – such as review of domestic and international evidence have been completed, and that all aspects of the Review remit are being attended to. The specifications in each subject do not have a single author, nor a simple authoring process. Andrew’s blog was seriously misleading in implying that I was sole author, and that ED Hirsch was the reference point – neither of these things are true and I have taken this up with Andrew. In complete contrast to this, there has been a process of: gathering specifications from other nations, reviewing the evidence from domestic and international sources (including very detailed research on the cultural, historical and other aspects of other nations); drawing up draft specifications which have gone through repeated revision in the light of comment from learned societies, individual experts, interested organisations, education practitioners, policy-makers in related areas, and the EP members and the Advisory Committee; and then finalizing drafts for consultation. There’s a big team managing this process in the DfE, and different sets of people from the groups above have been involved in different sections of the drafting at different times, since the drafting has stretched from early 2011 to last week, with the materials going through dozens of iterations – including constant mapping to the international evidence. This scheduling is similar to processes of drafting and refinement which have been used for national curricula in the past, but this time with a much stronger emphasis on benchmarking to other high-performing jurisdictions.

Right, that was process, now into content. It’s vital to note that the aims for English strongly emphasise joy of reading, variation and creativity in writing etc – many people have, I think, skipped the introductions to the specs and dived straight into the content. The Secretary of State has accepted the Expert Panel’s argument that overall curriculum aims (relating directly to the overall development of children, including cultural, emotional, social, moral and spiritual development) are more important than has previously been recognized. Development work has been running on this, using the EP framework of aims, with the intention of finalizing a set of aims, for consultation, at overall curriculum level and at subject level.

The specifications do not exclude reading for meaning in way that some people have suggested. They do indeed emphasise phonemic awareness, and research made available to the review on this included Ebaugh, McMaster, Gibbs, Vadasy, Lennon and Slesinki, Vaughan, Jenkins, Gunn, McGuiness, Johnston, Select Committee. Again, I would emphasise the distinction between the National Curriculum (as a specification of outcomes required) from the enacted curriculum (which should be engaging and exciting): this is described well in the quote from the Early Childhood Foundation: ‘…presented with material which is out of context or uninteresting, children may well repeat sounds or words by rote, but not assimilate them into their knowledge base..’ (see Select Committee 2004 Report, 37). You mention the Clackmannanshire study and I am aware that the design of the study did not meet the same high criteria of some of the studies listed above. But it’s important that the totality of the specification yrs1-6 does not exclude other methods as well as those that develop phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is indeed very strongly emphasized, since this does appear, from the Anglo-American evidence, to be crucial to a key goal – ensuring all children are reading and writing with confidence and fluency, such that their level of facility is not an impediment to study in any subject when they progress to Secondary education. Sounds like a ‘dry’ objective, but it is not achieved sufficiently in our system at present. And it sounds ‘dry’ but do not forget that reading for enjoyment, and writing with flair and facility is indeed emphasized in the aims of English – and we want the aims to be taken very seriously.

Your 2: we took evidence on ‘metalanguage’ and the DfE team has looked at the evidence internationally and on qualitative comments from pupils here such as ‘..I only understood these grammar terms when I did a foreign language and I wish I’d known them much earlier, I would have understood so many more things in English…’ . Some people have assumed that every word in all the annexes and the specifications are for mastery by pupils – they’re not – some are for teachers to help them, and those that are for pupils are highlighted. Schmidt & Prawat emphasize the importance of getting the age-appropriateness and age-sequencing right – if it’s wrong in the drafts, it’s hoped that this consultation will make it clear.

And finally…phew…references. They are essential for scientific accumulation of knowledge. They are the check on validity. All the supporting reports for the Review are heavily referenced. But I am being really straight – I have seen the inside of the National Curriculum drafting process since 1994, and none of them, and I have some of the ‘grey’ development version in my office, have been referenced. Tradition has simply been followed in this case, but maybe we should revisit the tradition…

Once again, apologies for the length of the email, I hope this has gone some way to fill in some gaps. But keep the comment coming… it’s a consultation on the specs, after all….