Book reviews

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Lorna Smith (2023)

Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children
Philip Graham (2023)

Sally Tomlinson (2022)

Education in Spite of Policy
Robin Alexander (2022)

What is Education about?
Geoffrey Marshall (2021)

Mary Warnock: Ethics, Education and Public Policy in Post-War Britain
Philip Graham (2021)

Enfield Voices
Tom Bourner and Tony Crilly (eds) (2018)

Who Cares About Education? ... going in the wrong direction
Eric Macfarlane (2016)

Grammar School Boy: a memoir of personal and social development
John Quicke (2016)

The Passing of a Country Grammar School
Peter Housden (2015)

Living on the Edge: rethinking poverty, class and schooling
John Smyth and Terry Wrigley (2013)

Education under Siege: why there is a better alternative
Peter Mortimore (2013)

New Labour and Secondary Education, 1994-2010
Clyde Chitty (2013)

Politics and the Primary Teacher
Peter Cunningham (2012)

School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education
Melissa Benn (2011)

Children, their World, their Education
Robin Alexander (ed) (2010)

Education Policy in Britain
Clyde Chitty (2nd ed. 2009)

School behaviour management
Lane, Kalberg and Menzies (2009) and Steege and Watson (2009)

Supporting the emotional work of school leaders
Belinda Harris (2007)

Faith Schools: consensus or conflict?
Roy Gardner, Jo Cairns and Denis Lawton (eds) (2005)

The Professionals: better teachers, better schools
Phil Revell (2005)

Education Policy in Britain
Clyde Chitty (2004)

Who Controls Teachers' Work?
Richard M Ingersoll (2003)

Faith-based Schools and the State
Harry Judge (2002)

The Best Policy? Honesty in education 1997-2001
Paul Francis (2001)

Love and Chalkdust
Paul Francis (2000)

State Schools - New Labour and the Conservative Legacy
Clyde Chitty and John Dunford (eds) (1999)

Experience and Education: Towards an Alternative National Curriculum
Gwyn Edwards and AV Kelly (eds) (1998)

Bullying: Home, School and Community
Delwyn Tattum and Graham Herbert (eds) (1997)

Bullying in Schools And what to do about it
Ken Rigby (1996)

A Community Approach to Bullying
Peter Randall (1996)

Teacher Education and Human Rights
Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey (1996)

Troubled and Vulnerable Children: a practical guide for heads
Shelagh Webb (1994)

Supporting Schools against Bullying
Scottish Council for Research in Education (1994)

Bullying: a practical guide to coping for schools
Michele Elliott (1992)

Financial Delegation and Management of Schools: preparing for practice
Hywel Thomas with Gordon Kirkpatrick and Elizabeth Nicholson (1989)

Reforming Religious Education: the religious clauses of the 1988 Education Reform Act
Edwin Cox and Josephine M Cairns (1989)

Re-thinking Active Learning 8-16
Norman Beswick (1987)

Two Cultures of Schooling: The case of middle schools
Andy Hargreaves (1986)

Children, their World, their Education
Final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review
Robin Alexander (ed), 2010
London: Routledge
586pp., 35.00 (paperback), ISBN13: 978-0-415-54871-7

Review by Derek Gillard
August 2010

copyright Derek Gillard 2010
This book review is my copyright. You are welcome to download it and print it for your own personal use, or for use in a school or other educational establishment, provided my name as the author is attached. But you may not publish it, upload it onto any other website, or sell it, without my permission.

Since the words 'review' and 'report' occur frequently in what follows, I have capitalised the word 'Review' when it refers to the Cambridge Primary Review, and the word 'Report' when it refers to the book being reviewed here. I hope this will avoid any confusion.

After nearly three years of consultation and planning, the Cambridge Primary Review was launched in October 2006. It was supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and led by Professor Robin Alexander.

The first of its interim reports was published in October 2007 - an account of 87 regional 'soundings' meetings across the country at which members of the public were invited to discuss the Review's ten themes:

Purposes and values
Learning and teaching
Curriculum and assessment
Quality and standards
Diversity and inclusion
Settings and professionals
Parenting, caring and educating
Beyond the school
Structures and phases
Funding and governance.
By February 2009 the Review had published 31 interim reports, 28 of them extensively referenced surveys of published research.

The final Report (the subject of this review), Children, their World, their Education, was published in the spring of 2010. It claimed that the Review had been 'the most comprehensive review of primary education for 40 years, that is, since the Plowden Committee published their initially celebrated and later much-criticised report in 1967' (p.2). Its authors hoped it would engage 'not only politicians and officials, but also parents, teachers, community leaders, teacher trainers, researchers, members of the public and all who have an interest in the needs and capabilities of children and the quality of their education. Primary education belongs to all of them' (p.3).

A companion volume - The Cambridge Primary Review Research Surveys was published simultaneously (priced 250). It contains revised versions of 28 surveys of published research from 66 academics in 21 universities in four countries, making it probably the most comprehensive survey of research in primary education yet undertaken.

In addition, a (free) summary booklet Introducing the Cambridge Primary Review was widely distributed.

The Rose Review

As the Cambridge Review was getting into its stride, Secretary of State Ed Balls threw a spanner into the works. On 9 January 2008 he wrote to Sir Jim Rose inviting him to conduct 'an independent review of the primary curriculum' (IRPC) with a view to making 'final recommendations to the Secretary of State by March 2009 so that the new primary curriculum can be introduced from September 2011'.

The government's justification for this new examination of primary education was presumably that it had already commissioned a review of the secondary curriculum and had introduced the Early Years Foundation Stage. As Rose put it, you couldn't 'just extend one backwards, the other forwards, tie a knot in the middle and say that's primary education' (Wilby 2008).

However, given that the Cambridge Review - the most comprehensive investigation of primary education since Plowden - was already under way, many felt that the Rose review was designed as a spoiler. The government was embarrassed by adverse headlines like 'Poor performance linked to substandard classrooms', 'Government policy has created impersonalised education', and 'Study reveals stressed out 7 to 11 year olds' (Wilby 2008). It was also concerned that the Cambridge Review would condemn England's testing regime - the hated SATs. So it created the IRPC as a diversion, 'with a suspiciously similar email address, a claim that it too is independent, and an identical deadline for its final report of spring 2009' (Wilby 2008).

There were other concerns about the IRPC. One was that the QCA was required to produce draft programmes of study based on the report's recommendations during the consultation period, effectively rendering redundant most of the responses. Another was that the views of representatives of local authorities and teachers' professional associations who attended meetings during the 'informal' consultations were apparently excluded. A third concern was that consideration of SATs was 'specifically excluded from Rose's remit' (Wilby 2008). Introducing the IRPC's interim report in December 2008, Rose urged ministers to review the arrangements for SATs tests (already abolished in all parts of the UK except England). 'I'm ruled out of making recommendations about testing', he told Polly Curtis. 'That's not to say every school doesn't ask about testing. It's the elephant in the room' (The Guardian 8 December 2008).

The Rose review was altogether a much more limited affair than its Cambridge counterpart. Its advisory group of heads met five times and its final report, published in April 2009, was just 154 pages long. Writing in The Guardian (19 May 2009) Mike Baker compared Rose with Plowden: 'In the past, governments set up big independent education inquiries; now they prefer to have their own short, sharp reviews - and seem scarcely interested in anything else.'

Rose recommended that the primary curriculum should comprise six 'areas of learning' (para.31):

Understanding English, communication and languages
Mathematical understanding
Scientific and technological understanding
Historical, geographical and social understanding
Understanding physical development, health and wellbeing
Understanding the arts


But back to the Cambridge Primary Review. The introductory chapter of Children, their World, their Education describes the organisation of the Report. The rest of the book is divided into five sections, the first four subdivided into chapters. In most of the chapters a historical review is followed by an assessment of the current situation, a report of the views of witnesses (through written submissions or given at the soundings meetings), and the Review's conclusions and proposals.

Part 1 Contexts

Part 1 describes the remit, methodology and procedures of the Review and the educational history and policy in which it - and English primary education - have been and are situated.

Chapter 2, The Review and other discourses, emphasises that the Review is evidence-based and notes the damaging effect which the discourses of dichotomy, derision and myth have had on primary education.

Of the discourse of dichotomy it notes that

Ever since the 1931 Hadow Report on primary education announced that 'the curriculum is to be thought of in terms of activity and experience rather than knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored', the discourse of primary education has been bedevilled by a tendency to reduce complex questions to a simple choice between standpoints which are presumed to be mutually exclusive (p.21).
The discourse of derision, it argues, dates from the 1990s, when 'the two largest political parties moved to the right in order to tap or massage what they took to be the mood of "middle England"' (p.22). 'Progressive' education and its advocates were attacked mercilessly - particularly Lady Plowden, which was very unfair, since her Committee's Report had warned against 'dangerously fashionable' fads (Plowden 1967:190).

Finally, the discourse of myth is seen as a 'destructive process' which has been 'a prominent feature of policy discourse during the past two decades'.

Government advisers have portrayed education before 1997 as 'the era of uninformed professional judgement' in which 'standards stayed the same for 50 years', and where the 1970s are parodied as a period of rampant progressivism and professional anarchy in which all those who dare to question government policy are by definition complicit (p.25).
Chapter 3, Policies and legacies, takes as its starting point Brian Simon's contention that 'Primary education has been in a state of almost continuous transition throughout its short history' (p.27). It argues that there have been four distinct phases in government policy: virtually no intervention in curriculum and teaching methods from 1967-76; increasing concern from 1976 to 1987; regulation from 1987-1997; and domination since 1997. It is critical of the national strategies (particularly the Literacy Strategy) and the testing and league tables regime.

Part 2 Children and childhood

Part 2 explores the condition of childhood today and asks how far the current anxiety about children's well-being is justified.

Chapter 4, Childhood today, lists ways in which the lives of children have improved over the past century, and current concerns of parents and teachers about the stresses and strains faced by children today. It emphasises the importance of listening to the voices of the children themselves, notes 'the exceptional pace of social and family change in the past 40 years' (p.57), highlights the impact on learning of the growing gap between rich and poor, acknowledges the importance of the 'Every Child Matters' agenda, and endorses the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Chapter 5, Children's lives outside school, notes that the division between the responsibilities of the state and of parents have 'always been blurred and controversial in England' (p.65). It looks at homework and work at home, children's opportunities for 'friends and fun' (p.65), for outdoor activities, sport and artistic endeavours, at commercial pressures including the sexualisation of childhood, and at the impact of ICT. It describes changes in communities over time and argues that 'for many children the school is their best community resource' (p.69). It notes the opposing views of witnesses on the place of religion and 'faith schools' in children's lives and education.

Chapter 6, Parenting, caring and educating, recounts the changes which have occurred in the relationship between parents and schools, the demographic and social changes in family life and structure and the stress these have placed on schools, considers the damaging effects of poverty on children's ability to learn, describes models of school-parent partnerships and looks at arguments for and against homework. It notes the challenges posed by 'an increasingly diverse mix of ethnicities, nationalities, languages, cultures, faiths and styles of families' (p.84) and seeks to answer the question 'Has parenting got worse?' (p.86). It concludes that 'Family breakdown and poverty are huge influences on the growth and development of children. When the two coincide, the effect is potentially dramatic' (p.87).

Chapter 7, Children's development and learning, asks 'How do young children develop, think, feel, act and learn?' (p.90) and offers some post-Plowden insights. In the section on 'How healthy are children?' it looks at current concerns about obesity, infectious diseases and immunisation, and the ailments of affluence. It argues that 'neuroscientific research is offering new perspectives on our understanding of neural activity and learning' (p.94) and considers the relationship between development and learning. It notes the work of Piaget, Vygotsky, Howard Gardner and others. It asks 'What happened to creativity?' (p.99), looks at gender differences, the relationship between social development and learning, considers children's moral and emotional development, and concludes that

Responding to what we now know about children's development and learning requires attention to evidence on a broad and diverse front. What links the evidence is the need to square the circle of the cognitive and the social. Where this is achieved, self-esteem, motivation, capability and attainment go hand in hand (p.106).
Chapter 8, Children, diversity and equity, argues that all aspects of childhood are shaped by culture, and that 'England today is a country of exceptional cultural diversity' (p.110). With regard to the influences of poverty, gender and ethnicity, it notes the views of some witnesses that the education system exacerbates inequalities 'through, for example, aspects of curriculum and assessment, school and classroom structures, and funding and governance' (p.119). It offers some suggestions for addressing these problems.

Chapter 9, Children with special needs, notes the changing views of special needs and diversity and lists the numerous pieces of legislation dealing with the area from 1944 to 2007. The 2007 Children's Plan 'continued to embed identifiable special needs as a concept within education' (p.132) and the DCSF promotes 'personalised learning'. The chapter lists current challenges and areas for improvement and concludes that 'There is an urgency about providing educational and social support for particular children in difficulty which cannot wait for primary education - or society as a whole - to become more equitable and inclusive' (p.141).

Chapter 10, Children's voices, argues that 'young children bring to their schooling experiences and capabilities of real value and substance, and the old doctrine of age-capped developmental "readiness", with its fixation on what children cannot do, has given way to an understanding that given opportunity and the best of teaching, learning has few limits' (p.143). It notes that

After 1997 a series of government policies drew, to varying degrees, on the principles of children's rights and children's voices. Three of the most significant policy developments to embrace these principles were the Children's Fund (2000), Every Child Matters and the 2004 Children Act. Each reflected a fundamental change in government thinking about the state's role in children's lives and collectively they have blurred the traditional lines between education and other children's services (p.145).
It relates the evidence to the Review supplied by children themselves, including their definition of a good teacher as someone who 'really knows their stuff', is able to make learning fun, knows everyone's names, tells you things in advance so that you know what a lesson is about, gives you a permanent record of what you learn, is able to explain things clearly so that you understand, and has lots of energy and enthusiasm. It notes that many children find national tests stressful.

Part 3 The experience of primary education

Part 3 examines what actually happens to children at primary school, and on how well their experiences address the concerns raised in Parts 1 and 2.

Chapter 11, Foundations: the early years, discusses what is meant by the term 'early years' and seeks to answer four questions:

1. What kinds of provision does our knowledge of children's early years dictate, regardless of context - what, in other words, are the developmental needs of early childhood?
2. How far does existing provision, both in pre-school and primary school settings, meet those needs?
3. What changes are required in order to secure experiences during the early years which are developmentally appropriate?
4. What are the implications for the early years curriculum and for the structures of pre-school and primary education? (p.160).
It notes that 'The years since 1997 have seen a dramatic increase in services for young children' (p.160). It reviews evidence on the appropriateness and effectiveness of the Early Years Foundation Stage and argues that 'the principles that shape effective pre-school education should govern children's experiences in primary school at least until age six, and possibly until age seven' (p.172).

Chapter 12, What is primary education for?, reviews the history of the aims of primary education from 1861 to the present and relates the views of witnesses, many of whom argued that the main purpose of primary education was to develop the 'whole child' (p.184). It notes the contrasting visions of government, parents and teachers and argues that children should not be seen as 'just adults in the making'. It offers a set of principles (p.196-197):

Quality; standards and accountability
Responsiveness to national need
Balancing national, local and individual
Balancing preparation and development
Guidance, not prescription
Continuity and consistency
Respect for human rights
Democratic engagement
Respect for evidence
Resources and support
and twelve aims for primary education in three groups (p.197-199):


  • Well-being
  • Engagement
  • Empowerment
  • Autonomy
Self, others and the wider world
  • Encouraging respect and reciprocity
  • Promoting interdependence and sustainability
  • Empowering local, national and global citizenship
  • Celebrating culture and community
Learning, knowing and doing
  • Exploring, knowing, understanding and making sense
  • Fostering skill
  • Exciting the imagination
  • Enacting dialogue
It argues that these aims 'unashamedly reflect values and moral purposes, for that is what education is about' and that 'within a broad statutory framework of aims and principles such as we have discussed, detailed aims, along with the fleshing out of curricula and decisions about pedagogy, are best determined at the level of the community and school or group of schools' (p.200).

Chapter 13, Curriculum past and present, considers the content of primary education and the legal position in 2009 with respect to the National Curriculum, the National Strategies and the Early Years Foundation Stage. It explores issues of manageability and continuity, makes international comparisons, and notes that, while most witnesses supported the principle of a national curriculum, 'views of what has happened since 1988 became more critical and divided' (p.213). In seeking to answer the question 'What should children learn?' the chapter considers subjects, skills, themes and areas of learning. It reports widespread criticism of the National Literacy Strategy, stresses the importance of science, and notes that views on religious education are very divided.

Chapter 14, Towards a new curriculum, describes the very diverse opinions of witnesses on what should be taught in schools. It describes the current division of the curriculum into 'the basics' and 'the rest' as a 'pernicious dichotomy' (p.243). It argues that a future primary curriculum must:

  • confront and attempt to address the problems and challenges in current arrangements
  • be grounded in explicit principles of design and implementation
  • pursue and remain faithful to a clear and defensible statement of educational aims and values (p.251).
It offers a new curriculum framework based on the twelve aims (listed in chapter 12) and eight 'domains' ('listed alphabetically so as to discourage regression to a curriculum pecking order'):
  • arts and creativity
  • citizenship and ethics
  • faith and belief
  • language, oracy and literacy
  • mathematics
  • physical and emotional health
  • place and time
  • science and technology (p.265).
It argues for a 70/30 split between national and local curriculum content and stresses the importance of 'building professional capacity' (p.277).

Chapter 15, Re-thinking pedagogy, discusses a range of issues, including personalising learning, behaviour management, children's thinking and how it can be advanced, and classroom organisation. It asks whether there is now a 'state theory of learning', assesses the contribution of school effectiveness research, and notes the 'still dominant process-product paradigm' (p.300). It concludes that

Pedagogy is the heart of the enterprise. It gives life to educational aims and values, lifts the curriculum from the printed page, mediates learning and knowing, engages, inspires and empowers learners - or, sadly, may fail to do so (p.307).
Chapter 16, Assessment, learning and accountability, begins by noting that English children are 'among the most tested in the world' and that the Year 6 SATs 'put pupils and their teachers under considerable pressure' (p.311). It examines the nature and purposes of assessment, current practice, issues of reliability and validity in testing, and the pros and cons of teachers' judgements. It concludes:
There is an urgent need for a thorough reform of all aspects of the assessment system in England, providing a coherent set of practices and procedures suiting the goals of education in the 21st century and meeting the needs for information about the performance of individual pupils, schools, local authorities and the nation as a whole. At the heart of this should be the use of assessment to help learning, leading to the development of lifelong learners. This should be supported by a system for summarising, reporting and accrediting children's performance that provides information about all aspects of learning (p.326).
Chapter 17, Attainment, standards and quality, begins by asking 'Are schools better than they used to be? Are pupils better educated?' (p.328). It warns that there are conflicting definitions of 'standards' (as 'what is attained' or as 'what to aim for'), that constant changes to the testing regime and Ofsted inspection criteria make comparisons of performance over time problematic, and it concludes that 'teachers and schools can and should have a greater role in the assessment of their pupils and in the evaluation of their provision for learning' (p.341).

Chapter 18, Schools and communities, considers the physical contexts of learning (buildings and playgrounds, other spaces and places for learning, educational resources and materials), the education of children at home, the use of ICT, and issues of environmental sustainability. It goes on to look at schools as communities, notes again the sharp divergence of views over the place (or otherwise) of religion in schools, and considers the structure of the school year, week and day.

Part 4 The system of primary education

In Part 4 the focus shifts from schools and classrooms to the national system of primary education as a whole.

Chapter 19, Structures and transitions, looks at the ages and stages of primary education, pupil grouping policies within phases and classes, and the size of classes and schools. It considers issues around selection, streaming and setting, communication and continuity, the influence of the National Curriculum's Key Stages and the effects of pressure to compete. It notes that ability grouping is a contentious issue and concludes that:

Setting is divisive, not just of children, but of teachers and local authorities. Some are strongly in favour; the majority are strongly opposed. While setting has been shown to benefit the very gifted, for most children it runs the risk of demotivating them by pigeon-holing them in categories determined as much by social background as by any true assessment of their ability (p.380).
Chapter 20, Schools, local authorities and other agencies, notes Plowden's warning that schools could not offer everything some children needed, and assesses the relationship of schools to a range of agencies dealing with health care, social welfare and housing, family law and criminal justice, the arts, recreation and sports. It notes that by 2008 'the number of private and voluntary agencies offering children's services had grown exponentially, driven by social, political and economic changes' (p.388). It examines in detail the impact on schools of Every Child Matters (ECM) and the Narrowing the Gap programme, and argues that, while the ECM agenda has been broadly welcomed, 'the blizzard of new initiatives and strategies and pilot projects is proving exhausting as well as confusing for many practitioners' (p.391). It concludes that
some schools feel caught in a policy contradiction. On one side, Every Child Matters requires them to co-operate, integrate and support - encouraging them to reach out to difficult or troubled families. On the other, there are the standards agenda, choice and competition - forces that tend to marginalise families for whom choice is not an option and competition means defeat (p.402).
Chapter 21, Teachers: expertise, development, deployment, describes the expansion and diversification of the primary school workforce in recent years. It considers arguments for and against the 'generalist' class teacher system, which is 'so familiar, so much taken for granted, that few pause to ask whether, educationally, it best serves primary pupils' needs' (p.407). It lists the ever-broadening range of expertise required by primary teachers in terms of knowledge, skills, pedagogy and didactics, and notes that, while younger teachers are generally happy with the national strategies (having known little else), more experienced teachers 'are experiencing conflict between the way their level of expertise and their accumulated craft knowledge enable and encourage them to act and what the government's national strategies and the TDA [Training and Development Agency] standards tell them to do' (p.417). It notes the 'proliferation and acceleration' of routes into teaching (p.419) and concerns about the induction of newly qualified teachers and continuing professional development. Among its conclusions, the chapter argues that the the real problem 'is not the curriculum but its management' (p. 432) and it asks primary schools 'to think beyond the class-teacher default and accommodate a continuum of teaching roles' (p.433).

Chapter 22, Professional leadership and workforce reform, begins by noting that the working environment of primary schools has been radically transformed over the past twenty years. The career structure of teachers has been reformed, performance-related pay introduced, the workforce 'remodelled', and there are now national qualifications and standards for head teachers. 'All these changes have impacted on senior management's scope for making decisions.' Head teachers, once 'the undisputed and independent leaders of their schools', now operate in a 'culture of compliance' and one that, borrowing the language of business, exhorts them by turns to be 'visionary', 'invitational', 'democratic', 'strategic', 'instructional' or 'transformational' (p.437).

The chapter goes on to chart 'The rise and rise of support staff' (p.445) as part of the workforce reform agenda, and considers issues around teachers' roles, professionalism and status.

Chapter 23 concerns Governance, funding and policy. It notes that national education policy is 'constantly changing'. Indeed, since 2006, when the Review was launched, 'policy has changed with such speed and frequency that even full-time policy experts, let alone teachers, have been hard pressed to keep track of what has been going on' (p.458). Policy-making has become increasingly centralised and 'the policy process is in certain respects flawed' (p.458).

It examines the changing patterns of governance of primary education at national, local and school level, notes issues around funding, and assesses whether policies central to the government's standards agenda are more or less effective than their reputation suggests:

  • We have shown that the information provided by government and public bodies on the performance of the system, as judged by pupil testing and school inspection, has been less comprehensive, valid and reliable than it should be.
  • Policy and information about its impact are a sealed and self-reinforcing system in which, although Ofsted does comment broadly on the impact of particular policies, individual inspections tend to check only on compliance, while local authorities receive substantial funding to ensure that the national strategies are implemented as promulgated. Meanwhile, NDPB [Non-Departmental Public Body] and many local authority publications readily fall into line with government language and assumptions and display no obvious capacity or will to regard these as problematic.
  • The word 'independent' is attached to government initiatives which are subject to tight central control.
  • Genuinely independent information is often viewed with suspicion by the DCSF or rejected out of hand.
  • Government has relied heavily upon the creation and/or perpetuation of myths about the period preceding its reforms, and through these myths it has been able to present its actions and achievements in the best possible light (p.476).
The Review is critical of the 'erosion of the country's democratic processes' (p.481) and concludes that 'This, surely, is not the way that education policy should be made' (p.482).

Part 5 Conclusions and recommendations

Part 5 consists of 153 statements, of which 75 are recommendations, organised under the following headings:

The overall picture
Children's lives (chapters 4, 5 and 6)
Understanding childhood (chapters 5, 7 and 10)
Childhood, difference and diversity (chapters 8 and 9)
Foundations and stages (chapter 11)
Aims for primary education (chapter 12)
The curriculum (chapters 13 and 14)
Pedagogy (chapter 15)
Assessment and testing (chapters 16 and 17)
Quality, standards and accountability (chapters 17 and 23)
Primary schools (chapters 18 and 19)
Schools and other agencies (chapter 20)
Teachers: expertise, training and deployment (chapters 14, 15 and 21)
Teachers: status, leadership and workforce reform (chapter 22)
Governance, funding and policy (chapters 3 and 23)
The recommendations: signposts

The Report ends with an Editor's Postscript in which Robin Alexander notes that in the space of six months the government had:

  • accepted the proposals of the Rose review of the primary curriculum (hardly surprising, given that Rose 'adhered to a narrow government remit, refrained from questioning existing policy and for good measure was managed by DCSF' (p.513);
  • agreed that science would no longer be tested at the end of Key Stage 2;
  • offered to introduce report cards 'to broaden the scope of the pupil outcomes for which schools are held to account' (p.513);
  • announced that the primary national strategy would be wound down from 2011 and replaced by a 'much more tailored approach' (p.513); and
  • promised to replace centrally-directed reform by school self-determination (though what this would mean in practice is debatable, given that every primary school would still be expected to teach daily literacy hours and daily mathematics lessons in accordance with what the government defines as best practice).
Meanwhile the Tories declared that they would move the Key Stage 2 tests from the end of the primary school to the beginning of the secondary school.

Amid all this pre-election posturing, the Cambridge Review sought to take the longer perspective:

The Cambridge Primary Review is for the longer term, not the next election; and as an exercise in democratic engagement as well as empirical enquiry and visionary effort its final report is not just for transient architects and agents of policy. It is for all who invest daily, deeply and for life in this vital phase of education, especially children, parents and teachers (p.514).

There are seven Appendices to the Report. Appendix 1 comprises the remit, process and personnel of the Cambridge Primary Review. Appendix 2 lists the three broad Perspectives which formed the Review's 'core concerns and recurrent points of reference' (p.522), (Children and childhood; Culture, society and the global context; Primary education) and the themes and questions which flowed from these. The organisations which submitted evidence are listed in Appendix 3 (but not the individuals because 'many individual submissions were from children, and many others requested anonymity' (p.527). Appendix 4 describes the Community and national soundings which were held between January and March 2007; and the national soundings for organisations (two full-day seminars held in London in February 2008); and for practitioners (three full-day seminars held in Cambridge between January and March 2008). Other consultations, including sessions with government, opposition and non-departmental public bodies, are listed in Appendix 5; Searches of official data in Appendix 6. Appendix 7 lists the research surveys and other interim reports published by the Review between October 2007 and February 2009.

The Report's list of references occupies the following 33 pages and the volume concludes with an alphabetical subject index.


What are we to make of all this? The first (and rather obvious) thing to say is that, at more than 281,000 words in 514 pages, the Report is long, detailed and comprehensive. Childhood and family life; teaching and learning; teachers, their training, status and careers; the primary school and its place in the community; policy making and implementation - all these are described and discussed. Every topic is grounded in history, the views of witnesses are reported, research evidence is presented, the current situation is assessed in detail, and, in most cases, thoughtful proposals are made for the future.

All this is hardly surprising, given the extraordinary depth and breadth of the Review. The amount of work involved must have been enormous: setting it up, getting the funding, assembling a huge team of contributors, organising the meetings, collating the vast range of responses, constructing and publishing the many reports - all this has surely been a task of truly Herculean proportions.

There is much to admire in the Review. The determination of the authors to 'make a difference' is clear and commendable, right from the outset: 'The Cambridge Primary Review was set up to make a difference, not to make money. Profits from the sale of the final report will be placed in trust to be used to support the education of some of the country's most marginalised and disadvantaged children' (p.xvi).

RJ Campbell (Emeritus Professor of Education at Warwick University) is complimentary about the Review as a whole:

The Cambridge Review has a number of strengths: it is based on research reviews; it locates curriculum and schooling within a broader frame of reference to childhood; it has a distinctively convincing section on child development and learning; it has a strong detailed treatment of policy development in England. Moreover, it re-cycles the well-established evidence into a coherent and sustained critique of the English government's intervention in curriculum and pedagogy - not too difficult to do, but a necessary and well executed objective; and it effectively promotes the evidence that national testing has distorted curriculum priorities, leading to an unduly narrow curriculum. A little-remarked virtue is that the final report was collectively authored, as a genuine collaborative enterprise replacing the conventional single authorship. These elements will ensure that the Cambridge Review contributes to our understanding of policy and theory in a permanent way. They are, and will remain, its virtues (Campbell 2010:26).
Like Plowden before it, the Review places children at the heart of the educational enterprise and stresses the importance of listening to them. Former head teacher Michael Armstrong has described the Review as 'a revolutionary document ... grounded in a deep respect for children's agency'. Its conclusions are 'adventurous and authoritative' (Armstrong 2010:6).

It is to be commended for seeking to construct a curriculum from the ground up, rather than from desired outcomes down. Chapter 13, for example, includes 'a well-deserved swipe at the folly of defining the primary curriculum by working backwards from what pupils are expected to know at the end of their primary schooling' (Drummond 2010:10).

The Review rightly bemoans the deskilling of teachers and emphasises the importance of raising their professional status and improving the quality of school leadership. It notes the malign influence of the 'culture of compliance' and warns that 'Pupils will not learn to think for themselves if their teachers are expected to do as they are told' (p.308).

Readers may not agree with all the Review's proposals, of course, but what the authors desire is an informed and rational debate about the issues. 'Whatever readers think about our conclusions and recommendations, we hope that they will treat with due seriousness the matters we explore, the evidence we have assembled, the arguments we present, and the experience and hopes of the thousands who have participated, directly or indirectly, in this enterprise' (p.1).

Among my own concerns are the proposals for an interlocking grid of twelve aims, eight 'domains' and ten 'procedural principles', which surely has the potential for planning overload and is reminiscent of the complexities of attainment targets with which teachers struggled in the early days of the National Curriculum. This complexity 'may reflect the realities of curriculum theorising, but as a planning tool for teachers to use, it is egregious' (Campbell 2010:26).

I am disappointed that the Review does not take a firmer line on setting and streaming. It cites six studies which demonstrate the various damaging effects of setting, but then goes on to argue that teachers should 'Categorise with caution'. Extraordinarily, the subject is barely mentioned in the Conclusions and recommendations, where the authors simply note that 'The quality of teaching is more important'. This is 'an absurd omission, given the weight of the evidence cited in the Review itself' (Drummond 2010:14).

Mary Jane Drummond regrets 'the unfailingly positive tone' of the Review's comments about the Early Years Foundation Stage. She applauds 'the walk-on part assigned to the great Lawrence Stenhouse', but argues that his 'powerful advocacy' of the need for teaching to be rooted in 'principles of procedure' and his 'devastating critique of the objectives model' should have been applied to the 'fallacious approach' embedded in the the early learning goals for four and five year olds (Drummond 2010:10). She also notes the 'extraordinary anomaly' of this new phase of education 'having statutory force for children who have not reached statutory school age' (Drummond 2010:12).

RJ Campbell is critical of the inclusion of 'Enacting dialogue' as a separate aim. 'Enacting dialogue', he suggests, hints at 'co-construction of knowledge through personalisation, (itself a highly problematic idea)' and reads very much like special pleading for 'dialogic teaching'. This, he says, is 'an elderly hobby horse with an outstandingly good pedigree ... which has recently been tweaked and given a new lease of life, by Alexander, the Cambridge Review's director'. However, 'linguistically and logically it is not an aim, but a means or method of teaching and learning ... It does not seem to have occurred to the Review team that to resurrect this approach as an aim for a mandatory national curriculum would be to give statutory force to a teaching method, exactly what the Cambridge Review rightly excoriates the government for doing with its literacy and numeracy strategies' (Campbell 2010:27).

My greatest disappointment with the Review is its refusal to make any proposals regarding the place of religion in schools. The subject is raised at several points in the Report.

In Chapter 12, What is primary education for?, a section headed 'Faith and spirituality' notes that 'faith organisations advanced specific views on the role of religion in education and placed spiritual development at the heart of the curriculum'. Some groups wanted more faith schools, arguing that they were 'the most appropriate setting for teaching about the tenets and heritage of particular faiths', while others argued that all schools should 'give greater attention to the fact of religious faith', as well as to humanism and non-religious world views 'in order to develop children's awareness, understanding and tolerance of different beliefs' (p.185). Some non-religious organisations, including the British Humanist Association, argued that education should develop children's sense of spirituality.

There is more in a section on the 'Faith and belief' domain in Chapter 14, Towards a new curriculum. Some witnesses argued that religion should be removed from schools on the grounds that 'England is a predominantly secular society or that religious belief is for the family rather than the school'. The Review concludes, however, 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' (p.268). It appears to accept without question that 'denominational schools see their mission as the advancement of particular religious beliefs and moral codes' (p.268). Surely this view should have been challenged on the basis that 'the advancement of religious beliefs is a euphemism for indoctrination' and, as various philosophers have argued, 'the concepts, aims and methods of education and those of indoctrination are incompatible' (Campbell 2010:30).

The Report notes that 'for a non-denominational school to require pupils from different faiths (or none) to join an act of worship in just one of those faiths raises more difficult questions' but it makes no attempt to provide any answers. It simply observes that 'The matter arouses strong feelings. We believe it deserves proper debate' (p.268).

The Report returns to the subject of religion in Chapter 18, Schools and communities, where, in a section headed 'At odds over faith', we read that 'Witnesses to the Review were sharply divided regarding the place of religious codes and values in education' (p.358). The closest the Report comes to criticising the influence of religion in schools is found in this section:

We must continue to recognise and celebrate our rich cultural diversity, taking culture, ethnicity and heritage as starting points for learning in school and classroom ... However, within the context of cultural diversity we must not lose sight of the values that affirm our membership of a broad and coherent community. It is in the primary school that we must begin to reinforce the values of a cohesive, tolerant, just, and inclusive community. These values should be the focus of study and exploration as part of the primary school's formal curriculum and should be implicitly asserted by every primary school's whole mode of operation (p.358).
It notes the widely differing views of parents on the subject of faith schools. Some were 'staunchly opposed to the existence of such schools on the grounds that they could be divisive', while others felt equally strongly that faith schools were 'necessary foundations for children's spiritual and moral development' (p.359). Once again, it makes no attempt to offer possible solutions to this problem. Given that two thirds of the public believe that 'the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind' (Guardian/ICM poll reported in The Guardian, 23 August 2005), I should have liked to have seen more rigorous criticism of them in the Report.

RJ Campbell is also concerned about this aspect of the Review. He argues that, while it distinguishes between teaching about religions and teaching to inculcate religious belief, it 'lumps these two incompatible purposes together into the one domain'. Teaching about religions, he says, should find a place in the time and place domain (i.e. history and geography), whereas inculcating religious belief could not. He criticises the Review for not granting arguments against the inclusion of religious education the courtesy of a response: 'It simply noted and ignored them, presumably because it had no good basis for rebutting them'. He dismisses the argument that religion should be included because it has a fundamental place in history, culture and language. 'So has racism, so has sexually deviant behaviour and so has marbles, but that is not a reason for including them in the primary curriculum' he says. In fact, it could be argued that the inclusion of religion conflicts with the Review's aims concerning 'Empowerment', 'Autonomy' and 'Encouraging Respect and Reciprocity' (Campbell 2010:29).


The Report makes clear at the outset that it is aimed at a wide audience: parents, teachers, teacher trainers, governors, community leaders, local authorities, politicians and policy-makers, as well as the general public. It is no easy task to construct a document as lengthy and detailed as this in a way which makes it accessible to such a wide variety of groups. But to a large extent that is what the authors have achieved.

The Review is very readable, though the language in a few places is, perhaps inevitably, a bit dense and jargon-laden. There are few grammatical or typographical errors to distract the reader's attention - the only ones I spotted were a handful of misplaced commas, inconsistency over the spelling of focussed/focused, an 'affects' which should be 'effects' and an apostrophe that should be a comma.

Will it be taken seriously by policy makers? The early signs are not good. The Report itself sheds light on the machiavellian workings of government and politicians. 'Review personnel had no fewer than 27 meetings with government and NDPBs between October 2006 and March 2009. The tenor of these meetings was usually cordial, and in most cases the issues under discussion were constructively explored. Yet when government commented publicly on the Review it was as if the meetings had never taken place' (p.479).

Few were surprised when Schools Minister Vernon Coaker dismissed the Review out of hand: 'It's disappointing that a review which purports to be so comprehensive is simply not up to speed on many major changes in primaries', he said (The Guardian, 16 October 2009). As usual, when faced with evidence which doesn't support their agenda, politicians resort to 'the discourse of derision'.

Comparisons with Plowden are inevitable. 'Like Plowden, the Cambridge Primary Review seeks to combine retrospective evidence with prospective vision. Like Plowden, it seeks to be wide-ranging. Like Plowden, it hopes to make a difference' (p.2). Both reports are long and detailed. Both are grounded in the history of primary education. Both regard the lives and experiences of children themselves as the fundamental starting point.

There are differences, of course:

Plowden was a publicly funded official commission of the great and good; ours is an independent review funded by a charity and undertaken by academics and professionals. Plowden spoke to an optimistic consensus: a Conservative government commissioned it; a Labour government received its report; and all parties welcomed it before first one and then another turned it into a scapegoat for the country's educational and social ills. The Cambridge Primary Review has been undertaken against a backdrop of political bitterness, public anxiety and - from late 2008 - national recession and global economic chaos, and has itself attracted its fair share of controversy. As to the conduct, methodology and outcomes of the two enquiries, they are vastly different, as we shall see. So though comparisons have been made, we resist any suggestion that the Cambridge Primary Review is a 'new Plowden' (p.2).
What becomes clear as you read the Cambridge Review is just how much has changed in the past forty years - in schools, in society at large, and in the power of central government. A trivial but interesting indicator of this change is that, where Plowden includes 38 abbreviations in its Glossary, the Cambridge Review has 227 abbreviations in a list occupying five pages. More significantly, since 1988 - and especially since 1997 - education has become the subject of an avalanche of legislation.

The Cambridge Review is undoubtedly the most important piece of work on primary education for at least forty years and Children, their World, their Education is a fitting conclusion to that work. I hope it will be read widely, and that some, at least, of its recommendations will inform future policy.

Given that Michael Gove, secretary of state for education in the new coalition government, seems determined to destroy our state system of education, I can't say I'm optimistic.


Armstrong M (2010) 'The Cambridge Primary Review' Forum 52(1) 6-7

Campbell RJ (2010) 'Conservative Curriculum and Partial Pedagogy: a critique of proposals in the Cambridge Primary Review' Forum 52(1) 25-36

Drummond MJ (2010) 'BRAVO! and BUT ... : reading the Cambridge Primary Review' Forum 52(1) 9-16

Plowden (1967) Children and their Primary Schools Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) London: HMSO

Wilby P (2008) 'Jim'll fix it' The Guardian 5 August

A shorter version of this review was published in Research Papers in Education 25(4) December 2010 495-498.