The Primary Curriculum – Overloaded and Too Prescriptive.

The state education system in England and Wales is divided into five key stages. The first is key stage 1, which children are required to go through between the ages of 5 and 7. It consists of eleven statutory areas that children and teachers are required to follow:

  • English language
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Information and Communication Technology
  • Design Technology
  • History
  • Geography
  • Art and Design
  • Music
  • Physical Education
  • Religious Education

There are eleven subjects on that list. There are 5 days in a week. Children are taught for around 5.5 hours per day, which works out at 2.5 hours per subject per week.

Is it really surprising that so many young children are underperforming? This curriculum is far too general, and it aims to cover far too many bases. Such a crowded syllabus does not allow students to engage with the topics to any meaningful level.

Recently schools minister Nick Gibb suggested a greater need focus and emphasis on the teaching of reading and writing in primary school. How realistic is it to ask teachers to do this when they are already burdened with covering all of these areas in those two years?

In 2008, former director of Ofsted Sir Jim Rose proposed a revised curriculum which places a greater focus on ensuring that by age 7, children have a strong grasp on the literacy and numeracy skills they need in order to progress in their later education. He highlights that a firm basis of language is key to promoting the cognitive capabilities needed for successful learning.

Instead of trying to cover all angles at such an early age, we should be building firm foundations upon which children can develop their existing knowledge and abilities. It is my view that the current curriculum introduces compartmentalized and isolated teaching too quickly, and that this is negatively affecting the quality of education provided by primary schools.

I found this quote from Rose’s report particularly relevant:

“Continuing failure to protect primary schools from curriculum overload will lead to the superficial treatment of essential content, as they struggle to cope with ‘the next new thing’ rather than teach worthwhile knowledge, skills and understanding to sufficient depth and make sure that children value and enjoy their learning.”

Until we address this issue, children will continue to underachieve and fail to reach acceptable standards by the time they reach secondary school, disadvantaging them throughout their academic lives. The real tragedy is that this report was written in 2008, yet the problems raised are still prevalent and the key stage one curriculum still shows no sign of being changed.

  1. zolucock said:

    I agree with you 100% here Dec, I think it’s crazy the amount of stuff the curriculum thinks kids should be able to get through in school. Unfortunately, when children are taught to learn something that they do not learn to a mastery level (Binder, 1996) they end up missing out on those important building blocks that they need to learn the next thing along in the curriculum. This ends up in the child experiencing Cumulative dysfluency (Binder, 1996) whereby they cannot fully progress to the next slice in their learning because they are lacking the tool skills needed to progress. Precision Teaching (Lindsley, 1991) is something which I strongly think should be used in all schools as it allows schools to see individual snapshots of learning so that it can be determined quickly, simply and cheaply whether the child is learning so that they can either continue or change, either because they’re not learning or because they have learned it and so need to move up the curriculum. If this were introduced then it would ensure that every child became fluent in the skills they needed before moving on to the further skills (and then feel free to introduce all the other valuable *ahem* subjects.)

  2. My mother is a teacher, and her lesson plan sheets consist of many little boxes of criteria to fill in for each subject each week. Rather depressing considering she mostly works with four year olds! You used the term ‘compartmentalized’ to describe current teaching practices, and I think this is very apt. One solution to this could be to incorporate elements from an approach more commonly used in homeschooling, unit studies. This is where a broadly interesting/ useful topic is chosen (seasons, space, family etc) , and all subjects incorporate this central theme in some way. This seems to be a more fluid approach to learning, and could enable more than one of the required subjects to be covered in each lesson/ piece of work.

  3. psub4f said:

    I definitely agree with all of this. I find it crazy that hundreds of thousands leave primary school at 11, let alone secondary school at 16 without a functional level of reading, writing or maths ability, but yet may have wasted hundreds of others of hours attempting to learn subjects such as history (which although valuable, are probably irrelevant if you haven’t learned how to read or write). Like Zoe, I would love to see Precision Teaching (Lindsley, 1991) used almost exclusively (or exclusively actually, why not) to teach Children functional levels of reading, writing and maths ability and introduce the other subjects after that, once the kids can read. Lets face it, what is our educational system here for otherwise, if not to teach kids how to read and do maths?

    I also advocate setting children according to ability in each class (different from streaming which is putting pupils into classes on the basis of general ability tests) as it seems the best way to tailor teaching to each child ( It makes the teachers job easier, and the students job easier as they no longer have to filter out information which is too hard to too easy for their ability level.

  4. I came across a forum whilst researching into this topic; it describes the reasons as to why children aged 5 to 7 are taught these specific subjects. ( Their reasoning is to allow a child’s curiosity to be enhanced. I do not agree that this is the case, in fact, I think it does the opposite. The information they are set to learn has already been segregated into subjects. At this age, a child’s curiosity peaks and has no boundaries! Teaching them information by subject may offer a sound structure but restricts their curiosity.
    An article (, describes the importance of curiosity in children as it increases engagement and helps them discover what interests them.
    The method of unit learning, as lcdobson1991 has discussed, would appear to be a more effective method in allowing a child’s curiosity to grow. In my opinion, I can’t help but think, the list of subjects to study in key stage one is the beginning of studying towards their first qualifications, GCSE’s. Throughout their school years the structure in which they learn stays constant (i.e. studying each subject for 10 or so years) whilst what they learn progresses to GCSE standard. And after this stage, the 16 year olds are finally given the opportunity to choose which subject to study further if at all.

  5. With this increased reliance on standardised tests in key stage 1, it seems that educators have forgotten that younger children learn differently to older children (Nicolopoulou, 2010); since younger children are still trying to make sense of the world and they rely, mostly, on play and exploration to do this. Play may often be perceived as time wasting or low priority but I am arguing that we need to use less of the standardised tests and allow children to play and develop naturally during the younger years.

  6. I put forward a motion to declare that the current system of primary education in this country is an abuse against children. Children are forced by the imposed will of the Government to sit in classes, listening to a teacher talk about ICT or design technology. That’s bizarre and I had know idea this was going on until a month ago!

    Ken Robinson said in his talk that children are born divergent thinkers and schooling slowly converts that to convergent thinking. Children see the possibilities in all things. It can’t be healthy for psychological development to force children into a convergent mindset. Compartmentalizing subjects for 4 year olds? When I was 4, we played with sand, made clay ‘objects’, did some woodwork, baked cakes, played, coloured in pictures, and had free school milk. We certainly didn’t have to start thinking about individual subjects. The school day just flowed.

    I feel the Montessori teaching method should replace the current method in early years of schooling. Montessori claimed that children between the ages of newborn to six are going through an “absorbant mind” phase. At this stage, children assimilate information directly from their senses, through play, touching, and experiencing. Day’s in Montessori classrooms do have structure, but the focus is much more on the child than the curriculum.

  7. Thanks for your comments guys.

    We’re not the only one’s who feel the system is flawed. The general secretary of the main teachers union of the UK NASUWT is on record saying that the UK curriculum currently provides a “1950’s style curriculum”, but that teachers too want a curriculum “that covers the basics while leaving room for creativity, culture and excitement”. (

    However, the fact remains, teachers do not determine what gets taught to children, politicians do. The absurdity of the situation is that many of these politicians do not have any background in the field of education, yet are involved in creating educational policy. Current education secretary Michael Gove’s background is journalism, not education. This man has been quoted as saying that he wants more facts to be taught in England’s national curriculum. So much for encouraging critical thinking.

    If we want things to change for the better, we need policy makers who actually know education. Or better still, let’s put educational decisions back in the hands of teachers and schools, and leave politicians out of it.

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