Reflecting upon The Cambridge Primary Review


In some respects the Cambridge Primary Review (hereafter referred to as CPR) set out to redress the ‘exclusivity of the literacy and numeracy standards focus which ‘frustrated alternative analyses of what was right in English primary education, what was wrong, and what was needed by the way of improvement’[1]. It addresses possible reasons behind UNICEF’s (2007) claim that British children are the unhappiest in the Western world, including a consideration of the legacy of our Victorian educational heritage such as early compulsory schooling, generalist teaching systems and 3Rs.

Whilst not dismissing the importance of the shift from Piagetian to Vygotskyian theories of children’s learning nor the import of recent advances in neuroscience (Ch 7), the CPR seeks (Chs 4-6) to explore also the broader terrain of diversity and inequality and in particular to hear the children’s voices about the questions of ‘division, equity, inclusion and special provision’[2] in the context of their own experiences.

In asking (Ch 12) ‘what is primary education for, and by what values and principles should it be informed?’ the CPR concentrates on statutory schooling. However, despite this self-imposed limitation, the review does make recommendations for educational foundations since it insists that ‘children in England are required to do too much, or the wrong things, too young’[3]. The CPR refuses to accept as a given previous models of education and instead proposes a new framework for the primary curriculum which encompasses 12 aims and 8 domains of knowledge, skill, enquiry and disposition which it claims will not only support a clearer debate about the curriculum, but which will also incorporate local and international perspectives into the existing national perspective. In reviewing classroom practice (Ch 15) and the purposes of assessment (Chs 16 & 17) the CPR examines the evidence regarding ‘standards’ and explores what the term ‘standards’ may mean at all.

The CPR also examines systemic aspects of education in England, considering the diversity of other sites for learning (Ch 18), inter-agency working as a result of the 2004 Children’s Act and Every Child Matters (Ch 20) and professional development and training for staff working in primary schools (Chs 21 & 22). With this overview the CPR considers the role of Government centralization over the last 20 years and the increasing politicization of educational reform (Ch 23).

The review concludes by making 75 recommendations from 153 conclusions (Ch 24), which may be grouped as follows[4]:

  • Respect and support childhood (4-21)
  • Narrow the gap (6-8)
  • Review special needs (18,21)
  • Start with aims (32-37)
  • New structures for early years and primary education (22-31)
  • A new curriculum (38-53)
  • A pedagogy of evidence and principle (54-61)
  • Reform assessment (62-74)
  • Strengthen accountability, redefine standards (40,47, 53, 75-85, 150)
  • Review primary school staffing (118-119, 124-128, 132-133)
  • Leadership for learning (134-142)
  • Reform teacher education (119-123, 128-131)
  • Schools for the community (110-117)
  • Schools for the future (86-109)
  • Reform school funding (149-151)
  • Reform the policy process (50-53, 143-153)
  • A new educational discourse (147-148, 153)

For the purposes of this think piece, I will consider just three different elements of the CPR, though of course there are many that require and deserve considerable reflection. I will consider: the challenge and courage required to create a new curriculum; narrowing the gap as a responsibility that lies before us all if children’s futures are to be determined by their talents rather than their socio-economic background; and the consideration that we must give in order to deliver schools for the future. However, before addressing these three principle areas, I should first note a significant theme within the CPR that should, I suggest,  be central to all that we consider in what follows.

Whilst the CPR promotes the notion of single or dual specialist ITT training in addition to generalist training, it is teachers’ critical engagement with the educational and pedagogical debate that is heralded as more significant than any other key feature of ITT and professional development[5].  Yet, in my discussions with antipodean colleagues I have discerned a clear difference in the quality and critical engagement with the theories of learning encouraged in each country, with English teachers clearly less well informed about learning theory. The consideration given to pedagogical development in the CPR (Ch 15) should be required reading for all new AND serving professionals so that the terms and understandings implicit in the description of children’s learning form part of the everyday vocabulary, talk  and agenda of adults working in primary schools.  Just as the needs of the 21st century child are different to those faced by children as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, so too must our professionals’ understanding and training be equally contemporary and dynamic[6].

Yet, there is significant doubt, in my experience, whether many of our colleagues in the 3rd or 4th year of their teaching and beyond, are able to articulate in a sophisticated and deep manner the influences on a child’s learning journey, beyond broad-brush strokes. The CPR’s discussion of ‘well-paced’ lessons alone[7], with its differentiation between interactive pace, cognitive pace and learning pace is not one I have often heard articulated and on the occasions that it is, is conflated by teachers into an OfSTED-type simple maxim to ‘make the lesson snappy’, with little consideration of the different nuances and aspects of pace which need to be considered in such a gloss. This is not to be critical of teachers’ lack of engagement with learning theory, since the very nature of the expectations placed upon the profession currently mitigate against providing time for contemporary study. Compare for instance the Australian, Singaporean or Hong Kong teaching professions’ commitment to regular sabbatical study for its teachers. Nevertheless, it behoves on us as committed professionals to ensure that we understand that the pedagogical terrain in which we operate is changing rapidly and significantly, that the very children with whom we learn are now better understood, whilst their future is less predictable than ever before. It is not clear, in my mind at least, that continuing professional development addresses the need to keep our workforce as well briefed, appropriately skilled and as effective as our new circumstances require.

The suggestion (CPR rec. 138) that existing staff should be encouraged to engage in professionally-related research leading to a higher ceiling for qualification would seem a sensible step towards addressing this shortfall. In my own school, half of the teaching staff are engaged in a Master of Arts degree in New Technologies and it is difficult to imagine how else I could have achieved the level of motivation that has been achieved through renewed engagement with the learning theories considered on this course. To see the fruits of research borne out in children’s learning has been at once tremendously encouraging with respect to those participating in the course and simultaneously a cause for concern by comparison to the level of contemporary reflection undertaken by those not engaged in the programme.

With the caveat that true reform of our profession will only occur if significant numbers are involved in really thinking about what supports children’s learning best, I will briefly consider three aspects of such reform, in order to prompt some debate. The reflections are, of course, my own and are offered simply as a starting point for discussion about the CPR, rather than as an unequivocal statement of absolutes.

A New Curriculum

The CPR is quite clear that ‘how children learn is as important as what they learn, in as far as the curriculum, however relevant or inspiring it is on paper, will make little headway unless the teacher succeeds in igniting ‘children’s active, willing and enthusiastic engagement in their learning’ ’[8]. The CPR promotes the importance of imagination (aim 11), dialogue and joint activity (aim 12) and the alliance of empowerment and skill through which learning becomes self-directed and autonomous (aims 3 & 4). Nevertheless, it also refuses to sideline ‘knowledge’ in favour of ‘process’ since it suggests that knowing and understanding is key to making sense of a culturally complex society. Indeed the globalisation of culture requires that children have an understanding of interdependence and sustainability (aim 6), within global and local relationships as much as national identity (aims 5,7 & 8).

In light of the recent prominence of the global dimension to life and learning, the CPR recommends that the new curriculum is divided into national and local components in a 70/30 division, on the assumption that Dearing’s 80/20 recommendation foundered because 20% was too small to resist the tidal wave of national initiatives. The CPR makes the observation that the generalist make up of primary teachers affords greater flexibility than the secondary specialism model and that as such the various domains could be addressed in concentrated blocks, rather than being divided up on the basis of hours in a day and days in a week.

The CPR proposes that the primary curriculum is ‘re-conceived as a matrix of the 12 specified aims together with eight domains of knowledge, skill, disposition and enquiry’[9]. These are listed alphabetically in order to discourage a perceived pecking order (although ironically, Ken Robinson would be pleased to see that this places arts and creativity at the ‘top’ of the list):

When combined with the aims for primary education, the matrix is formed:

There are some interesting observations that could be made about this matrix. Firstly, the uncomfortable place of religious education in/outside the Rose Review areas of learning is addressed here since the CPR takes the view that ‘religion is so fundamental to this country’s history, culture and language, as well as to the daily lives of many of its inhabitants that it must remain within the curriculum’[10]. However, secondly, PSHE or at least PSE does not have an explicit place within the matrix and is addressed through the domains of citizenship and ethics, faith and belief and physical and emotional health. Thirdly and perhaps even more surprisingly, ICT has no specific domain either, its ‘C’ being addressed through the domain of language, oracy and literacy, and all other applications of ICT being addressed through the remaining domains.

The prominence of Religious Education in the CPR is contrasted to the total absence of RE from the Rose Review of the primary curriculum. In that review only after pressure from the Association of University Lecturers in RE, REToday, the British Journal of RE and others, was the note that Religious Education remained a statutory subject and ‘part of the basic Primary Curriculum’ added to the review[11] in November 2009. In either case, this prominence reflects the opinions of some that religious understanding is an increasingly important part of primary schools’ attendance to community cohesion. Equally, the dispersal of PSHE to 3 different domains in effect increases the ‘routes in’ to these interpersonal skills and places the drive towards interdependent citizenship at the forefront of the school’s learning culture. Both of these adjustments in perspective would seem to reflect better the global context that we live in than the Rose Review.

However, the subsumption of ICT into the other domains may be more problematic. The CPR refers to the Rose Review’s treatment of ICT as a ‘neo-basic ‘skill for learning and life’ ’[12] and dismisses it as a ‘tool without apparent substance or challenge other than the technical’. In contrast the CPR does show a contemporary understanding of new technologies as a means to ‘share, socialise, collaborate and create’[13], however it pays scant regard to the notion of embedded ICT. It is surely not sufficient to acknowledge ICT as a ‘cross-curricular informational tool’ without considering just how ICT will be embedded across the curriculum. Even the phrase ‘informational tool’ misunderstands the agility of ICT to enhance creativity or to explore new routes of discovery. Yet, even though for learners the CPR acknowledges that is it not the what but the how that is crucial, this does not seem to extend to the reviewers’ notion of professional learning. The issue of how we might deploy ICT across the curriculum is left undisclosed in the CPR, presumably allowing the very teachers that it says need further and deeper professional development to find their own way forward.

I do agree that placing ICT firmly in the domain of language makes a very clear and contemporary statement about the role that Web 2.0 technologies have in supporting collaborative and interdependent working. However, ICT can and should make a significant contribution to all domains of learning and to leave unexplored the process by which teachers may deepen children’s critical understanding of the application of ICT surely is an oversight that needs addressing. I am sure that the CPR’s intention was to reflect the ubiquity of ICT in all areas of learning, and if this is correct, then it is to be lauded. However, there is a distinction to be made between the philosophical envisioning of ICT at use in all domains of learning on the one hand and the practical implementation and development of such deployment in a primary school on the other. In practice, schools will seek to develop management structures to ensure dynamic development of each of these domains. I can easily imagine a situation in which, without a domain all of its own, a school’s ICT vision, development, renewal and progression is left to the haphazard, chance whim of individual teachers’ interest, rather than a more co-ordinated dominant place as one of the 21st century learning levers in the school’s curriculum.

Narrowing the Gap

The CPR identifies the crucial contribution made by locally determined agenda to the national drive towards ‘Narrowing the Gap’.  Specifically, the CPR proposes raising the locally-determined component of the curriculum to 30%, thereby making the local ‘habitual rather than exceptional’[14]. However, narrowing the gap is about much more than the curriculum and for many of the submissions to the CPR, the reduction of disparities in opportunity and life chances was the very raison d’etre of extended schools[15]. Yet, many of the families that schools want to support prove to be stubbornly ‘hard to reach’, whether because they are marginalized minority groups, those who slip through the net, such as carers or people with mental health problems, or the ‘service resistant’ (families ‘known’ to social services, those with a history of drug use, alcohol abuse or criminal behaviour)[16]. In Birmingham for instance, children ‘considered it important that teachers knew if children were in care or were having difficulties at home. However… they also believed children should have a choice about disclosing such information’[17].

There is a common consensus however, that ‘stresses the importance of looking at the family as a unit and of focusing on positive interdependency and supportive relationships. This approach takes the family’s resilience and social capital as the foundations for achieving positive outcomes’[18]. In this sense the CPR acknowledges the success of the Narrowing the Gap programme, building upon the Children’s Plan of 2007, in implementing the Every Child Matters principles and focusing on the needs of all children, but particularly the most vulnerable. However the CPR also notes that ‘if the gap is to be narrowed everywhere, the notion of the school as a community asset and all that implies, must be driven through’[19]. In this regard the CPR highlights the contrast between the localism required of this ‘one vital aspect of children’s education and care’ as opposed to the ‘continuing centralism in respect of the national curriculum, national assessment and national strategies for raising standards’[20]. This is an observation well made, however, I am not convinced that the CPR’s solution is as robust as is implied.

The CPR suggests that their own 70/30 division in the shaping of the curriculum ‘provides for a strong and protected local component to the curriculum [that] is more consistent with the government’s strategy for narrowing the gap’[21]. However, this seems to me to pay insufficient attention to the role of the ‘family’s resilience and social capital as the foundations for achieving positive outcomes’, as identified in the ‘Think Family’ report. Narrowing the Gap is obviously going to be better achieved if the curriculum is able to respond to locally identified needs, context and motivation. However, rather than curriculum change, I suggest making contact with hard to reach parents and families is surely the preeminent requirement to illuminating and manifesting the changes required to support these families as they help their children narrow the gap. The CPR’s observations that children’s centres and extended schools have made a slow start in contacting these families but that signs are emerging of some progress here, will offer little comfort to those schools struggling to find the ‘non-teachers’ to run out of hours activities as the CPR suggests. Indeed, whilst large inner city LAs may be well resourced for activity leaders, every child that matters just as much in the leafier suburbs may well find that provision in their area falls far short of these ideals. In these disparate settings, reaching the hard to reach families will surely require much more than a partially locally determined curriculum or yet more imperatives to ‘shape a school’s relations with other agencies’[22].

Schools for the Future

The CPR details a catalogue of important features that schools of the future should contain, features culled from the best practice evidenced around the country. These include the notions of:

  • the school both in and as a community
  • extended schools and integrated multi-agency services
  • high value placed on external learning and playing facilities
  • sustainability and carbon-neutral status
  • specialist teachers and learning spaces
  • children working as a group, not just in a group
  • complementary juxtaposition of books libraries and ICT
  • changes to timings and lengths of a school day, terms, year and holidays
  • pastoral liaison in key stage transition
  • maintaining smaller primary schools to promote and preserve a shared community culture
  • children’s voice in the capital re-build of schools (PCP)
  • a re-envisioning of the concept of a 21st century primary school
  • federated schools with staff sharing at all levels
  • cross phase education, such as middle schools
  • reduction of primary phases from 3 to 2 (foundation and primary)

Interestingly, the CPR does not mention ICT explicitly in its recommendations pertaining to schools of the future (86-109), and in its cautionary summation on the role of ICT in the new curriculum is firm in its placement within the domain of language, oracy and literacy. I find this particularly perplexing since in its detail the CPR notes several significant concerns expressed by well informed stakeholders. The GTCE warned that ‘New pedagogies need to develop in line with new technologies and teachers need structured supported opportunities to enquire into effective and creative use of these technologies for learning, and to develop their teaching practice accordingly’.  One Yr6 pupil explained that ‘if every child had a laptop or interactive pad, then children could do more of their own research – when we find things out for ourselves we learn more’. Whilst Futurelab also suggested that ‘mobile devices not only allow us to learn in more varied locations, they also enable the transformation of learning experiences to become more inspiring, dynamic, relevant and creative activities’[23].  For me, the CPR lacks a strategic vision for ICT, preferring instead to lower its current status and to reduce it to a subset of communication. However, perhaps even more worryingly, the CPR appears to have no vision for the professional development for teachers required to ensure that our children capitalize on advances in new technologies. Without such vision, organizations such as the GTCE may well end up (in a well meaning way) pressing for NOF 2.0, which would be a disastrous waste, just as NOF1 has now proven to be (whom amongst you are still using any of the software, or even hardware that you learnt about on the NOF programme?). The ‘continuous’ aspect of CPD is crucial in the realm of New Technologies and a whole new approach to adult learning needs to take place if professional teachers are to remain well informed and appropriately equipped to deliver a curriculum in the 21st century that will undoubtedly be filled with technologically empowered learners. As Professor Stephen Heppell warns, if (by neglecting ICT in the curriculum, or having a superficial understanding of its range) we make children ‘power down’ their learning tools when they come to school, pretty soon they will stop coming. Therefore, he urges, we must power up the curriculum. Whatever else it achieves, the CPR does not remotely manage to do that.

Further, the CPR seemed to have little vision for learning in the community. Noting some concerns about the community restrictiveness of PFI contracts, the review noted that some headteachers eschew iconic design, preferring instead just space. Yet the CPR did not use this to consider the use of existing community facilities to acquire this space and to contextualise learning. For instance facilities within the library may be used for writing, the supermarket for mathematics, the rugby club for sports. School developments in New Zealand, Australia and Sweden have each seen this de-centralisation of the location of learning transform schools and communities, yet the CPR fails to investigate international alternatives. Indeed, whilst the CPR may claim that its remit only extended to reviewing the English curriculum, in suggesting 23 observations and aims about future schooling, we might be forgiven for thinking that the description of the vision might need to draw more widely than our own country’s organisations and agencies in crafting its proposals.

Interestingly, when it comes to school phases, the CPR does look towards international models. Noting that schools in New Zealand run from 5/6 to 12/13, schools in Germany from 6 to 12 and in Sweden from 6/7 to 16, the CPR expressed concerns that in England divisions between infant, junior and adolescent phases have hardened since the introduction of the National Curriculum. The CPR is particularly concerned[24] with the double transition at the start of a child’s school life, with the suggestion that premature advancement to a more formal curriculum could cause long term disaffection. Similar concerns were expressed for those children transferring from one school to another in separate infant and junior settings.

In terms of class size, the CPR found little long term evidence for increased performance and standards if children were taught in smaller classes. Initially, there were signs that ‘low attainment on entry’ children benefited, or that literacy learning generally benefited. However, returning to these children later in their school lives revealed that initial gains had not been maintained. Similarly, the CPR found that ‘the adoption of structured ability groupings has no positive effects on attainment, but has detrimental effects on the social and personal outcomes for some children’[25]. The teachers quoted in the CPR who were in favour of setting seemed to echo the emphasis on progress as achievement, a notion which some feel has undergone relegation at the hands of the recent  revision of the OfSTED schedule. Those researchers against setting favoured a Vygotskyian perspective on the benefits of mixed ability role modeling and scaffolding. Clearly both approaches have merits, yet it would appear that mixed ability groupings hold most sway in the academy, of which the Cambridge team is part. Indeed the CPR seems to suggest[26] based on international models that in their early years of school children should work towards common goals ‘and that it is the task of the teacher to ensure that they stay together – rather than drift apart and having so drifted are forced further apart by differential treatment’[27].

This approach needs to be unpacked much further and with far more evidence if it is to convert a generation of teachers nurtured, or even force-fed, a diet of the supremacy of differentiated learning. Indeed, what will be required will be a system-wide discussion of the conception of learning, assessment, target setting and inspection if teachers are to be confident in its implementation and its merits.

Concluding Reflections

The CPR is a significant and wide-ranging review. Its remit is broad and necessarily some of its connections between different perspectives can become strained or even lost. Nevertheless, as a launchpad for debate it deserves a wide reading, and perhaps a wider political reading than was indicated as likely by the first wave of sound bite missives issued by our political leaders of all persuasions.

There is a little doubt that the CPR acts as a healthy alternative perspective to the Rose Review and that whilst there is of course significant overlap between the two reviews, there is also much substantial difference. Whether the forthcoming political debate around education will make clear the political will towards or between either of these reviews only time will tell. However, whichever route the future of the primary curriculum takes, we will all have to reckon with, engage and possibly even embrace much of the content of this important publication.

Thank you for taking the time to consider this very brief and cursory glimpse in to just some of the issues raised by the CPR and its impact upon one headteacher. I would welcome your thoughts and contribution to the debate over how best we might contribute to shaping the future learning experiences of our most cherished possessions, our children.

[1] CPR 2009: 1. All page references refer to CPR unless otherwise stated

[2] 5

[3] 6

[4] 511ff

[5] 506

[6] 283ff

[7] 295

[8] 257

[9] 265

[10] 268


[12] 269

[13] 269; also Hargreaves 2008

[14] 263

[15] 397

[16] 398

[17] 398

[18] Cabinet Office (2007), ‘Think Family’: 28

[19] 401 quoting LGA, DCSF & IdEA (2007)

[20] 401

[21] 401

[22] 402

[23] All quotes in this paragraph from 353

[24] 370

[25] 377

[26] Reynolds and Farrell (1996); Alexander (2001)

[27] 379


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